Over the past several weeks, an annual athletic rite has begun anew. Thousands of school coaches have the opportunity to make a meaningful and, in many cases, profound impact on the millions of eager student-athletes under their watch. The best of these coaches will incorporate into their "lesson plan" not merely a textbook knowledge of their sport but also a commitment to impart valuable life lessons.
Coaches can begin this chalk talk by encouraging their student-athletes to be school citizens -- to take part in nonathletic activities. Like Finn Hudson and the cheerleaders on "Glee," athletes in school are highly visible, but they should not allow themselves to be seen as a clannish, elite group who are excused from special assemblies, car-wash fundraisers and other kinds of schoolwide activities. Rather, coaches should channel athletes' high visibility, their prominence, into pursuits like peer tutoring or helping set up for the science fair.
A well-developed school athletic program fosters this objective and eschews any notion of separation. If a key principle of varsity sports is being part of something bigger than oneself, athletic directors and coaches must ensure that this principle encompasses athletes supporting other school initiatives.
A second goal is one that is surprisingly neglected by many coaches: connecting the competitive sports experience with lifelong fitness. Coaches should help their student-athletes recognize that team sports are but a next step in a lifelong journey of physical fitness. A coach can draw a parallel between the two experiences by focusing not merely on the satisfaction of successful play but also on the long-term objective of a full, healthy life aided by a regimen of regular fitness.
A third coaching objective is to help parents understand the parameters of their involvement. Coaches should inform parents of a core principle of positive sports parenting: On matters of playing time and strategy, dad and mom should stay out of it. By contrast, on matters of ethics or injuries, parents not only have the right but also the obligation to weigh in.
School administrators should join coaches in reminding intrusive parents that their "lobbying" is not only unfair to other team members but also robs their own child of the opportunity to employ the sports experience as a helpful means to achieve self-reliance. When a child is concerned about playing time, the wise sports parent acts as a counselor of wisdom, that is, guiding the child on how to deal maturely with the coach on the matter -- rather than picking up the phone or sending an ill advised e-mail in an attempt to solve the problem.
A fourth consideration is that so-called tough love is an invaluable component of the sports culture, and a primary reason why so many former athletes revere their old coach. Coaches must be sure this firm, insistent counsel is based on a genuine caring for the players and the awareness that leaders are there to serve, not be served.
And finally, the coach is obligated to foster an atmosphere of fair play and respect for opponents. Encouraging gamesmanship (a polite word for bending the rules) to win can make a child assume that shortcuts are an acceptable practice in other phases of life -- problematic for a youngster trying to develop an ethical code.
Encouraging malice toward opponents, by coaches, parents or fans, has no place in amateur athletics, a concept that Japanese baseball icon Sadaharu Oh understood when he wrote: "The opponents and I are really one. My strength and skills only half of the equation. The other half is theirs."
Coaches who impart these and other lessons often find themselves atop their athletes' reference list at graduation, and atop their thank-you list decades later.
Daniel E. Doyle Jr. is founder and executive director of the Institute for International Sport and author of the "Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting," winner of the ForeWord Book Award and the Independent Publisher's "Living Now" Book Award. Mr. Doyle is now writing "The Master Coach Manual," which will be published in 2011.
From June 26 to July 4, 2011, the Institute for International Sport will host the 5th World Scholar-Athlete Games in conjunction with the inaugural World Youth Peace Summit at the University of Connecticut. Attending will be 3,000 scholar-athletes and scholar-artists from virtually every country in the world, and they will be joined by approximately 15,000 graduates of past Scholar-Athlete Games.