All Articles Education Educational Leadership Why sports coaches need character development training

Why sports coaches need character development training

Sports coaches at schools can benefit student-athletes through evidence-based professional development in character development, Pete Paciorek writes.

7 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

Mentor and role model laughing and spending with the youth. for article on coaching and character development

(Digitalskillet/Getty Images)

Ask a former student-athlete who had the biggest impact on their high-school experience, and they’re likely to give you a sports coach’s name. Including practices, competitions and travel, coaches can spend more than 20 hours per week with students. During this time together, coaches have the prime opportunity to positively shape the trajectory of their students’ lives. Coaches can be extremely influential because most student-athletes freely choose to take part in their sport.

SmartBrief Education Insights blurbDespite coaches’ significant role in shaping students’ identities, they typically do not receive professional development training in long-term character development and student wellness. As fewer classroom teachers assume coaching duties on the side due to high workload, burnout and staff shortages, athletics departments across the country are witnessing an increasing trend of high-school coaches who are outside contractors rather than full-time school or district employees. These invisible educators are less likely than teacher-coaches to have access to PD. 

Ultimately, the students are the ones who lose. Anyone who works as closely with students as coaches do should have the best training available to guide their efficacy as character builders. Luckily, we already have an evidence-based framework — “PRIMED for Coaching for Character” — that is relevant and easily applicable to coaches everywhere. 

Stronger character, better outcomes

Participation in sports carries vital benefits for students at every stage and in numerous aspects of their lives, including better relationships, greater academic and professional achievement, better mental and physical health, and greater overall life satisfaction and well-being. I suspect that those myriad benefits have roots in a single factor: the power of sports to cultivate stronger character in youth

However, with incidents of bad sportsmanship all over the news, it’s clear that simply showing up to coach is not enough — students need good coaching. By offering evidence-based character development training to coaches that is easy to apply and sustain, we can empower and equip them to help students develop character and leadership virtues such as integrity, purpose and humility. These are crucial to managing emotions and handling setbacks with resilience and self-control.

PRIMED for coaching

In 2021, the researcher, psychologist, professor and author Marvin Berkowitz published a framework called “PRIMED for Character Education.” Synthesizing decades of research in psychology and character education, the framework is intended as a daily resource for educators that help them cultivate stronger character in students using six principles: prioritization, relationships, intrinsic motivation, modeling, empowerment, and development. It’s an excellent framework for coaches, and we use it at IMG Academy. Here’s how:


Help educators think deeply about their why, or purpose for teaching, and aid them in prioritizing character development. Maintaining a clear purpose daily leads to deeper fulfillment and joy.

Putting “P” into action. Ask coaches:

  1. What do you love about coaching?
  2. What gets you excited about working with your players and team?
  3. What motivated you to want to get into the coaching profession?
  4. What are your short-term and long-term coaching goals?


There’s a saying in education: “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” Building strong relationships of trust with students makes them much more receptive to lessons in character development.

Putting “R” into action. After thinking about cultivating relationships of trust, ask coaches to list a few strategies that they currently use to build strong relationships of trust and then new strategies that they are hoping to use to build strong relationships of trust amongst their team. 

Intrinsic motivation 

Working hard solely to get a good grade or win a scholarship probably won’t be enough to sustain a student through all the sacrifice required to perform at their best. Coaches should seek to cultivate a deeper connection to excellence and doing good for the sake of good.

Putting “I” into action. Ask coaches to think about the strategies they currently use to reinforce intrinsic motivators. Then have them consider how to tweak those extrinsic motivators moving forward. Finally, ask educators to brainstorm new strategies for encouraging intrinsic motivation. 


Coaches are role models for students, and they should be aware of their behaviors, actions and words to ensure that they are in consistent alignment with what they preach.

Putting “M” into action. When thinking about modeling, ask coaches to share the ways they feel they model strong positive character for students. Then ask them to think about new strategies to model strong positive character for students. 


The educational environment is a great vehicle for cultivating leadership, but, to do so, coaches have to take their hands off the wheel so that students have opportunities to lead.

Putting “E” into action. Ask coaches how they empower students’ voices and provide them with leadership opportunities. Then encourage coaches to ponder new strategies to empower all student-athletes.


In everything they do, educators should ask themselves what is more important: a single metric going up on a single day — whether that be a test score or a tennis serve percentage — or the long-term development of students. 

Putting “D” into action. When thinking about development, consider the long term. Ask coaches to share the current strategies they use to demonstrate commitment to the long-term success of all students. Then ask coaches to think about new strategies they can use to keep focused on the long game of development with all students. 

Does PRIMED really work for coaches?

For my doctoral dissertation, I conducted a six-week pilot study to see if the global success that the PRIMED framework has achieved in the classroom would hold true in sports. It did. Now, thousands of coaches, including those at my school, have been trained in the sport-adapted model of the PRIMED framework.

Kevin Goco, sports club head of PAREF Schools in the Philippines, has already seen great success with this framework on the campuses he oversees, saying, “The legacy and impact of the six-week course with our athletics coaches and physical education teachers continues to be positively felt across all seven of our schools.” 

By all signs, this framework can unlock the massive potential of high-school coaches as positive influences on student character, just as its predecessor did for classroom educators. 

It’s important to note that when implementing the six design principles of the PCC framework, coaches should seek to get other educators, and even opposing coaches, involved as force multipliers. A single extra coach working alongside another colleague consistently guided by PCC is not a 1+1 equation but rather a way to achieve geometrical growth. This increased, long-term, positive impact on hundreds of students’ lives can alter the entire trajectory of their adult experience.

Looking ahead

We can better prepare students to succeed on and off the field by acknowledging the contributions of high-school sports coaches — the invisible educators — and giving them tools and resources needed for their impactful work as character educators. Sports coaches have an enormous impact on children. At a minimum, training our coaches in evidence-based practices around character development is vital for safety and liability. But more importantly, giving coaches this support ensures that our students develop strong character and have the best chance at lifelong well-being.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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