Cultivating Character

Cultivating Character


By Greg Bach

As mental health issues continue mounting in youth sports at all ages and levels, volunteer coaches can be real difference makers by flipping the focus with their teams.

And helping youth thrive in life and sports.  

“Sport builds character when character and improvement as a person is the first goal and improvement as a player is the second goal – not the other way around,” says Dr. Peter C. Scales, world-renowned developmental psychologist, long-time high school tennis coach, and author of THE COMPETE-LEARN-HONOR PLAYBOOK, which is the follow-up to his award-winning book MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL TRAINING FOR TENNIS.

It features a wealth of information applicable to coaching all sports and helping athletes navigate the mental and emotional components that accompany competing at all levels.

“All the sports science is very clear on this,” Scales says. “If you set up a team culture that’s focused on dealing with tasks and solving puzzles as opposed to their worth being tied to their performance, they will actually perform better as an athlete and their mental health will be better. We have a new resurgence in mental health issues that not only elite athletes are going through but also young recreational athletes. Each stage and age and level has its own mental health challenges that come from putting too much emphasis on performance and letting that get tied up into who you are as a human being and the sense of yourself.”

The book covers goal setting, dealing with adversity, embracing pressure, focus, concentration, visualization, and more.

Plus, worksheets are sprinkled throughout the book that coaches can use to become more well-rounded leaders while positively impacting young lives.

“The worksheets are fun to do and they really kind of put a mirror up to you as a coach,” Scales says. “It’s a really eye-opening experience.”


The worksheets are designed so coaches can snap photos of them on their phones and access them to run through with their teams at practice.

“The bottom line is that whatever level you are coaching these things can either stay as tips or they can become habits,” Scales says. “The only way they become habits is if you practice them. We understand that you have to practice technical skills, but we don’t really give that same respect to mental and emotional skills. But you have to practice them at the same level of repetition and dedication as you do technical physical skills in whatever sport you are playing.”

Here’s a peek at some of the topic areas Scales covers in his book:


The words coaches use wield tremendous power, so making minor adjustments can be a major difference maker for young athletes.

“Instead of a coach saying, ‘that was bad’ or ‘that was good’ what I suggest is to simply judo those negative words and use something more positive like ‘it wasn’t bad, it was ineffective’ or ‘that didn’t work,’ Scales says. “When you start using ‘good’ and ‘bad’ it seeps into how you start to feel about yourself as a human being and suddenly if you do something that is ineffective in an athletic contest now you are a bad person. It gets really weird because if a young athlete makes a bad play they start thinking they’re a bad person; so when they win they think they’re a better person and if they lose they think they are a worse person. So one of the most important takeaways in this book is for people to understand is this is a game, this is a puzzle you are trying to solve, and you’re not a better person if you win that day. You’re defined as a human being by other things, by what you do for others, by your humility, and by how you contribute to your community.”


When players are struggling, and frustration is mounting, direct mid-game feedback to what they can control.

“During timeouts keep it to ‘what were you trying to achieve when you ran that pass route?’” Scales says. “‘It was just ineffective what you did; let’s talk about how we can make it effective.’ So it’s just constantly refocusing so you move it to solutions and things that they can control.”


Having a coaching philosophy that caters to young athletes – and is adhered to – takes effort.

And is so important.

“One of the exercises in my book is for coaches to write down briefly your coaching philosophy because there’s nothing more powerful than putting it into words,” Scales says. “You may have an idea of what your approach to coaching is and what your values are, but to actually write it down in a few sentences or bullet points really helps you to see it and to confront it, and it becomes real.”

And those written words can be powerful in helping coaches stay on track.

“Then you can really see if you are walking that talk and acting that way during games,” Scales says.


Character Confidence Coaching Pressure Dr. Peter C. Scales Book

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