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High School Sports: How Do Sports Build Character?

Building Character in Teens Through Sports

From my vantage point on the bleachers, I keep losing sight of my daughters on the basketball court. Sure, they’re taller than I realize, but I simply just don’t recognize them in this setting. Why does one daughter, so anxious and tearful about a science test the evening before, look stoic and unshaken during those free throws? How does the other daughter withstand that unfavorable refereeing so calmly? Are these the same girls that will argue until the end of time about the slightest homegrown injustice? How do they handle losing a game with such grace, but a sibling’s eye-roll or a parent’s “No” can bring them close to tears at breakfast?

I’ve come to realize that there’s something mysterious about the sweaty gym that brings out the best in them. And I’m not talking about athletic prowess. I see that their participation in sports is building character.

Can Sports Build Character?

I shared these thoughts with Cindy McKnight, the Athletic Director at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Her eyes lit up as she explained to me the purpose of athletic programs.

“It’s not about putting a ball in the basket or a ball in a hole; it’s about becoming a better person,” she says.

Approximately three years ago, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics chose Ursuline College as a Program Center for Champions of Character. The association currently bestows this distinction on only 28 colleges nationwide. And Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital locally supports the initiative.

The honor requires that Cindy McKnight and her college athletes touch the lives of 2,500 students, coaches, and parents each year. Cindy accomplishes this lofty goal by speaking at the Catholic Youth Organization and area schools on a regular basis.

In each workshop for students, she explains five core values: Respect, Responsibility, Sportsmanship, Servant Leadership (community services), and Integrity. When speaking to middle school and high school students, she brings college athletes with her to impart the message more successfully.

To coaches, Cindy poses an additional challenge—”So what if you win? So what if you win the championship game? Who will care years from now? What kind of people came out at the end? That’s what matters.”

Refocusing Sports Parents

As for the parents, Cindy encourages them to re-examine their role as well. The motive behind the over-zealous nature of some parents may be the desire for college scholarships. This motivation is misguided and statistically unlikely. Meanwhile, they are missing the opportunity to guide their children toward valuable life skills.

“Sporting events are a place where kids can take risks in an appropriate setting and without serious ramifications, unlike the real world. Also, parents should respond to what their children need from them before, during and after the game,” Cindy says.

Cindy claims that most teens want their parents at games as long as they don’t embarrass them. There’s only one coach, and the parent should instead focus on empowering the coach, being a role model to their children, encouraging teamwork and demonstrating good sportsmanship. If a parent is considering officially coaching their children’s team, Cindy advises that parents defer to their children’s wishes.

Is the program effective? Cindy modestly admits that she is frequently invited to return to the same schools even within the same school year, as the sports seasons change. Each time she speaks, someone inevitably requests a copy of her notes. Both of these results point to the value of this enterprise and its ability to positively impact the athletic programs in northeast Ohio. Through Champions of Character, Cindy spreads the message that athletics goes beyond the final score—that sports builds character—and her audience appreciates her message.


To set up a workshop for your organization or school, contact Cindy McKnight through Ursuline College at 440-684-6102.