The Importance of a Strong Character….A Must Have Habit!

“Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to stay there.” – John Wooden

Have you ever seen that young talented player who is head and shoulders above the rest every game week after week? Parents and coaches whispering “that player is going right to the top!” only for them to decline drastically or even fall out of football all together.

Too often I have met coaches who have witnessed this “what if” player during their career.

Granted there could be multiple variables for their decline: injuries, personal problems, bad luck etc. However in my experience the most common factor tends to be a lack of coaching on the psychological corner of the game.

“Character, heart, the mind of a champion. It’s what makes great athletes and its what comes from the growth mindset with its focus on self-development, self motivation, and responsibility.” – Dweck, 2006

It is understandable for psychological aspects to go a miss during training as its not always as visually apparent as seeing technical, tactical or physical development, but for me its the difference between an average player and a good player, and the difference between a good player and a great player!

“Many coaches can influence players technical, tactical and physical capabilities however only the few can effect the psychological state of the player.” – Jose Mourinho

Thats where we come to ‘Character.’ Many people believe that character is innate and unchanging, something you have or you don’t have.” On the contrary, Peterson and Seligman (2004) defined character in a different way: “A set of abilities or strengths that are very much changeable.” In fact, ‘character’ are skills you can learn; they are skills you can practice; and they are skills you can teach. Or as top psychologist Angela Duckworth put it, “Habit and character are essentially the same thing” (cited in Tough, 2013).

Fantastic news! Like most aspects in ones life it can be developed. Will it be easy? No. Will it be worth it? Absolutely.

action activity adult athletes
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According to Lally et al (2009), it takes 66 days to form a habit; however it only takes a mere 30 days to lose those circuits firing in your brain, resulting in an element of loss of habit or in other words ‘Character’ (Coyle, 2010). Therefore to create this habit we need commitment.

“I want commitment, not motivation, because motivation is fleeting, it goes by feelings. You may get up in the morning and feel you don’t want to do it, so what? You don’t do it? If you’re a life-saving surgeon and you’ve got five operations a day, and you work on motivation, you may be motivated for the first four, but the fifth one needs their life saved just as much, so you have to be committed to the cause.” – Brendan Rodgers cited in Curneen (2015)

It is argued that commitment may be the most important attribute to acquiring sporting expertise because only those individuals who are highly committed to their goals are willing to perform the painstaking hours of practice required to develop into an elite performer (Baker & Cote, 2003). This attitude or ‘habit’ acts as a mental muscle – the more you work it, the stronger it becomes (Bates, 2017).

Top players have both talent and character, so in insisting that young players show good values and attitude, the coach is preparing them for the demands of high-level sport. – Beswick, 2015

Peterson & Seligman (2004) devised 24 character strengths that were likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement. This list didn’t seem practical enough to implement to groups and individuals, they therefore narrowed it down further to 7 aspects:

  1. Grit
  2. Self-Control
  3. Zest
  4. Social Intelligence
  5. Gratitude 
  6. Optimism
  7. Curiosity

Just the act of participating in sport and physical activity goes towards shaping these character traits in one way or another (Newbery et al, 2014). Grit to persist even when the going gets tough; Self-control, the art of practicing self-discipline and social intelligence, being aware of the motives and feelings of others.

This character is tested when things are not always fair or when mistakes and setbacks happen (Beswick, 2015). This is highly prevalent in football whether it is a bad refereeing decision, being dropped to the bench or suffering a bad injury, the character of the player will constantly be assessed. When all else is equal, talent comes second to character (Bates, 2017).

Respect for yourself, respect for others, respect for the game, whether it’s basketball, business, or anything else. Character starts with little things like picking up after oneself, and it ends with big things like not cheating to win. – John Wooden

Traditionally clubs would look at technical and physical attributes when scouting young players, however more and more clubs are now looking towards character traits as a good indicator of potential. Bayern Munich hold “Character” as an important factor when they are scouting and recruiting players . Bayerns Junior Team Manager Wolfgang Dremier describes what they look for from the start “Does the player put their heart and soul into their soccer? You see it during games, exactly how the player conducts themselves and the energy they put in” (Townsend, 2015).

Nottingham Forests successful Academy look to develop 6 character traits in their players: “courage, humility, desire, intelligence, resilience and to create ‘energisers’” (Lester, 2016).

Building character also holds firm as a large part of Dutch side FC Twentes’ philosophy. The former director of football, Cees Lok says ” The aim is to build the kind of self-disciplined, self-managing players who can emerge as leaders and deal with the tough environment of the first team locker-room. At all times the players are made aware that they have ownership and control of their behaviour, that becoming a soccer player and being in the team is their choice” (Beswick, 2015).

‘We’ve no time for a weak person in the first team. When they see weakness [at the academy], they keep working at it. Because a player would not only be dealing with me, he is dealing with 76,000 people expecting them to win each week – and that’s a different issue altogether. So the rebuilding of a character that’s strong in terms of handling a crowd and the senior players in the dressing room: big stars, expectations, media, all these things – it’s not done in the wind. It’s a building process, and the academy people are good at that. – Sir Alex Ferguson cited in Carson (2014)

So how do we improve ones character?

5 Ways to Improve Your Players Character:

  1. FAIL:  The best way to build character is to attempt something where there is a real and serious possibility of failure (Tough, 2013). There’s almost a biological need to avoid difficult things and to steer clear of danger. Coaches need to ensure that they spread the word to their players (and the parents) that failure is okay, in fact failure is essential to success! “Everyone makes a mistake. If you’re not, then you’re perhaps not trying hard enough. Everyone fails. If you don’t experience failure then you are not playing with enough freedom” (Abrahams, 2013). Award winning author JK Rowling put it this way “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

  2. CHALLENGE: It is monumental that your training sessions include competition and challenges. “Only under pressure do players demonstrate true character” (Beswick, 2015).  At Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen, the coaches organise sessions that place players in stressful situations where techniques and decision making would be developed in a real-world environment (it is important to combine stressful situations with support and care from the coach). This will also help them in terms of well-being, because progressing and dealing successfully with the challenges of competitive play are central to the lives of young players (Nesti & Sulley, 2015).

  3. PRAISE HARD WORK: Research by Mueller & Dweck (1998) showed that praising ability in fact lowered children’s IQ, motivation and determination, whilst praising hard work increased the children’s grit, resilience and persistence. Hard work is a privilege, for that reason it is baffling how some coaches still use physical punishments in their training sessions. Using physical activity as punishment runs the risk of creating negative associations with physical activity (CDC, 2011). In fact Nottingham Forest Academy Coach Jack Lester goes one step further to develop character through physical exercises, “We invite the winners of our training games to stand on the line and be rewarded with extra running, while the losers watch their mates get fitter. We’re trying to ingrain that success equals work ethic, desire and resilience. Being allowed to get fitter is a treat, a privilege, a prize” Lester, 2016.

  4. BE AN EXAMPLE OF CHARACTER: “Through being the example, a true leader unconsciously transfers their character and signposts their integrity” (Bates, 2017) Coaching legend John Wooden (2009) said it best “When it comes to character and values, you don’t need to become a preacher, just an effective teacher who understands the power of setting a good example, especially when it comes to standards and values.”

  5. EMPHASISE CHARACTER TRAITS (CONSTANTLY): Identify and share with the players how character drives successful performance; Define the character trait needed to be successful in each situation: losing 2-0? Do you have the grit to stick it out and still work to maximal level? Just won 5-0? Do you have the humility to shake hands with every player of the opposition team and still work twice as hard in the next training session? Do you show gratitude to the person serving your food or to the coach drive by saying your pleases and thank you’s? A great way to teach this is using match scenarios in training. Have your players pick out a number of different examples at random, for example “Your team is 2-0 down with 5 minutes left, the other team have just had a player sent off” and have your team play out this scenario. Do they immediately say its unfair? Or do they rise to the challenge?

When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost. –  Billy Graham

Most of this discussion has been used in a sporting context, however we as coaches should aim to develop and prepare the person for the future by giving them these life skills whether it is in sport or out of sport. In the end “Character is what keeps people happy, successful and fulfilled” – Tom Brunzell, Dean of Students at KIPP Infinity cited in Tough, 2013.

Phil A Phillipou


Reference List/Recommended Reading

  • Abrahams, D (2013) Soccer Brain: The 4C Coaching Model for Developing World Class Player Mindset and a Winning Football Team. Birmingham. Bennion Kearney LTD
  • Baker, J & Cote, J (2003) Resources and Commitment as Critical Factors in the Development of ‘Gifted’ Athletes. High Ability Studies, 14, 139-140
  • Bates, T (2017) The Future Coach – Creating Tomorrow’s Soccer Players Today: 9 Key Principles for Coaches from Sport Psychology. Dark River.
  • Beswick, B (2015) One Goal: The Mindset of Winning Soccer Teams. Human Kinetics.
  • Carson, M (2014) The Manager: Inside the Minds of Football’s Leaders. Edition. Bloomsbury USA.
  • (CDC) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). School health guidelines to promote healthy eating and physical activity. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Recommendations and Reports, 60(RR-5), 1–76.
  • Coyle, D (2010) The Talent Code: Greatness isn’t Born. Its Grown. London: Arrow Books
  • Curneen, G (2015) The Modern Soccer Coach: Position-Specific Training. Bennion Kearny.
  • Dweck, C (2006) Mindset – The New Psychology of Success: How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential. Ballantine Books. USA
  • Lally, P; Van Jaarsveld, C; Potts, H & Wardle, J (2009) How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.
  • Lester, J (2016) Coach players to want to win, not to want to earn more money. Yahoo Sport [online], available at:
  • Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33-52.
  • Nesti, M & Sulley, C (2015) Youth Development in Football: Lessons from the World’s Best Academies. Oxford: Routledge
  • Newbery, D; Barker, I & Rose, S (2014) Complete Soccer Coaching Curriculum for 3-18 Year Old Players: Volume 1 (NSCAA Player Development Curriculum) Coaching Media Group.
  • Peterson, C & Seligman, M (2004) Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. American Psychology Association. 
  • Tough, P (2013) How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
  • Townsend, J (2015) Ascendancy Comes in Many Forms: Bayern Munich Report. Nscaa Soccer Journal. September – October, 2015. 
  • Wooden, J (& Jamison, S) (2009) Wooden on Leadership. McGraw-Hill Education; New York


Author: coachphilp

Masters Degree in Fútbol with Real Madrid Universidad Europea (Voted #1 Football Masters Degree in the World) 16 years coaching over 3 nations. “Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings, so that you shall gain easily what others have laboured hard for.” - Socrates

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