In this article, resident positive psychology expert Lara Mossman looks at good character through a strengths lens, focussing specifically on two strengths, courage and caution, and looking at how these can be overused or underused in coaching.

We often hear calls for good character in our young football players, but what about our coaches? After all, coaches influence their players in a multitude of ways (Lorimer & Jowett, 2014). Viewed positively, they can be great role models for their players and leave a lasting legacy. Coaches should never underestimate the power they have in shaping their players’ youth sport experience. They can demonstrate that self-control can tame anger, that forgiveness can lead to team cohesion, and that leadership is about eliciting the best in others rather than controlling others. Good character is made up of a collection of personality traits. In positive psychology, these are defined as ‘character strengths’, and include such things as creativity, open-mindedness, teamwork, optimism and leadership. Individuals are high in some of these strengths and lower in others (Peterson, 2006).

Echoes Beyond the Game: The Lasting Power of a Coach’s Words – Changing the Game Project/TEDx

There is no magic formula for the character of a person (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004), let alone a coach, as by definition, character strengths are about individual differences that can help us to reach our fullest potential (Peterson, 2006). Coaches each have their own unique combinations of strengths, and by drawing on these they can role model good character in sport. But how can they discover what their own personal strengths are?

In positive psychology, there are three main measures, or surveys, that look at strengths. These are the Values in Action (VIA) Survey of Character Strengths, Gallup StrengthsFinder 2.0 and CAPP Strengths Profiler. These surveys can be taken online, and they generate a report listing an individual’s top strengths. Whilst there are differences in these surveys, there is general agreement that strengths are personality traits that have some genetic or naturally occurring components to them. Strengths are central to the idea of the pursuit of human excellence.

A strength in one area of a coach’s life would be present in other areas of that coach’s life, too. So, someone whose top strength was social intelligence would use it when coaching his players, when negotiating with his Technical Director and when spending time with his family. Although our top strengths are not likely to change much over time, we can develop specific strengths if we invest in them (Biswas-Diener, Kashdan, & Lyubchik, 2016). The VIA is the only survey that can be taken for free, and the only one that specifically looks at character, rather than talents or skills (see “figure 1” in full version of this article). It’s also the most widely researched measure in the academic literature.

While the VIA is the only strengths measure that specifically looks at character, it’s worth taking a quick look at strengths in general in sport. Given that our strengths appear across many domains of our lives, the surveys listed above should all tease out the strengths we draw on in our sports pursuits. However, specific research on strengths in sports is still in its infancy, so more evidence is required to support this.

Currently, there is an interest in the role that strengths can play in the mental skills training of athletes. The CAPP Strengths Profiler has been used in an attempt to develop mental toughness in male professional cricketers. Amongst athletes, this measure is seen to tap into performance more, because it is the only one that looks at weaknesses (Gordon & Gucciardi, 2011). Work has also been undertaken by applied sports psychology practitioners in the UK looking at super-strengths in elite sport (Ludlam, Butt, Bawden, Lindsay, & Maynard, 2016).

Over time, it is likely that well-researched strengths measures specific to sports contexts will be available based on research such as this. For now, however, we will take a look at strengths of character that are identified in the VIA survey, to see how character strengths might apply to coaching.

We’ll start with honesty as an example. A coach particularly high in honesty might value giving constructive feedback to her players, although she might also need to draw on kindness to temper her feedback so as not to be hurtful. A coach high in gratitude may embed rituals into his training, such as encouraging players to shake hands at the end of training sessions. Creativity is another strength. A creative coach might encourage players to try out new skills and tricks in training and match settings. A coach high in self-regulation might be fantastic at role modelling self-control to her players when faced with a string of seemingly unfair decisions by the referee.


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Lara Mossman
Lara Mossman
Lara Mossman is currently working towards her PhD in wellbeing and positive psychology in football at La Trobe University in Melbourne. As well as being a regular contributor to PDP, Lara teaches positive psychology at The University of Melbourne.
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