Character School


I went back to school the other day. It was unlike any school I had ever attended before.

It might have been the setting: the ballroom of an upmarket Washington country club that generally serves as an elegant wedding venue.

It might have been my classmates, whose median age was about 1/5 of my own.

It might have been the topic: character in sports.

Likely, it was all of the above.

Tomas Gonzalez was the teacher. He is a Chilean tennis professional who once ranked in the top 400 in the world. Somehow, he overcame a terrible tennis birthday — December 29, making him one of the youngest in every age group — to achieve a high level of distinction in his sport. The handout described him as a Character Development Coach, but he is also the Junior Tennis Coordinator at The Country Club of Virginia, in Richmond.

I was not really considered a student in the workshop because a conscious decision had been made to limit enrollment to boys and girls ranging in age from 10 to 18. Parents were not included except as transportation providers. Technically, I was something called a facilitator, which meant I sat at a round table with four boys and two girls, theoretically to encourage some discussion among them.

The other facilitators were assistant professionals for the various sports offered at the club. Before the two-hour lunchtime session on a Saturday, I wandered around to ask the other facilitators what they were hoping their players would learn. The tennis pro mentioned line calls, partner issues and losing. The golf pro cited reactions to poor shots, the ability to forget bad outcomes, role models, solutions to not knowing the arcane rules, care of the course and consideration.

Eye contact became elusive when I asked about parental involvement in the children’s activities and whether a conscious decision had been made to limit participation to the children themselves. It had.

Getting teenagers and preteens to talk in large group settings isn’t easy, but Gonzales used several of the classic techniques employed by speakers to loosen up the audience. In response to a group question “have you ever been to a character development workshop,” not a single hand went up. This did not surprise me with respect to a country club, but it did surprise me with respect to schools. My classmates attended the full range of Washington area educational institutions, from public to private and religious to secular, yet not a single athletic department at any of them had thought it useful to impart the idea of there being more to sports than winning and losing. At least not memorably enough for the children to raise their hands.

The Character Development Success model depicted in the handout materials includes 10 elements, of which six were covered in the two-hour session. The 10 were perseverance, responsibility, integrity, honesty, citizenship, relationships, trust, self-discipline, courage and respect. Of these, all except responsibility, citizenship, trust and courage were covered in 10- to 15-minute activities.

As the session ended, I sensed that most understood the basic concepts Gonzalez imparted. They understood the importance of character. They understood that sports were about more than winning and losing. They understood about sportsmanship.

I was not as certain that they understood how to apply these concepts in stressful situations.

In one exercise, participants were asked what to do if their tennis partner erroneously called a ball out. The responses suggested a clear understanding of how to be respectful of one’s partner in expressing disagreement but nobody addressed the question of what to do about the opponents whose properly earned point had been denied by the bad call.

The conflict between the important concepts being taught and the objective of winning was left until the end. Gonzalez showed a video of the final seconds of a tied state championship high school basketball game that would come down to the final shot. The video shows the coach describing the offensive play to his team, anticipating that it would have possession. Suddenly, one of the players tells the coach that he touched the ball before it went out of bounds so possession should properly go to their opponents. His teammates disagreed, saying that the state championship was at stake but, as the player went to tell the referee, the coach said, “good call.”

Knowing the precepts of character is one thing. Applying them is another. Well played to the organizers of this class for thinking of a session devoted to important lessons that are apparently not being taught in school. Well played to Tomas Gonzalez for developing the program and traveling around to teach it.