In our interview with UVA rowing coach Kevin Sauer, he talked about the importance of character. He said, “My philosophy is that if character is there, a lot of good things can happen.” The Rower’s Edge asked a great follow-up question, “Since coaches are looking first for character in a recruit how do you demonstrate that to a coach?”
I think character is a lot like the wind, or gravity. You can’t see it, you can only see evidence of it. Character, at least as it pertains to athletics, means persevering through adversity, a willingness to keep grinding it out when you feel you can’t and putting the success of the team ahead of individual success.
Certainly pushing hard at an anaerobic threshold for an extended period takes some character. So, does that mean a great erg score is evidence of it? The great bike racer Greg Lemond once said, “It never gets any easier, you just get faster.” By that thinking, a great erg score doesn’t necessarily mean you suffer more than a slower athlete. She might be working through just as much pain but doesn’t have the same conditioning level. You can’t say who has more character.
How about the fact that somebody has achieved a high level of conditioning? Does that mean character? After all there is no shortcut to conditioning. Surely it takes character to put in the training hours day after day, right? Well, that depends. I had a conversation with Jeff Stiles, women’s D3 cross country Coach of the Year and he said, “You just don’t know if the athlete is coming from a very rigid program, where they have no choice but to put in the miles and do the work. I really want athletes who are intrinsically motivated – not just doing it because the coach is standing there with a stopwatch.”
So to further pin down this elusive trait of character, let’s define it as being intrinsically driven to succeed, despite adversity – and putting the success of the team ahead of self.
Great, so how is that trait demonstrated? After a hard loss, if an athlete gets up early to put in an extra workout by herself, I’d say that’s evidence of character. If an athlete sulks off, or snaps at a teammate or bad-mouths a coach or training program after a loss – not a great indicator of character (at least not the positive kind).
So to get back to the Rower’s Edge question, “how do you demonstrate character to a coach?” My answer is that it’s not something that can be put on a resume or really even in a coach’s recommendation letter. Character is demonstrated every time you practice, race and especially when you lose. So when you are at camps and showcases this summer, remember, character is like the wind, while you can’t see it, it’s pretty easy to see evidence of it when it’s strong.