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The Athlete as "Elevater": Using Identity to Develop People of Character

by Jim Thompson


When challenged to explain his behavior, Quixote does not justify his actions in terms of expectations of their consequences. Rather he says, “I know who I am.”

- James G. March

This article was originally published on

With regard to developing people of character, I start from a simple premise: identity is the foundation of character because it drives behavior.

My Stanford professor, Jim March, whose favorite novel was Don Quixote, stressed that the best way to get people to change their behavior is to change their sense of who they are and want to be. Rewards and punishments do drive behavior, especially in the short term, but rewards are expensive; punishments make people angry.

But identity is cleaner. Who we want to be is key to how we will act.

Martin Sheen, who played President Bartlett in the TV show “West Wing,” was active in social justice efforts, more than once ending up in jail. Asked if he thought protesting was effective, Sheen said, “I don’t do this to be effective. I do it so I can look myself in the mirror.” Like Don Quixote, Martin Sheen knows who he is (or wants to be) and this drives his behavior.

The Limited Identity of an Athlete

A friend’s son played football through college. When his football career ended, he went into a funk. Being a football player was a huge part of knowing “who he was” for more than 15 years. Now he could no longer say, “I am a football player.”

An injury ended my basketball career after my freshman year of college. I was an enthusiastic but mediocre athlete at best, but it was important to me and I realize, looking back, that I experienced a period of mourning when I realized being an athlete was no longer part of who I was.

Is it possible that youth coaches can help athletes develop an identity that extends beyond the playing field to help them become people of strong character who do the right thing even when it is hard because they know who they are?

Absolutely, but it requires that youth athletes have a clear model of an identity that they can aspire to.

Elevater: an Expanded Identity for Life

PCA developed the Triple-Impact Competitor® model to personify what a person of strong positive character looks like in sports and life. A Triple-Impact Competitor is an “Elevater” who looks to elevates himself, her teammates, and the game and the larger community by how he or she competes and lives. Elevater sounds like “elevator,” the machine that moves people between floors in a building, but it is a new word for a new identity.

Being an Elevater requires two things: first an ongoing sense of possibility for what exists in every situation. An Elevater says to himself, “No matter what is happening here, I can find a way to make it better.” Second, it requires being willing to be uncomfortable because elevating a situation often requires doing hard things.

Individuals who aspire to be Elevaters recognize that they will need to develop positive character traits to be able to elevate oneself, one’s teammates and the game. So let’s look at what I mean by character and what those character traits might be.

A Sea Change in Coaching

Since I started Positive Coaching Alliance in 1998 at Stanford University, PCA has helped spark a sea change in the conventional wisdom about what constitutes good coaching—from the mistaken idea that negativity is an acceptable element of effective coaching to a realization that positive coaching is the key to getting the best from youth athletes and develop people of character.

PCA has established 18 Chapters with more than 300 Board Members, recruited a National Advisory Board with a Who’s Who of thought leaders in sports, academia and organizations and has developed a national team of 200 trainers that delivered more than 3,000 live workshops last year alone.

PCA’s Two Questions Coming Together

I started PCA asking: what do youth need to have a great experience in sports? We concluded three things are needed: Connection with coaches and teammates who accept and value them, a belief that they will see Improvement if they work hard and continue to learn, and a desire to belong to a team that does things the right way, with Integrity. PCA’s three principles address these requirements.

a) Filling Emotional Tanks addresses Connection. Emotional Tanks are like the gas tank in a car—when they are full, athletes feel connected and much more able to respond to challenges.

b) The ELM Tree of Mastery—E for Effort, L for Learning, and M for bouncing back from Mistakes—addresses Improvement. Winning is a byproduct of pursuing Mastery.

c) The ROOTS of Honoring the Game—respect for the Rules, Opponents, Officials, Teammates and Self—addresses Integrity. When coaches teach and model Honoring the Game, athletes compete so teammates, family, school and community feel proud of them.

If youth athletes do not feel accepted and endorsed by their teammates and coach, they likely will not internalize life lessons even if otherwise perfectly taught. Thus establishing a caring team culture, per Mary Fry’s research at the University of Kansas, in which athletes are encouraged to do their best, help each other get better and do things the right way is a prerequisite for being able to build character in athletes.

Recently I began asking a new question, “What does our country, our society and our world need from youth sports?”

The two questions come together in a compelling way because what the world needs and what our youth need intersect. As William Damon, head of Stanford’s Center on Adolescence, noted in his book, The Path to Purpose, purpose is “the long-term, number one motivation in life” but only 20% of high school kids report having purpose, being dedicated to something other than themselves.

Damon: “Without a younger generation dedicated to taking up the challenges of a world that needs a lot of repairing, it is hard to imagine how a decent future can be achieved.”

Our nation needs leaders and people of character to deal with the daunting problems we face including the greatest challenge of all, dealing with the defining issue of our time (and perhaps all time), the potential for climate change to make our planet largely uninhabitable. And youth sports—with its endless procession of teachable moments—is the ideal place to develop these leaders and people of character.

Dress Rehearsal for Life

Making sports a “dress rehearsal for life” brings the needs of youth and the larger community together in an exciting way. Coaches can begin to instill a sense of purpose in their athletes by telling them, “Our team needs you! We can’t be our best without you being an Elevater.”

Depending on the age of the athletes, a coach can also say, “Our world also needs you. The skills and lessons you will learn on this team will also help you be the kind of person who can help make the world a better place.”

Sports, with as many as 30 million youth in the U.S. competing, is the ideal setting for building character because in sports, character is tested all the time! And character does not advance without regular testing and opportunities to act in accord with one’s character.

How PCA Thinks About Character

Recently I came across a saying about character that I love. Kurt Hackbarth said, “Character is what you do when it counts.” This evokes Martin Luther King, Jr: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

At PCA we took our definition of character from David Weekley: character is the mental and moral framework of values that guides a person’s behavior. A person with strong, positive character understands right from wrong and acts accordingly, especially when it counts!

The Two Buckets of Character

There are two main “buckets” of character: “Performance Character” and “Moral Character.”

Performance Character traits allow one to achieve goals, such as work ethic, self-control, self-discipline, competitive spirit, resilience, reliability and perseverance. I call Performance Character the “Mental Toughness Bucket” because individuals with strong Performance Character are able to exercise their will to achieve their desired results. The question to ask regarding Performance Character is, “Am I a competent person?”

Moral Character traits include characteristics that help other people thrive such as compassion, kindness, honesty, a cooperative spirit, generosity and respect. Note that Moral Character traits tend to rebound positively: people treated generously and compassionately tend to reciprocate. I call Moral Character the “Empathy Bucket” because it largely revolves around being sensitive to others and taking them into account in our actions. The question to ask regarding Moral Character is, “Am I a virtuous person?”

Two-Bucket Characteristics: Some characteristics transcend both buckets:

  • Courage, doing what needs to be done when one is frightened to do so, may be the fundamental positive character trait, without which one would not be able to exhibit other traits. For example, if one is afraid to speak up when he sees a person being bullied, he is likely to remain a bystander rather than acting on behalf of the bullied person.

  • Moral Courage, a subset of Courage, is standing up publicly for what you believe is right even when your “tribe” disagrees. We often think of courage as a physical thing—running into a burning building to rescue a child—but often it is fear of making friends, family and community unhappy that causes us to remain quiet when speaking up is required.

  • Teachable Spirit is the hunger to learn anything and everything that can result in self-improvement. A Teachable Spirit is crucial to continue learning and growing to become both more competent and more virtuous.

The Elevater is the Complete Package

Individuals may be strong in only one bucket. For example, someone may be mentally tough, with the resilience to bounce back from setbacks but not possessing compassion for others or being concerned about the impact of their actions on others or the larger community.

Alternately, individuals may be compassionate and caring toward others but lack the competence to act in ways that will benefit others. The complete package is for youth athletes (and coaches!) to develop high degrees of performance character and moral character—and become individuals able to achieve their goals while helping others be successful as well.

There is no better place for young people to develop Performance and Moral Character traits than youth sports—and no better person to help athletes develop these crucial positive character traits than high school and youth coaches. We call a coach who develops both Better Athletes and Better People a Double-Goal Coach®.   A Double-Goal Coach is an “Elevater Coach” with the goal of developing Elevaters who acquire the positive character traits necessary to successfully elevate whatever situations they find themselves in.

Let me end by asking us to imagine an athlete who asks, “How can I elevate my teammates who are discouraged because our big lead has evaporated?” And then further imagine that athlete evolving into an adult who continually asks how she can elevate every situation because she has come to see herself as an Elevater.

Now imagine what would our world be like if we had hundreds of thousands of athletes graduating from high school every year and taking their identity as an Elevater into the world with them?

Being an Elevater who looks to make every situation better can lend meaning to a person’s life and enhance that life in wonderful ways, well beyond the playing field. It can set youth athletes on a lifelong journey in which they have a clear idea of the person they want to become, and it will benefit our society so that ultimately we all win.

PCA Founder Jim Thompson started PCA at Stanford University in 1998 to create a movement to transform the culture of youth sports into a Development Zone® with the goal to develop Better Athletes, Better People. PCA has helped lead a sea change in public awareness that positive coaching is the key to get the best out of youth athletes (everyone, really!) and help them become a Triple-Impact Competitor® who elevates self, teammates, and the game. PCA has 18 Chapters across the U.S. and does more than 3,000 live workshops annually for more than 1,000 youth sports organizations and partnerships with Major League Baseball and the NBA.