“Not everyone has it.”
“Has what?” I ask.
“It’s a quality you have to look for because it is very subtle.”
The seasoned recruiter looks down at his clipboard and circles a name.
“I don’t mean to be nosey, but who did you circle?”
“More important than who, is why.”
I watch as he looks across the field at a group of young men as if he is seeing a completely different reality than the rest of us.
“Here’s the thing, if I am going to see a young man to play with us, the talent is already there. There is no shortage of talented athletes. What I am looking for is love. Not a forced type of love because they are on the same team, but a player who loves his teammates. Someone that has empathy.”
"Can you give me an example of how you can see that in a player?"
He looked away into the distance, took a deep breath, then smiled.
"It's hard to see from here, but easy to see when the players get together. I look for guys that put their arm around a teammate after a play and are quick to celebrate a teammate that did something good."
"What do you call that?"
"Hmm, good question. I guess I would call it a form of empathy. On a deeper level, I would say empathy is when a player can share a moment with a teammate in celebration or distress without having had been in that situation, or without trying to fix it. That's love--that's empathy."
"Where do they learn that?"
"The adults around them. From us, coach, you know what I mean?"
I did know what he meant—you probably do, too. All the teams we have been on had different personalities, usually stemming from the type of coach that was in charge. If the coach was enthusiastic, encouraging, and optimistic, the tendency for the team to have similar traits showed in their practice sessions and their game performance. But if the coach was sarcastic, condescending, and pessimistic, the team usually follows in that behavior. The reason is that coaches are the models of manhood and womanhood for a young athlete. Coaches have a powerful influence that goes beyond that of a teacher, and many times a pastor or their own parents. So the traits a coach displays when their athletes are around have a lasting effect on the kind of person that young athlete becomes, at least it did on me.
“I’m pretty sure you are here to recruit Charlie, and he is a good guy, but there is another guy that you may want to consider that has the quality you are looking for.”
“Oh, yeah? Who is that?”
“A few days ago, I taught a lesson to the team on “respect for others” that is part of a series that teaches young men to consider their character. Charlie pulled me aside after class and broke down. He had some family things he wanted to talk to me about in hopes I could offer some insight. While we were talking, one of the other linemen came over, put his arm around his teammate, and said, ‘I don’t know whats going on here, and I don’t need to. Just know you are loved, man,’ and then walked away. That guy is the lineman right next to the guy you are here to see.”
“That is the quality I am talking about! What’s his name?”
“His name is Cedric,” I said, then I excused myself so I could get to my next class. A week later, the team showed up for my class and Charlie made a beeline straight for me.
“I got the offer, coach! It was my first choice!”
“That is great, man! Your hard work is paying off.”
“Thanks, coach. And it gets better—they offered Cedric, too! We are both going!”
Character matters. It shows in the little moments that don’t take much effort but have major effects. Find ways to celebrate a player who displays wonderful traits like empathy; but more importantly, be a model of empathy to your players.