Morals of the story: He helps coaches see the light

May 09, 2017 / by / 0 Comment

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

Dr. Rick Roth used to be a basketball coach. He still is a coach, in a sense — only now he coaches students in the Colangelo College of Business at Grand Canyon University.

But Roth is using his passion for the profession to try to help other coaches in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). He recently conducted a workshop titled “Champions of Character: Coaches as Moral Influencers” at the NAIA convention in San Diego and is hoping to work with the organization to make it an ongoing educational feature.

Dr. Rick Roth

“What I came to understand was that maybe we’re going about the training a little bit backward,” Roth said. “We spend a lot of time in the training of the student-athlete when in fact maybe our target market should be helping coaches know how to influence their players’ moral character.

“I can’t think of a coach who ever said, ‘Hey, I’m not interested in my players becoming good citizens.’ That’s one of the reasons you get into it.”

That certainly was the case for Roth, who was a high school basketball coach in the Valley for 13 years, then coached at Arizona Christian University for eight years before coming to GCU to be an assistant professor in the Colangelo School of Sports Business.

On the way to his doctoral degree in Sports Management and Leadership, he found that he was doing paper after paper on how coaches affect the moral character of their players. It made perfect sense to turn that into his dissertation topic.

His three discoveries:

First, a coach definitely could influence their moral reasoning. “You teach them how to reason, you bring situations to them, they work their way through, they learn how to think,” he said.

Second, the moral atmosphere of the team influenced the moral character of the student-athlete. “If you want to influence the moral character of the athlete, you’ve got to find a way for the team to have a culture that would influence good decision-making,” he said.

“It takes time for you to actually allow student-athletes to sit down with you and talk about issues they’re facing in their lives.”

Dr. Rick Roth, Colangelo College of Business assistant professor and former high school and college basketball coach

Finally, the head coach had to be a good role model. “This one interested me most,” he said. “The moral reasoning of the head coach influenced the moral reasoning of the players, the moral character of the coach and his example influenced the moral atmosphere of the team, and as a role model he was an influence upon the development of the student-athletes’ character.”

Through his research, studies and personal experience, Roth found that many coaches encounter three main challenges to the moral aspect: Other priorities get in the way, they simply lack time, and the curriculum they’re trying to share needs to be part of who they are if they’re going to make it part of who the athlete is.

“I’ve always felt like your best coaching takes place in an air-conditioned room,” he said. “It takes time for you to actually allow student-athletes to sit down with you and talk about issues they’re facing in their lives, explain, talk through how they’re doing, and then you guide them through that. That takes a lot of time and effort.”

He did a case study for his dissertation and discovered three major influencers on moral character:

  • “The student-athlete needed clear, concise communication so they knew exactly what was going on. They could ask questions, but the coach was clearly communicating,” he said.
  • The athletes absorbed and were always watching the model of their head coach and those associated with the head coach — assistants, strength coach, etc.
  • Those two don’t matter if you don’t have a relationship with the student-athlete. As one athlete told him, “I learned a lot about going to a team party and watching how assistant coaches treated their wives or interacted with their kids.”

Roth cited an interesting example of how all this works:

Back in his high school coaching days, he decided his players were cursing too much, and he wanted to put a stop to it. So he told them he would pull them out of the game if they used profanity — but they could curse all they wanted if they heard an expletive come out of his mouth. He didn’t, so they didn’t.

“One of the guys told my wife they were watching me closely,” he said. “That was a challenge for me as well, but that wasn’t really a part of my vocabulary so it really wasn’t a problem.”

Leigh Schenck, vice president of business and product development for the NAIA, called Roth’s research “amazing” and said it was well received at the convention. Schenck noted that it “ties in with our ‘Champions of Character’ mission of changing the culture of sports. While we don’t have a plan for our next year’s convention, we would definitely be open to having him back.”  

Roth plans to continue working on the workshop content this summer — he wants to be prepared to do more with it.

“I’d like to develop it to the point where I could bring it to certain teams – high schools or small colleges,” he said. “What it really needs is some practical applications so when a coach says that on this day he wants to work on ‘X,’ I’d like to be able to give him some ideas.”

And when students return to GCU in the fall, he’ll go back to coaching — in the classroom. He has found that the correlation between coaching and teaching is unmistakable.

“That’s why I think I’ve enjoyed teaching,” he said. “Though it’s not as concentrated as working with the players who are on your team, you do many of the same things. And a lot of what you really accomplish is taking place when you meet with your students in an air-conditioned office.”

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or












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