Cowboy great Chad Hennings on instilling character in young athletes
By Greg Bach
When it comes to character, three-time Super Bowl champion and Air Force pilot Chad Hennings has lots of it.
And he wants to help today’s volunteer coaches understand the importance of instilling it in their young athletes, too.
“First and foremost it’s not a matter of word service, it’s got to be exemplified through actions,” says Hennings, who won three Super Bowls as a defensive lineman during a stellar nine-year career with the Dallas Cowboys and flew 45 combat missions on an Air Force A-10 jet during the Gulf War. “You’ve got to walk the walk and the thing about it is it can’t be preaching because kids today are constantly being bombarded with so much information with social media that they have developed a pretty decent filter on whether you are real or you’re not. And that’s the thing – they have to be able to trust you. So with that filter kids today can pretty much discern whether their coach is a person of character or not.”
Hennings is the author of Forces of Character, which presents a fascinating series of conversations with extraordinary individuals who have lived lives of high moral character and who have helped others reach their highest potential. The book features conversations with a diverse line-up of incredible people ranging from Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach and 5-time NBA champion coach Gregg Popovich to Holocaust survivor Dr. Edith Eva Eger and astronaut Tom Henricks.
“It’s never a cookie cutter approach with coaching – it’s about getting on a personal level with each young athlete,” Hennings says. “Every individual is different and you have to get to know that athlete or that student and what makes them tick. It takes time; it’s not just a matter of going out and coaching technique and the X’s and O’s of executing a game plan. You’ve got to be that individual that can be that life coach.”
And that poses some challenges in today’s look-at-me world of sports, where players crave attention and team-first ideals often get shoved to the side.
“Our culture is so narcissistic so that if you can teach these kids anything it’s about being an individual with character and to be your best self every day,” Hennings says. “That means encouraging others and not concentrating so much on yourself. If kids can walk away with that mentality they’ll be more productive citizens because they’re going to care about their neighbor, they’re going to care about their fellow worker, and they’re going to view life from those experiences that they had in youth sports and they can carry those lessons on for a lifetime.”
Here’s what else Hennings had to say during an exclusive interview with SportingKid Live:
COACHING KIDS – IT’S ALL ABOUT LIFE LESSONS
“Coach the individual,” Hennings says. “Coach Popovich talked about this and Jason Garrett talked about this in the book, too. It’s not about just teaching them the skill set but it’s also about life experiences, relating something they’re doing on the field to life, and sooner or later it’s going to sink in to those kids and the light bulb is going to turn on that they can appreciate the struggle that they are going through. It’s not conforming to a standard but it’s transforming them to an identity of what’s important in life. Coaching the individual – it’s all about life lessons.”
A COACH’S IMPACT
Growing up, Hennings was involved in baseball, wrestling, football and track and field.
“I tried to do everything,” he says.
And his coaches had a profound impact on his life.
“Aside from my father, I wanted to be like my coaches,” Hennings says. “I idolized my coaches. They were everything that I ascribed to be, from the work ethic, from the knowledge, just from the things that they taught me and to this day I owe my coaches so much. They had a huge impact on me and that’s why I think sports are an essential part of our life and it breaks my heart to read statistics on how youth participation in sports is on a decline and kids are missing out on the benefits of those experiences.”
MODEL OF CHARACTER
Hennings was twice awarded the Air Force Achievement Medal as well as an Outstanding Unit Award for his actions in the service, and during his NFL career his attitude, character and leadership were well known.
“Character is a topic near and dear to my heart because it’s something I’ve tried to lead in my own life personally, in the military and then in professional athletics,” Hennings says. “I wanted to highlight that character is a choice. It doesn’t matter who you are; it doesn’t matter your race, color or religion. Character can be universal and it’s a personal choice.”
YOUTH SPORTS: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIPS
Hennings’ youth sports experiences aren’t defined by the games that were won or lost along the way. It’s about the relationships that were forged and that continue carrying on all these years later.
“It’s not one thing on the field, it’s the friendships that I made participating in those sports,” Hennings says. “My best friend was a wrestling teammate of mine and his dad was our wrestling coach. It was a bond for a lifetime. It was never a particular game or play – it was always about the relationships with my teammates and coaches.”
BENEFITS OF FAILURE
“Honestly, I learned more from defeats and losses than I have through any victory or winning any Super Bowl by far,” Hennings says. “And that’s the beauty about athletics – it is the best laboratory for life, particularly when it comes to leadership skills, what it means to overcome adversity, how to be gracious in victory, how to prepare to work well with others and how do you fit in with your skill set on a team? Those are life skills that I carried with me when I was flying jets in a fighter squadron overseas in the first Gulf War to now in business with the employees that work for me and when I work with others. I go back to those same skill sets that I learned playing Little League baseball back in fifth and sixth grade.”
A FORCE OF CHARACTER
“I define a force of character as someone who lives to be their best self every day, encourages others to do the same, and also raises the people around them to a higher noble purpose or cause,” Hennings explains. “That may be for an athletic team, a business, a family or a community, but it talks about following that Golden Rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
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Princeton basketball coach Courtney Banghart, the 2015 Naismith Coach of the Year and widely recognized as one of the game’s great leaders, on what you need to know to get the most from your young athletes
Former college soccer midfielder and long-time youth coach Jillian Carroll on inspiring young athletes to work together and perform at their best on the field and in their lives
Former Stanford great Nicole Powell, head women’s basketball coach at Grand Canyon University, on creating team cultures where players genuinely care for and support each other