Building Strength Through Virtue

SportsLeader program gains in popularity and importance among coaches and teams, including Michigan State’s Rose Bowl-bound football squad.

Lou Judd
Lou Judd (photo: SportsLeader)

Ask Lou Judd about the state of athletics, and you might get an earful. The 41-year-old father of six is passionate about stemming the tide that would place sports above everything else. He has maintained this outlook since 2004, the year he joined SportsLeader, a virtue-based mentoring program for coaches.

Judd has seen positive results from SportsLeader, both on the field and off the field. Among the most visible on-field outcomes are found with the Michigan State University football team, which won the Big Ten Championship this year and plays in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Off-the-field stories showing the effectiveness of virtue-mentoring are numerous, but they all have the same theme: Virtue equals strength.

Judd spoke with Register correspondent Trent Beattie about the past, present and future of the Louisville, Ky.-based SportsLeader program. 


How did you get started with SportsLeader?

In 2004, Paul Passafiume, a businessman and junior-high football coach in the Louisville, Ky., area, and Joe Lukens, a former Ohio State University football player and current businessman in the Cincinnati area, both saw a need for a virtue-based training program in athletics. A win-at-all-costs mentality had become more common and was harming youth development. Sports had become almost a deity.

Paul and Joe joined forces and started what is now called SportsLeader. They brought me on board that first year, and we launched a program for high-school students. Because it was explicitly Catholic, the public schools didn’t allow it, so we came up with a broader one that is compatible with Catholicism but not overtly Catholic.

Catholics know the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity; and the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. We extended the list of virtues to include things such as humility, patience and magnanimity. Because the school year is usually 36 weeks long, we identified 72 virtues so that one could be learned each week during a two-year period. With this framework, a high-school student would be exposed to the same virtues two separate times during four years.


How is the SportsLeader program implemented?

We have three pillars to our program: virtue, mentoring and ceremony. Virtue, which comes from the Latin word for “strength” or “manly excellence,” is what we’re all about. Our central motto is: “Virtue equals strength.” This is vitally important to teach, because the word “virtue” can sometimes have an out-of-reach or less-than-appealing ring to it. When you get right down to it, though, virtue is at the very core of what it means to be a capable, productive and content person.

Mentoring is the main vehicle through which the virtues are passed along. We recognized early on that coaches have a uniquely important role in forming young people, so coaches are the ones we train. They receive all the information and methods for instilling virtue in their players.

Ceremony is a vehicle through which the virtues are reinforced. We gather the players of a team and their fathers, near the beginning of a sports season, in a jersey ceremony. Each father shares a story of his son living out a specific virtue, tells his son he loves him (and why he does so), and then gives him a jersey and a hug.

A second aspect of the ceremony is what we call “Letters to Mom.” Each player writes a letter to his mother expressing love and gratitude to her. The players and their mothers gather, and each player reads his letter out loud to all present. Then he gives his mother a rose.

The high-school version, which includes all 72 virtues, is also the one we started to use in colleges. Then there’s a simpler version for grade schools that is based on the three core virtues of charity, humility and courage. We still have the mentoring and ceremony aspects for younger athletes, but it’s easier to teach just a few basic concepts to them.


How has the program been received?

Very well. Young people want to be guided and formed by knowledgeable adults, and this is a great way to do that. Coaches have a pivotal role in youth development, even more than parents, teachers and clergy, in many cases.

As a kid, you don’t choose your own parents, teachers or clergy, but you do choose to be part of a team that is guided by a certain coach. Because young people want to hear what coaches have to say, we train the coaches on how to impart the virtues. This has worked extremely well.


What are some examples of SportsLeader being used successfully?

There are so many examples, but maybe the most visible one is the Michigan State football team. We met with Head Coach Mark Dantonio in 2011, and he wanted to start the mentoring part of SportsLeader. We did that, and even went beyond the basic structure of our mentoring program.

The team’s strength coach, Ken Mannie, took on, not just six or seven guys in a small group, as is the usual practice for each coach of a team, but he would actually mentor the entire team. He did this on an individual basis throughout the year, by being demanding but caring. He had high standards for his players but was there to help them live up to those standards. The team would communicate and share concerns with each other after workouts led by Ken. He regularly handed out cards with encouraging messages on them. Players collected the cards and kept them in binders.

This year, the Michigan State football team won the Big Ten Championship and is playing in the Rose Bowl against Stanford on New Year’s Day 2014.


So there’s no basis to the fear that virtue will make teams less competitive?

No, not at all. If your team is much more talented than mine, then yes, yours will probably win, no matter how virtuous mine is. However, if our teams are basically equal in talent, the more virtuous one will win. That is, the team that plays cohesively, that sacrifices, that perseveres in the face of adversity — that’s the team that will come out on top in a matchup that is otherwise equal. This is true of football, basketball, baseball or any other sport.


How many schools currently use the program?

About 130 currently use SportsLeader, although that’s a little misleading, because the number of participating teams within each school varies. Some schools have all their teams onboard, while others have a few or one team. We’ve worked with Chris Ledyard, athletic director of Franciscan University in Steubenville, to bring the program to all of his teams, making Franciscan the first university to have comprehensive implementation.

Most of the schools we serve are in the Midwest and Northeast, such as Rice Lake High School in Wisconsin, Archbishop Moeller in Ohio and Tyburn Academy in New York. We are in other areas across the U.S. and Canada, though, and we’re actually in the first phase of bringing SportsLeader to the entire Archdiocese of New Orleans, so that’s very encouraging. 


Aside from great teams, what are the benefits of SportsLeader?

It’s important to remember that Sports Leader is not just about sports. Yes, you will develop stable, reliable athletes through the program, but, more importantly, you will develop stable, reliable human beings. Virtue carries over into other areas of life.

One way this is shown is though Bruce Scifres, head football coach for Roncalli High School in Indiana. He has taught his players about prayer, instructing them to “Take God with you on every play.” He has told them that from when the huddle breaks to when the play starts they have just enough time to say a short prayer: “Lord, be with me on this play”; “Jesus, strengthen me”; “Come, Holy Spirit.” These are just a few of the aspirations that cannot only help someone play better, but the very practice of prayer itself is starting to become a habit.

When the player encounters a situation in school that could lead to a fight, he can say a short prayer instead of indulging in reckless thoughts and then actions. Before a job interview, he can say a short prayer instead of letting nerves get the best of him.

A major area of concern in schools today is bullying, and SportsLeader is the answer to the problem. When you have an entire football team onboard with the program, bullying just doesn’t exist. The players won’t engage in it, and if they see it happening to someone else, they won’t allow it. Athletes tend to set the moral tone for the entire school, so when the football team in particular doesn’t approve of something, it won’t happen.


Do you plan on taking the program to professional sports?

Our focus now is on K-12 and college, but we would like to be in pro sports at some point in the future. We’ve already talked with Mark Chipman, owner of the Winnipeg Jets, Eric Sutulovich, special-teams coach of the Atlanta Falcons, and Joe Lombardi, quarterbacks coach of the New Orleans Saints. While these men endorse our program for young people, there is no current plan to implement it on pro teams yet.

What we are about to implement is a specifically Catholic version of SportsLeader, which we’ll use in Catholic schools. This will be similar to what we started with in 2004, but it will be expanded, in part through the help of Chris Willertz, who joined SportsLeader in June 2012.


Have you implemented Sports Leader with your own family?

Yes, I’m the coach of my 10-year-old son’s soccer team, and we use the program. Just like other coaches, I teach the team about a specific virtue each week. My son comes home and repeats the definition and the accompanying story to his younger siblings. All the kids who can talk are constantly talking about virtue. That’s something that warms a father’s heart. They have their minds on the right things already.

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.