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Islander Football Character Development

The following article was published in January 2018 by X & O Labs.

Creating an Off-Season Character Development Program

Jeff Tomlin
Head Football Coach
Grand Island High School


More and more, coaches are realizing that having a character development component present within their football program is important to developing players both on and off the field. The game of football is a tremendous platform for teaching the “game of life.” In my 30 years of coaching, I have always understood the importance for developing character, but I wasn’t always the best at implementation. The challenge was always when I would be able to squeeze in character development around the other demands of preparing a team and running a program. For that reason, character development for us was a “grab bag” approach with a quote here and a story there.

Although I worked hard to teach the core values of honor, courage, commitment and loyalty, I wasn’t as impactful as I could have been because I lacked a systematic approach to making character development an established part of our program. As Coach Urban Meyer is quoted as saying, “average leaders have a quote, good leaders have a plan and great leaders have a system.” I wholeheartedly agree.  

The goal of this article is to outline the process we use in establishing and implementing our character development system and share with you how this has impacted our program. I am sure many of you have similar and perhaps superior systems in place, but it is my hope that I can share at least one idea with you worth including in your program. 


Element 1:  Establish Your Culture

The first step toward implementing character development into your program begins with establishing the culture of your program. Culture is nothing more than a program’s core beliefs, values, traditions, identity and ways of behaving. I am not here to tell anyone what type of culture to establish but instead to encourage coaches to figure out the “purpose” of your program and what you believe in. In short, your culture is “who you are” and “what you do”.  Without an established culture, it will be difficult to communicate and teach character. In many ways, culture and character are one and the same. 

We base our culture on a Code of Excellence. We believe in the relentless pursuit of excellence in the areas of attitude, effort, discipline, fundamentals and team unity. We believe that we have complete control over these five pillars and feel like, if we are excellent in these five areas, winning will take care of itself. We have also built our program upon the four core values of honor, courage, commitment and loyalty. We pride ourselves on being “blue collar” and in being a close-knit brotherhood. 


Element 2: Establish Clear Expectations

It is hard to have an effective character development program if you don’t clearly communicate policies and expectations. This is an obvious point, but an important one nonetheless. Everyone, including players, parents, football staff, boosters, administrators and support staff must have a clear idea of the vision, mission, policies and expectations of the program.


To make sure our policies and expectations are clear, we have put together a handbook for players and parents. We also have a player/parent meeting in March for all returners and potential Freshman players and their parents. At this meeting, I cover our handbook and everything else pertaining to our program including but not limited to: player safety, camps, strength and conditioning, diet and nutrition, equipment, lettering criteria, touchdown club and fundraising. Getting parents on board is essential and most parents want to know that your program is about more than just wins and losses. Our handbook and parent’s meeting has been a key to sharing our mission and promoting our culture.


Element 3: Develop a Common Language

One of the best things we have done is establish a common language. This idea was the brainchild of our strength and conditioning coach John Swanson over a dozen years ago. We require our athletes (not just our football players) to learn all of our core values including: honor, courage, commitment, loyalty, integrity, honesty, accountability, responsibility, compassion and excellence. Our players must check out with our strength coach every day after completing their workout and our strength coach requires each player to recite the definition of a core value each day in order to check out. The players select a different core value each day.

We will also periodically quiz all of our athletes over our core values (the definitions). At that time, we will have them write about things such as what commitment looks like on a team or how one can demonstrate qualities such as courage or integrity. We believe that in order to reach kids and establish a strong culture, we have to speak the same language. How can we expect a player to be a man of honor if he doesn’t understand what honor is? Developing a common language has been a huge key to our character development efforts. 

In addition to memorizing the definitions of our core values, our football players must also have a clear understanding about our “code of excellence” and other terms and phrases that we commonly use in our program. We have compiled these into a list that we give each player and post in our locker room and meeting room. 

Element 4: Continually Sell and Reinforce Your Culture and Core Values

Once your culture and core beliefs are set, it is critical that you continually reinforce the culture and core values of your program by displaying these beliefs prominently in your locker room, weight room and team meeting areas. Wherever your players gather, you must immerse them in your culture and core values. Make these as elaborate or as basic as you wish. The important thing is that they are on display. One of the many ways we try to sell and reinforce our core values and goals is to make each player a credit card sized, laminated copy of our process goals and core values that they can keep in their wallet or another prominent spot. Our staff also makes sure we are reinforcing the culture of our program through our website and on our twitter account. 

Element 5: Developing or Using a Character Education Manual

Another key to our character development efforts has been the development of a character development manual. After deciding about 15 years ago to try to develop a systematic approach to teaching character development, I shopped around for character education manuals and programs being marketed at the time. Although I really liked parts of each program that I looked at, I finally decided to develop our own character education manual to use with our players. The cost of purchasing manuals for the entire team was also a deterrent. It took a tremendous amount of work (about two years) but the investment has been well worth it. I based the manual around our core values and code of excellence and went about creating lessons using stories (my favorite way to teach lessons), biographies, poems and other things I have compiled over many years. I add to the manual each year and have developed discussion questions to go with it as well. Whether you use one of the great programs available on the market today or design your own, it is a great way to help you create a system of teaching character. Designing a manual has also saved me a great deal of time during the season and has freed me up to focus on the many other tasks that must be done without having to worry about what to create for a character lesson each week. The work has already been done. 


Element 6: Leadership Training

One area that has caused me struggles at times is developing team leaders. I have been blessed to work with many exceptional young men over the years who have been outstanding team leaders. It took a subpar season, in which our team truly lacked strong leadership, before I concluded that just like any other skill, leadership has to be taught and developed. I guess I had just expected great leadership to just magically happen.

After this experience, I decided I would hold leadership training sessions for our seniors (this year we are including juniors) and I have done this for about the last eight years. We meet twice a month beginning in January and we discuss a wide variety of leadership topics. We use our character development manual as well as many other resources. Our meetings usually last for about 30 minutes before school and I usually give the players a small assignment that we use as the central topic for the next lesson. We also read a book (ex: The Winner’s Manual by Coach Jim Tressel) as a group each winter and spring.

The leadership sessions have been a real key for our program. Our upperclassmen go into the season knowing exactly what is expected of them as leaders in our program. In addition, the players are more confident that they are indeed ready to lead the program and respond to any adversity that they will surely face. I am very proud of the fact that since beginning our leadership training, we have had 4 players selected to attend military service academies. Each of these players has expressed to our staff that our leadership training and the overall culture of our program played a significant role in their selection to their respective service academies and in helping them through the rigorous interview and selection process.  

Element 7: Utilizing the Talent and Influence of Your Staff to Teach Lessons

To really make your lessons impactful requires a total buy in and investment from the rest of your coaching staff. I have been blessed to be a part of a tremendous staff of gifted men who are great role models and teachers. Staff buy in is essential and will determine the effectiveness of your character education efforts. Our staff has been exceptional in not only embracing our mission but in bringing their own unique perspective and wisdom to each lesson.


Each week during the season we establish a theme for the week. I include a character lesson or two in our scouting report each week (from our character development manual) that are in some way directly or indirectly tied to our theme. For example, our theme may be “perseverance” and I will choose a story or two from our manual in which perseverance is a central theme. I set the tone for our theme and our overall focus for the week. 

Our coaching staff is responsible for meeting with their respective position groups and discussing the theme and the main idea of the lesson for each particular week. Our coaches can meet with their group when they choose and can use whatever delivery method suits them best for covering the lessons. Each coach makes it his own and takes ownership in making sure his players are getting the most out of the message each week. 

In addition, throughout the season I have a different coach each day share some “words of wisdom” that relate to our code of excellence or core values as a way to reinforce the foundations of our culture. 

Element 8: Putting the Process into Action

Another natural part of developing young men of character is to organize and encourage community service. A number of our players regularly donate their own time serving at their respective churches or in the community in some way. We encourage our players to give back to the community and organize opportunities to help them do this. We have had an overwhelming majority of our players help with various community service efforts such as Habitat for Humanity, reading at elementary schools, promoting summer reading at our public library, volunteering at school carnivals, volunteering at youth football camps and helping with events like Wreaths Across America. 



As football coaches, we have a tremendous opportunity to make our schools, communities and our nation better by helping to develop young men of character and future leaders. Organizing a character development system to use in your program can help you to maximize your positive impact and help your players become “champions for life”.

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