For Pete Paciorek, youth sports are about more than competition or physical prowess.
They represent an opportunity for kids and adolescents to build character and develop life skills that will continue to help them after they step off the field.
That’s why Paciorek, a former professional baseball player, founded Character Loves Company in 2016. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to using youth sports as a vehicle for character development. It’s also what motivated him to enroll in the College of Education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
Paciorek is part of an innovative EdD cohort led by Marvin Berkowitz, one of the world’s foremost character education scholars and researchers and co-director of the Center for Character and Citizenship. Paciorek is examining how character education – a learning philosophy that prioritizes the development of core ethical values, virtues and critical thinking – can be purposefully integrated into coaching youth sports.
He had been unaware of the program until a colleague at Principia School, where Paciorek serves as director of school advancement and community outreach, pointed him toward Berkowitz’s research.
“I didn’t know UMSL had such an unbelievable character education program,” Paciorek said. “I applied, and I’m thinking, ‘I wonder if I’ll get accepted.’ Marvin, everybody, all the professors, have been amazing.”
A family tradition
The program is academically challenging, but Paciorek is used to hard work. He grew up in a family of professional baseball players – 10 in total including himself – who instilled a strong work ethic and sense of integrity.
No one embodied those values more than his father. John Paciorek grew up in a blue-collar family as the oldest of eight kids and one of five brothers, all of whom played professional baseball at some level.
In 1963, the Houston Colt .45s called him up from the minors for the last game of the season. It would be his first and last appearance in a Major League Baseball game, but he made it count. That day, John made a diving catch in right field, and at the plate, he had three hits, drew two walks and drove in three runs.
After the incredible debut, a back injury cut his playing career short, but he went on to a 50-year career as a physical education teacher and coach.
“I always tell people, from a character standpoint and a coaching standpoint, he impacted more lives as a coach than he would have if he had a 20-year major league career,” Paciorek said. “He really impacted a ton of kids through sports. That’s where I got my passion for impacting youth, impacting kids, through watching him.”
A test of character
Paciorek’s own career lasted for nine seasons in the minors with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres organizations. The values he learned from his father and uncles were often put to the test during that time.
It was in the midst of professional baseball’s steroid era, and Paciorek was playing first base in Triple-A – a step away from the majors. A few teammates insisted steroids could get him to the next level.
“There was a lot of pressure in those days because you see other people that are doing it,” he said. “They’re getting promoted, and they’re getting to the big leagues. They’re accomplishing their goal. For me – I wanted to make it to the big leagues as bad as anybody – but I was never willing to cheat.”
Around the same time, Paciorek recognized the difference he could make after his team participated in a youth baseball camp.
“There were kids who were in the camp early in the season, then they’d come to all the games,” Paciorek said. “I’d be on deck, and these kids would come up and say, ‘Hey Pete, hit a home run!’ I started to realize that regardless of whether I made the major leagues or not, I can have an impact on youth. I can have an impact in the lives and the development and the character of youth.”
Paciorek kept that idea in the back of his mind as his playing career came to a close. After retiring, he coached baseball at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, for six years before becoming a baseball instructor at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Character Loves Company
While working at IMG, Paciorek went back to school to earn an MS in Sport Management at the University of Florida, founded Character Loves Company and authored, “Character Loves Company: Defining the Teachable Moments In Sports: A Guidebook to Character Literacy Development.”
He returned to the Midwest in 2017 to serve as athletic director at Principia College and later moved to Principia School, an affiliated private high school in suburban St. Louis. That’s when Character Loves Company started to take off.
The organization offers eight-week and 12-week character development workshops for junior high school and high school student-athletes. Additionally, Paciorek has given hundreds of presentations to schools and community recreation centers about the need to emphasize character development in youth sports.
The workshops with young student-athletes are centered around how they can be of service to their families and communities off the field, while Paciorek’s presentations address how coaches and parents can focus less on winning and more on concepts such as resilience and self-improvement.
“I think everybody gets their children into sports with good intentions,” Paciorek said. “We want them to grow. We want them to learn. We want them to gain confidence as part of a team and to play a role. But sometimes you get in the heat of the moment, and you get off track. Coaches, they get caught up in this win-at-all-costs mentality. I try to articulate how we learn so much more from our failures or when we don’t win because then we’re like, ‘How can I get better?’”
With coaches, Paciorek stresses being deliberate about building character lessons into their practice plans.
That could mean dedicating time for a short discussion about honesty and integrity before starting drills. It could also mean taking time to stop practice during teachable moments. For instance, if someone makes an error, coaches can take a break and remind their players that it’s not a time to be negative and dwell on a mistake. Instead, it’s an opportunity to lift up a teammate.
“It’s teaching them life skills,” he said. “When something goes wrong and you face adversity, how can you learn from it, move past it and grow from it?”
PRIMED for success
After coming to UMSL, Paciorek realized his work with Character Loves Company aligned very closely with Berkowitz’s “PRIMED” character education model.
Berkowitz and Mindy Bier, co-directors of the Center for Character and Citizenship, previously identified effective character education practices through their research, and Berkowitz distilled them into six key principles. Each one is represented by the acronym PRIMED: prioritization, relationships, intrinsic motivation, modeling, empowerment and developmental pedagogy.
Paciorek’s EdD dissertation will study whether the PRIMED model, which was developed for educators, can be effective for coaches in youth sports.
“I’m going to introduce it to coaches and then follow them over the course of eight weeks and see how the PRIMED model has helped build their self-efficacy and commitment to character development as a coach,” he said.
Paciorek feels fortunate that he found a program where he can work on something so close to his heart.
“I feel so blessed to have the faculty that we have at UMSL, and this is a really nice fit for me,” he said.