Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

How can character be built through sports?

Practical tips on building character in sports.

Coaching for Character
According to a 2006 study by the Josephson Institute Center for Sports Ethics:

*Two-fifths of the boys and one-fourth of the girls see nothing wrong with using a stolen playbook sent by an anonymous supporter before a big game.

*30 percent of all boys and 20 percent of girl softball players think it's okay for a softball pitcher to deliberately throw at a batter who homered the last time up.

*54 percent of male football players, 49 percent of male basketball players, and 18 percent of females in all sports approve of trash-talking.

*34 percent of all the boys and 12 percent of all the girls approve of a coach trying to pump up the team by swearing at officials to get himself or herself thrown out of a game.

In their book, Coaching for Character (now available as Sport and Character), Craig Clifford and Randolph Feezell offer some specific practical suggestions for building character through sports (pp. 99-107). Here are a few of them:

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1. Be a good role model: Actions speak louder than words. A coach should seek to embody sportsmanship and respect for opponents, officials, team members, and the sport. When a coach fails to live up to these ideals, they should admit this to their players. (On a personal note, there are times when I've failed to live up to my own ideals, and I think the notion of talking this over with players as well as apologizing to a ref or opposing coach is a good idea, when appropriate.)

2. Emphasize sportsmanship from the beginning:  Explain your expectations, what sportsmanship is, and why you value this trait.

3. Talk about combining seriousness and playfulness: Explain to your players that sport is serious fun. It is competitive play. Don't take it too seriously, but don't treat it too lightly, either.

4. Regularly use the language of sportsmanship: One thing that this means is that players often hear the language of "respect" from the coach.

5. Expect sportsmanship in practice and games:  Encourage and expect respect in both situations.

6. Reinforce good sportsmanship:  This can be done through words of praise, granting more playing time on this basis, and including a sportsmanship award after the game or season.

There is a lot of pressure away from sportsmanship in many sports at all levels from youth sports up through the elite level. The best way to promote what is best about sports with young athletes is to engage in these kinds of practical activities that encourage sportsmanship and other virtues, so that the old adage that "Sports build character" is not just a cliche, but an accurate description of what happens on the field.

Follow Mike Austin on Twitter.

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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