Teaching Players the Importance of Right and Wrong
Anyone paying attention knows that there is an ethics crisis in sports. The media is full of stories about ethically challenged athletes, coaches, parents and administrators. Most of us can point to people in our own communities who have visibly crossed ethical lines in pursuit of athletic success.
The headline-grabbing ethics violations we see in the news are rooted in a much less visible crisis that runs wider and deeper than many people think. The less visible ethics crisis in sports is a steady, widespread erosion of moral reasoning in competitive athletes. This is certainly not happening to all athletes, but it is happening enough to cause serious concern.
Research on Moral Reasoning of Athletes
The erosion of moral reasoning has been documented by The Center for Ethical Theory and Honor In Competition and Sport (ETHICS) at the University of Idaho. ETHICS has studied the moral reasoning of athletes for 20 years. Over that time the Center has compiled data on the moral reasoning of over 70,000 athletes at the high school and college level. Their findings show that on average, the longer a person participates in competitive athletics, the more impaired their moral reasoning becomes. Quite simply, the longer they are involved, the more likely they are to lie or cheat, or tolerate lying and cheating, in the name of winning.
If we project the Center’s research findings to the entire population of young athletes, we can assume that this problem involves thousands of athletes across the country. When we consider that most sports programs justify their existence in terms of character education, the fact that competitive athletics may actually erode moral reasoning is troubling.
The good news is, research by ETHICS also shows the moral reasoning of athletes can be sustained or restored through deliberate character education. The ETHICS’ Character Education Program and other such programs help athletes strengthen their moral choices regarding athletic competition.
Coaching for Ethical Toughness
Few of us have the time or resources to implement a full-fledged character education initiative as part of our athletic program. But we can talk about character every day, and more importantly, engage our athletes in dialog about ethics and sports. As recommended by researchers Brenda Light Bedemeier and David Light Shields in their work for the President’s Council on Fitness and Sports:
The most important educational process is probably dialog. Moral reasoning is unlikely to advance if the athlete is simply a passive recipient of the coach’s exhortations, however prosocial they may be. Children and adolescents need to talk about their values; they need to discuss their views of right and wrong, both with their peers and with respectful adults. Coaches should make space in team meetings for discussion of moral issues relevant to sports in general and to the life of the team in particular.
The power of dialog will be amplified if it is combined with meaningful responsibility. Athletes who cooperatively share in important dimensions of team decision-making are likely to benefit substantially. To maximize social and moral growth, coaches should use a democratic leadership style in which responsibility for developing team norms, goals, and expectations is shared with the members of the team. If team members develop a sense of ownership for the team and feel responsible for maintaining the team’s expectations, they can learn important lessons about both character and citizenship.
In simple terms, coaches can and do help athletes sustain and strengthen their moral reasoning. This works best when coaches make it a priority to ‘coach for ethical toughness’ as well as mental and physical toughness, and include their athletes in a daily dialog about ethics and moral reasoning.
Editor’s Note: Thank you to PositiveSports.net for this article.
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