Why is Sportsmanship So Important?
In a 2005 study by three midwestern universities, coaches of 9- to 15-year old athletes indicated a very high level of agreement with the statement, “Teaching sportsmanship is a major part of a coach’s job.” They also agreed strongly with the statement, “Coaches have a responsibility to help members of their team become better people, not just better athletes.” The data suggests that there is a “strong desire by the parents and coaches to teach positive sports behaviors.”
The problem is that too many coaches are doing a miserable job of actually teaching sportsmanship and moral reasoning. As Michael Josephson, head of the Josephson Institute of Ethics, notes, “Too many youngsters are confused about the meaning of fair play and sportsmanship and … have no concept of honorable competition. As a result they engage in illegal conduct and employ doubtful gamesmanship techniques to gain a competitive advantage.”
The winning-is-everything philosophy of youth sports is a major reason why children are thought to have such low moral reasoning abilities. In an environment in which winning is paramount, children internalize the value that it is acceptable to do anything to win, even if it means cheating, bullying teammates, breaking the rules, intentionally injuring an opponent, or faking an injury to get a time out.
Part of the problem may be our culture. Today’s society often excuses professional athletes who exhibit poor sportsmanship and practice “situational ethics” or “moral relativism,” in which there are no longer any absolute or moral truths and what is ethical behavior depends on the context . In addition, coaches, parents, officials and youth sports organizations are not doing a good enough job teaching moral behavior to athletes.
As a society we would not find it acceptable if teachers encouraged their students to cheat on tests. Youth sports should be no different. Existing programs to teach athletes moral ethics and to help coaches to teach moral ethics should be expanded and instituted in every community. These programs help to teach decision-making, sportsmanship, competitive integrity, and competitive responsibility. These programs should include such topics as leadership, fair play, teamwork, respecting opposing players, cheating, consequences, and off-the-field behavior.
Editor’s Note: Thank you to Elevating Athletes for this article.
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