Reflecting on How Sports Influences Character

December 31, 2003
Document

Ethics Resource Center 2003
Lauren Larson

Sports are a big part of culture in the United States and across the world and often play an important role in our lives - whether one participates at the professional level or in pick-up games, watches sports on TV or drives the soccer carpool. It is commonly said that sports build character, but we hear more and more accounts of un-sportsmanlike, unethical, and even illegal conduct at all levels of athletic competition.

We asked a group of colleagues, family and friends to tell us how they felt sports had affected their character and what lessons they had learned through sports - either negative or positive. The qualities mentioned included teamwork, leadership, honesty, responsibility, patience, self-confidence, persistence, sportsmanship, and respect. The following are some of their reflections on the ways in which playing sports have affected their lives. (Please note: instead of using full names, we have listed the contributor's initials after each set of remarks. Most of the respondents were men and women in their 20's, 30's and 40's. )

TEAMWORK

"I played basketball, baseball, tennis and soccer since the age of 6. I still play all of those to this day but not in an organized capacity. By playing basketball, soccer and baseball, I learned a lot about teamwork and trusting other people. Those sports helped me to trust a teammate to get their job done. On the other hand, it helped me to learn personal responsibility and realize that others rely on me to get a job done, and that a team requires the same effort from all members to succeed. To use a cliché, 'a team is only as strong as its weakest link.' " (LA)

"Playing softball over the years has given me a greater appreciation for teamwork, which I have seen reflected in my professional life as I tend to look for solutions that provide the greatest amount of benefit for the most people." (KT)

"I think the biggest thing I've learned from sports has been to find a way to contribute using my own unique talents. I've never been a natural athlete, but I've always had drive, so I learned early to fill the positions no one else wanted. I guess this is a form of teamwork. I was the first "miler" for our women's high school track team, because I was the only one who would do it and, probably, the slowest girl on the team. I'm not tall enough to be a big hitter in volleyball so I learned to be a good setter and server. I can hit a softball and catch a throw, but I'm a lousy fielder, so I catch for my softball team. I hope I've been able to carry this over into my work and relationships, and find a way to make a contribution." (LL)

LEADERSHIP

"Playing squash has made clear to me the importance of working with your team, even when things become difficult. Teamwork is easily kept up in times that are not stressful, but when the competition gets tough, or team member's personalities do not coincide, teamwork often falls apart when it is most important. Being captain of my team really brought home the point that all members of your group must be treated fairly, and all deserve an equal chance to contribute to the team, be it in a performance or a supportive capacity. Being put in the leadership position also forced me to make my goals clear to team members, and stick to them even when they were unpopular. A wavering leader has no chance of accomplishing much because the stability of your position can not be counted on." (MF)

HONESTY

"I was a cheerleader in 8th grade and had at least one experience that year that stuck with me. After the games, the team, the cheerleaders and our classmates would go to a local pizza place. On the day following one game, all of the cheerleaders were called into the Dean's office. She had heard that some of the girls were smoking cigarettes the previous night at the restaurant, and worse, while they were still in uniform. She asked the girls to confess but no one did, so we were all to be suspended from cheering for two weeks. Later that day, one of the other girls went to the Dean and told her who was smoking and who was not. For the next two weeks, that girl and I made up the entire 8th grade cheerleading squad. I'm not sure this seemed like a reward at the time, but I often think about how much courage it took for that girl that age to go to the Dean and "rat out" all of her friends." (LL)

RESPONSIBILITY

"Tennis is much more of an individual sport and requires you to take a great deal of personal responsibility. If you lose, the only person you can blame is yourself. It taught me that if I fail, it is not necessarily because of someone else. It made me look at myself before trying to blame someone else for my failings." (LA)

" I have been riding/showing horses since I was 7 and had my first horse at 10. I think owning/caring for the horse at a young age instilled in me the importance of taking responsibility upon myself and not allowing it to fall on others like my parents, or riding instructor etc. It also held me to high level of accountability because an animal such as a horse cannot be neglected. Having the responsibility to care for the horse forced me be at the barn everyday to make sure he had enough out-of-stall time and that his physical health was maintained. Competing also highlighted the importance of discipline and pathways for successful outcomes and not so successful outcomes. Things did not go well when I was showing if I was unprepared by not having worked hard enough outside of the show ring, or not being organized enough to carry things out smoothly. (MF)

ACCEPTING MISTAKES

"Playing sports helped me to become more comfortable with making mistakes. As a kid, I was so afraid to answer a question wrong that I wouldn't ever raise my hand in class, even though one teacher told my Mom, "I know she knows all the answers." I learned through playing sports that I could make mistakes and still win, or at least still enjoy playing the game. I continue to learn this lesson today, especially as an avid golfer." (LL)

APPRECIATING DIFFERENT LEVELS OF ACHIEVEMENT

"I remember a long time ago when I played Little League that our team won the championship one season, then lost most of our players the next season and ended up with a mostly rookie team. Our prospects didn't look so good, but we hung tough and ended up in the championship game again. We lost, but we didn't embarrass ourselves, and I remember my Dad pointing out afterward >that getting to the championship with a team that looked so awful at the beginning of the season was a pretty good accomplishment in and of itself. Since then I think I've gotten better at appreciating the moral victories as well as the real ones. But having said that, it was *very* cool to pick up a championship trophy a few summers ago, when I was still playing in Montgomery County, after we totally dominated the league all season" (KT)

SELF-CONFIDENCE

"I was a shy child who loved school and books, so I often felt I didn't fit in. When I played sports, however, it was a whole different story. I learned tennis at a young age and, on the court, I KNEW what to do and what the rules were. By beating players that I thought were better, I gained self-confidence but I also learned persistence. In my first year of junior tennis, I won the year-end prize at our club for winning the most games - not because I was better than the others but because I played as many matches against as many people as I could. I have continued to play sports all of my adult life and still find that they provide me with a comfortable common ground for socializing and making new friends." (LL)

TRANQUILITY

"I've found that biking has also been a good influence on my character. When I first started riding seriously five years ago, it was largely motivated by my need to find a way to alleviate the almost constantly high stress levels associated with the job I had at the time. I found that getting out on the bike made me feel better physically and mentally, because I would be able to think through various problems and issues in a more tranquil setting and without interruptions. Although I have since left that job behind, I still look forward to riding as much for the "think time" as for the physical exercise." (KT)

RESPECT FOR TEAMMATES

"As a young child, I was not good at sports and for years was always the last one picked for neighborhood games. I had a number of bad experiences when my confidence was hurt by people who told me I was no good. But as I grew a little, my confidence and competitiveness grew a lot. Although small, I became a strong softball player, pitching my dorm team to the campus championship game my freshman year. Still, I thought I would always remember how I had felt as a child, and never treat others as I was treated growing up.

"In my mid 30's, I wound up as the coach of my church coed softball team. Some players were not so good and had joined the team primarily for fellowship, but others who were stronger became very competitive when they realized just how talented the team was. Eventually, the team actually became a high seed in the league playoffs. As we entered the second and final day of the playoff tournament, I was pressured by some of the better players to bench the weaker players. Although I knew it wasn't right, especially for a church team, my own desire to win and inability to stand up to these players won out. The team was struggling against stronger competition, and I did not have the courage to pull the stars out of the game. One "benched" player told me off. Another walked away. I was ashamed of myself - 'convicted' in my own heart. In spite of my subsequent efforts to make amends, I think this incident cost me some friends and a lot of self-respect. It was a valuable, but painful lesson." (JA)

RESPECT FOR OTHER PLAYERS

"In a non-team sports setting, I've had a really good experience with fencing, in large part because the instructor is very much into making us follow the formalities, which include saluting your partner before and after you fence, and shaking hands at the end of a practice session or a bout. I think it instills a certain amount of respect in you for the sport as well as any opponent you may face off against. Because fencing isn't a sport where overwhelming physical force is an advantage (good mental skills and quick reflexes are much more helpful), and everyone pretty much looks the same once they're suited up, I think it eliminates a lot of the potential for personal intimidation or antagonism that you sometimes find in other sports settings. What I find really cool about it is that I can fence someone who looks like a linebacker and not be at any great disadvantage, and I can also fence younger folk (we've had a number of high school kids in class) who are quicker than I am, but don't have the mental focus that I can muster. So I think that there is an inherently more level playing field which helps to foster the good sportsmanship vibes." (KT)

"I continue to learn confidence, as well as tolerance, through golf. I used to get nervous being paired up with strangers, because I thought they were all better than me and would hate playing with me. I've learned that there are good days and bad days, but most of the golfers we meet are pretty average golfers. This has allowed me to relax and hit that first tee shot. Especially as my game has improved, putting me sometimes in the position of being the "good" player, I've learned that it was pretty unlikely that those strangers were ever taking much note of my bad shots and me. Golf has it's own etiquette, and most golfers are much more annoyed by someone who doesn't respect the course, the game and the other golfers than they are by someone who can't hit a sand shot." (LL)

RESPECT FOR REFEREES

"As a referee you have to know the rules and be able to make a call without slow motion or reverse angle views. Basketball is the hardest sport to referee, since spectators are much closer and there are fewer people on the floor at one time. This is compounded by the fact that most fouls occur around the ball. As a fan, when you don't agree with the call the ref made, before you start yelling, question what the referee has to gain by making the wrong call. These referees do it for the love of the game. Most have loved the game for many years and this is their way of giving back to the game that they once got pleasure from playing. More important, what kind of an example are you setting for the future fans of the game. How long could you, or would you keep refereeing if spectators screamed and booed at all your calls?" (JM)

"I second the motion of giving respect to the referees, umpires, etc. If they weren't there, nobody would get to play in the first place. And abusing them if you're upset isn't going to help matters or score you very many points for sportsmanship. My fencing instructor has a great answer whenever someone asks him about strategies to use when you have a bad judge (or perhaps an OK judge who's just having a bad day) - "Make sure you hit the other guy first and that the other guy doesn't hit you," which basically means that you have to make it so obvious that you made a point that the call can't possibly be missed. In other words, sometimes you just have to dig in and rise above the circumstances of any given game/match...like swinging at low pitches if the ump has decided that's a part of his strike zone for the evening. And if you do it well enough, you'll probably get a "moral victory", if not an actual victory." (KT)

LESSONS FROM COACHING AND PARENTING

"I coached varsity sports for 17 years, including football, wrestling, volleyball and golf, and believe that everyone should have to coach and referee at least one time in their life, in order to understand how tough both of these jobs are. "As a coach one of the hardest things to do is to make cuts. You can only keep a set number of players and you have to consider current ability, potential, and the number of years the person has to participate. If a freshman is as good as a senior, you would not keep the senior. This is really hard if the senior has been with the program for a number of years. Next as a coach you have to determine who to play and when and where. Even if you are at a level where everyone plays, you still have to figure out who comes out and for how long. As a parent it is sometimes hard to understand why your child is not getting more playing time." (JM)

"As a parent, I worried about turning my sons off of tennis by defeating them. Early on, I told them I was playing with them to help them be better players, but that it was a cooperative venture. "If YOU want to play a game, you can challenge me," I told them, "but I'm going to play as hard as I can to beat you." Eventually, my son asked to play, and was soundly defeated. The next year, he played in a number of competitive tournaments and came back and challenged me - and won. His first words were "Any time you want to challenge me…' " (SP)

"I will not coach [my daughter's] teams since I have seen so many dads yell more at their kids than the others as a way to justify yelling at the others." (JM)

"When I hear the kids talking about how they could have won if not for a bad call, I try to explain that officiating is part of the game and that everyone makes mistakes. They just need to be good enough that a few erroneous calls won't make a difference. Having said that, I understand their frustration when I'm playing on a team and we lose a game because of what we perceive to be a bad call. I need to try to practice what I preach, and accept it as part of the game." (LL)

"Although my children are not much inclined toward sports, I want to see their confidence grow, and think sports is one good avenue. I truly hope my children will learn to enjoy sports, but having given as well as received personal hurt in sports, I also hope they will learn much younger than I did that "it's just a game." (JA)

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

"Most people go to events with a bias of whom they want to win and do not see things the way they really happen. As a fan you go to a game wanting to see your team win. However ask yourself, were both teams well coached, did the players favorably represent their school, and did they give their all? If you can answer yes to all of these questions, you saw a good game." (JM)

"I think there is a distinction between ethics and sportsmanship. It's certainly possible to have good ethics (I'm assuming here that the guy who cleated one of our players in the last softball game didn't do it on purpose) but crummy sportsmanship, while good sportsmanship does tend to imply a solid ethical base at its foundation." (KT)

"Sports, like other experiences in life, provide opportunities for growth. When first learning a sport, when improving your performance and especially when winning and losing, behaviors like self-discipline, teamwork and sportsmanship can all be positive outcomes of the experience. The biggest lesson though is that in the end, sports are just games. How you act on the court, in the field or on the course should reflect the best you have to offer -- both in terms of physical ability and effort as well as your behavior and attitude towards self and others. And when it stops being fun, you should stop playing. We all love to win, but we should love to play more than we love to win." (ED)