Pick up any textbook on Physical Education and scan the index for “sportsmanship” or “gamesmanship.” Not there, huh? Such an omission seems to imply that good character development will occur automatically just through participation in PE. This is a huge assumption given the direct influence youth sports and games in PE can have on social behaviors.
Recent evidence of neglected good character development can be seen by the need to erect signs (see Buffalo Grove Park District a Chicago suburb) which remind people how behave at youth sporting events. David Shields and Brenda Bredemeier (University of Missouri) have studied sport behavior of participants in relation to spectators. A cause for concern they say is a perceived shift in which questionable behaviors are now socially acceptable or even endorsed by others cheering or jeering in the stands.
Concerns about unhealthy behavior exhibited at youth sports in several states led to the adoption of standards or rules for sportsmanship at high school athletic events. For example the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletics Association (NJSIAA) rules are an extension of laws written to protect the social and emotional health of students from harassment, intimidation and bullying behavior in public schools (New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act). The adoption of sportsmanship rules is also a tacit acknowledgement of a need to explicitly instruct people about what does or does not constitute healthy competition.
Shields and Bredemeier in their book True Competition (2009) challenge an indictment by education critic Alfie Kohn that competition itself is to blame since it is inherently bad. They claim “true competition” involves striving with an opponent and does not include striving against an opponent or what they call “decompetition.” Rather than invent a new word one can instructively approximate this distinction with a comparison of sportsmanship vs. gamesmanship.
1. Loves to participate in sports, camaraderie, deep appreciation, thrill of pursuit
2. Seeks mastery, cultivate excellence, values effort
3. Respect opponent, officials as partners – ones that can improve own ability
4. Rules are minimum expected, may need to go above and beyond in the spirit of fairness
5. How you play maters, look for silver lining in losses, be courteous and gracious in winning
6. Balance serious with playfulness, disappointed if lopsided contest
1. Use the game for own ends, loves winning status
2. Seeks to outperform others, give up if game out of reach
3. View opponent and officials as enemy, not to be respected
4. Push rules to the limit without getting caught
5. Winning outcome is the only thing, nothing gained in loss
6. Enjoys a blowout, serious about winning, run up the score
Examples of good sporty behavior:
a. not taunting, trash talking, gloating and cheap shots
b. not excessive celebration
c. not blaming someone else
d. accept the outcome
e. compliment opponent
f. play by rules
g. try your best
h. do not lose temper
i. acknowledge good plays
j. accept official calls gracefully
To illustrate the last one (j) note Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga did not argue call from First base umpire Jim Joyce that cost him a perfect game on June 2, 2010. Galarraga’s comment afterward was simply “Nobody’s perfect.” He understood mistakes are part of the game, part of being human.
Clifford and Feezell in Sport and Character (2010) note there are three approaches to sportsmanship: teaching by explicit instructions, teaching by examples, and practicing sportsmanship. It makes sense to practice sportsmanship because good habits need to be reinforced and promoted.
Think about how players and students demonstrate sportsmanship. Customs such as the postgame handshake or a line up to touch hands may deteriorate into just going through the motions. There is a danger of having overly scripted rules, standards or customs for sportsmanship. It could be taken for granted, done just for show as an empty gesture and not seem genuine or natural. Remind them that opportunities to demonstrate sportsmanship go beyond any pre- or post-game rituals. How they conduct themselves outside the competitions on or off the playing fields and courts reflects the depth of their sportsmanship.