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Emphasizing Sportsmanship in Youth Sports


Coaches, teachers, and parents serve as role models for sportsmanlike behaviors in children. This story from the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports examines the latest research on the topic of developing sportsmanship.

This article is reprinted with permission from Spotlight on Youth Sports, a publication of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports (YSI). The Institute at Michigan State University was founded by the Michigan Legislature in 1978 to research the benefits and detriments of participation in youth sports; to produce educational materials for parents, coaches, officials, and administrators; and to provide educational programs for coaches, officials, administrators, and parents.

A young basketball player takes a cheap shot at her opponent and does not get caught by the referee. After the game, she gloats about the action and her teammates congratulate her on the move.

After placing second in the finals of the 100-meter freestyle, a disappointed swimmer walks away from an opponent's handshake and throws his goggles on the deck.

The actions of those individuals may not make the headlines of your local paper or gain as much press as delinquent athletes. Yet, those behaviors are unsportsmanlike. Sportsmanship involves a striving for success, while maintaining a commitment to being fair, honest, and respectful [and] to following the rules -- all of which is synonymous with being ethical or moral.(See references 5 and 8 below.) In fact, young athletes (10-18 years) identified five dimensions to sportsmanship:

  • A full commitment to sport participation.
  • Respect for the rules and officials.
  • Concern for social conventions (such as being a good loser).
  • Respect for opponents.
  • Avoidance of the winning-at-all-costs mentality. (12)

In regard to those definitions, the behaviors illustrated in the opening scenarios are clearly outside the lines of sportsmanship. The question that arises is, Where did those athletes learn unsportsmanlike behaviors? And the more pressing question for sports leaders, What is the role of sport in nurturing sportsmanlike or unsportsmanlike behavior? It is contended that the choices made by an athlete to engage in sportsmanlike conduct depend, in part, on how the sport is structured by administrators, coaches, parents, and fans.

Children learn moral behavior from engaging with others, watching the behaviors of others, and/or being taught ethical behavior. Sportsmanship attitudes and behaviors are learned in a like manner. Therefore, being involved in sport alone is not sufficient to ensure that participants will learn sportsmanlike attitudes and behaviors. Rather it is the "social interactions that are fostered by the sport experience" that will determine the benefit of sport to athletes. (8) [Achieving that benefit] requires that designated leaders within the sport take action to teach ethical and moral behavior in sport.


How sport is structured by the community, administrators, and coaches can determine whether or not children learn sportsmanlike behaviors. The emphasis within the sport program becomes the [means] by which the child learns what is appropriate and/or acceptable behavior. Research has shown that the philosophy of a program, the goals for the team, and the teaching and modeling behaviors of adults can influence sportsmanlike behaviors.

The philosophy underlying a program can have an impact on what athletes perceive as appropriate behavior in a sport. Youth in Tai Kwon Do reported lower levels of anxiety and aggression, increased self-esteem, and improved social skills in comparison to those students who received only self-defense skills. (11) Participation in sport does not necessarily lead to sportsmanlike behavior (in this case, lower aggression and improved social skills) unless sportsmanship (in the form of reflection and meditation) is emphasized within the program.

An overemphasis on winning in a sport may also cloud perceptions of moral behavior. For example, boys engaged in a Kickball World Series were less likely to be cooperative than boys who were just given the opportunity to engage in free play were. The authors concluded that an "emphasis on winning in organized sport may lead children to become rivalrous in social interactions with other children," which may in turn lead to a decline in helping others. (6) Overemphasis on winning in sport can also lead individuals (athletes, coaches, and parents alike) to engage in antisocial or delinquent behaviors aimed at trying to gain an advantage to win. For example, a mother forged a birth certificate for her 17-year-old son so that he could play in a league for 14-year-olds; and a coach secretly injected oranges with amphetamines, and then fed them to his unknowing 10- to 12-year-old football players to get them up for a game. (9)

Research suggests that the goals emphasized by an individual or a program may impact moral development/sportsmanlike behavior. (3, 4, 10) Athletes who focus on self-mastery and personal improvement (ie., task-oriented) are more likely to perceive the purpose of sport as teaching values such as working hard, cooperating with others, and becoming good citizens. Further, those athletes did not endorse cheating and expressed approval for sportsmanlike behaviors in contrast to individuals who placed an emphasis on beating others (e.g., ego-oriented). Individuals who focused on beating others more often viewed intentional, injurious acts as legitimate and were more tempted to violate sportsmanship attitudes and behaviors.

Teaching and modeling appropriate behaviors can...enhance sportsmanlike behaviors. For example, two moral intervention programs were introduced at a youth sport camp. The first (structural developmental) involved teaching one moral concept a week (e.g., fairness, sharing, aggression) over five weeks. The instructors also exposed moral issues as they arose in play and coached children to appropriate resolutions of the issues. Children (ages 5 to 7) in this intervention program understood the differences between right and wrong better than those who did not receive such training (ie., control group). The second intervention involved the instructor just demonstrating moral behavior when appropriate. This group also did better than a control group (who only participated in the sport program); however, this intervention was slightly less effective than the first intervention. (2) Children, thus, learn moral (sportsmanlike) behavior directly from instruction and indirectly by observing the responses of coaches and parents.


The key to improving the quality of sport experiences for young athletes is to emphasize the totality of the sport experience rather than just playing the game. (9) This concept means structuring a program philosophy for sportsmanship, being prepared to teach moral reasoning when situations occur, and monitoring your own behavioral (verbal and nonverbal) responses to situations. Programs can create a climate that fosters the development of sportsmanship by establishing a positive philosophy, striving for excellence, teaching moral principles, and providing positive role models.

Program Philosophy. A philosophy aimed at sportsmanship should focus on conveying sportsmanlike attitudes and behaviors to athletes. This philosophy suggests a more thoughtful approach to creating ethical standards within a team by setting up guidelines for appropriate behavior and providing opportunities within practices to incorporate sportsmanlike ideals. If this approach has already been adopted, it is also important to examine the coaching philosophy and compare it to where efforts are directed. Are [coaching] behaviors in line with [philosophy]?

  • Do I scream or yell at my players often?
  • Have I ever blamed a loss on an official?
  • Would I promote animosity between two teammates to motivate them?
  • Would I run up the score on an opponent for any reason?
  • Do I treat my players differently after a loss than after a win?
Answering "yes" to any of those questions requires a reexamination of program philosophy and behaviors.

Striving for Excellence. John Wooden in his many successful years of coaching always emphasized striving for excellence. As long as athletes are putting forth the effort and attempting to achieve new heights, success can be realized. That process did not mean that winning would always occur, or that winning was placed at the top of the list; rather, it laid the [foundation] for future success for both the team and the individual. "Everyone can be a success because success relates to the effort put into realizing one's personal potential." (9) Children should focus on skill mastery, feeling better about themselves (ie., improving their perceived ability), and enjoying their sport experience. [C]oaches should remind [them]selves that striving for excellence will lead to many future successes and, more importantly, will provide a positive experience for young athletes.

Teaching Moral Principles. Teaching athletes moral principles will also help build sportsmanlike behaviors. Coaches are encouraged to look for teachable moments when moral dilemmas arise on the floor or in practice in order to guide young athletes. For example, when a young swimmer refuses to shake an opponent's hand and makes a scene, the coach can use that moment to teach the athlete appropriate behavior. Teaching the athlete to view an opponent as a vehicle to challenge personal skills, and that a personal best time is a goal to strive for and nothing to be disappointed in, allows the coach to shape the sportsmanlike attitudes and behaviors of young athletes. Teaching sportsmanlike behaviors may also be aimed at overcoming the accepted norm of a sport that is emphasized by society (e.g., starting a fight in hockey). By practicing and being guided through ethical dilemmas in sport, athletes commit themselves to the principles perceived in the environment. Therefore, rather than sport being dictated by social norms, the coach becomes a vehicle for teaching positive moral principles.

Being a Positive Role Model. As noted earlier, modeling sportsmanlike (moral) behaviors within the sporting environment increases children's level of sportsmanlike behaviors. Thus, what coaches do on the playing field or in the gym sends a message about appropriate behaviors to the children. To help in this endeavor, the following checklist (5) for monitoring our behaviors may serve as a guide:

  • Is it right?
  • Is it against the rules?
  • Is it fair to everyone involved?
  • Would my ethical role models do it?
Coaches should be ethical role models for young athletes through their own actions and through structuring sport for sportsmanship.

Sport provides many opportunities to teach sportsmanship; however, [the result] clearly depends on how coaches, parents, administrators, and practitioners structure sport experiences. By emphasizing sportsmanlike ideals in sports programs, coaches can create a climate that fosters the development of sportsmanship while also striving for excellence.


  1. Bredemeier, B.J. and Shields, D.L. (1986). Moral growth among athletes and nonathletes: A comparative analysis. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 147, 7-18.
  2. Bredemeier, B.J., Weiss M.R., Shields, D.L., and Shewchuck, R.M. (1986). Promoting moral growth in a summer sport camp: The implementation of theoretically grounded instructional strategies. Journal of Moral Education, 15, 212-220.
  3. Duda, J.L. (1989). The relationship between task and ego orientations and the perceived purpose of sport among male and female high school athletes. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 4, 24-31.
  4. Duda, J.L., Olson, L.K., and Templin, T.J. (1991). The relationship of task and ego orientations to the sportsmanship attitudes and the perceived legitimacy of injurious acts. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 62, 79-87.
  5. Gough, R.W. (1997). Character is everything: Promoting ethical excellence in sports. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
  6. Kleiber, D.A. and Roberts, G.C. (1981). The effects of sport experience in the development of social character: An exploratory investigation. Journal of Sport Psychology, 3, 114-122.
  7. Rees, C.R., Howell, F.M., and Miracle, A.W. (1990). Do high school sports build character? A quasi-experiment on a national sample. Social Science Journal, 27, 303-315.
  8. Shields, D.L. and Bredemeier, B.J. (1995). Character development and physical activity. Champaign: Human Kinetics.
  9. Smith, R.E. and Smoll F.L. (1996). Way to go coach: A scientifically proven approach to coaching effectiveness. Portola Valley: Warde Publishers.
  10. Stephens, D. (1993). Goal orientations and moral atmosphere in youth sport: An examination of lying, hurting, and cheating behaviors in girls' soccer. [In Shields and Bredemeier (1995). Character development and physical activity. Champaign: Human Kinetics.]
  11. Trulson, M.E. (1986). Martial arts training: A novel "cure" for juvenile delinquency. Human Relations, 39, 1131-1140. [In Shields and Bredemeier (1995). Character development and physical activity. Champaign: Human Kinetics.]
  12. Vallerand, R.J., Deshaies, P., Cuerrier, J., Briere, N.M., and Pelletier, L.G. (1996). Toward a multidimensional definition of sportsmanship. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 8, 89-101.

This article was originally published in Spotlight on Youth Sports, a publication of The Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. Reprinted with permission.

Article by Lori Gano-Overway, M.S.
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Updated 03/16/2010