Character Development and Sportsmanship – Part 1

This article relates to previous discussions on competition, winning and loosing and now it becomes important to define character development and sportsmanship, which is always somewhat difficult. Ask several of your friends for a definition and there will be different interpretations. Martens (1997), Weinberg and Gould (1995) suggest that there is no universally accepted definition. Sport psychologists have consequently established some operational terms with situation-specific definitions for us as professional coaches (Weinberg & Gould, 1995).


Character development is referred to as moral development, the process of experience and growth through which children and youth develop moral reasoning.

Moral reasoning is defined as the decision process where the right and wrong of a course of action is determined.

Moral behavior is then the execution of an act that is deemed either right or wrong, according to Weinberg and Gould (1995).


Developing sportsmanlike attitudes, acceptable behavior and moral reasoning is said to rely on two major theoretical frame works: the so-called social-learning theory and/or the structural-developmental approach.  Aggression and character development are linked in many ways to these theories. Social-learning approach views sportsmanlike attitudes and behaviors as a product learned by modeling or through observational learning, with subsequent reinforcement and social comparison. Coaches have to use caution in this process because they may reinforce the ‘wrong behavior’ unintentionally.

I share a personal experience with you. The young swimmers in the Kalos Project club were asked to improve their stroke count for each 25m. The number was called out to coaches and teammates. We all gave praise and clapped for the best or for improved counts on each lap. One swimmer started to cheat but I asked my coaches to praise and clap anyway to see what was going to happen. Having realized that the cheater was acknowledged several other swimmers started to do the same. My coaching staff was amazed at the impact. The next step was to stop the swimming and to discuss the event and the moral issue at hand. This experiment was actually planned in advance as a ‘teachable moment’ for moral development. It was also a valuable lesson for the female coaches in my mentoring program, who were unaware of “my planning” this event in advance.

It is important to learn and understand the social theories underlying the teaching of moral reasoning, fair play in sports, moral conduct and behavior in our society where values seem to diminish! Cultural attitudes, values and norms of a given society as well as the stage of moral reasoning of particular individuals within the specific groups (team) have to be considered in order to enhance character development. Hopefully you have realized by now that the social challenges within the ‘Educational‘ model are far more enormous because You as the Coach not only need the ‘art of communication’ but You also have to create and use exquisite social ‘tools’ for teaching values and character. I encourage you to have a discussion with your athletes to define the following terms and provide examples: integrity, responsibility, courage, compassion, loyalty, honesty, self-discipline, and De Coubertin’s Olympic thesis of ‘spirituality’ (October Newsletter). When I was coaching in Tempe, Arizona the coaches established ‘King Arthur’s Roundtable’, a Friday afternoon discussion gathering to address exactly these issues. The teenagers really enjoyed these sessions.


The Social Learning Theory

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         Source: Bandura (1977) cited in Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (1995, p. 484).


You may want to access “Book of virtues and treasury of great moral stories” (Bennett, 1993) as well as “The children’s book of virtue” (Bennett, 1995). William J. Bennett was the former USA Secretary of Education in the Reagan administration. Both books contain fabulous stories to teach ethics and morality. You may also re-visit John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” (November Newsletter).

I had a team discussion with our Calgary based swimmers on the meaning of the club’s name ‘KALOS.’ The term is derived from the Olympic ideal “beautiful and good.” We talked about the ‘outer versus inner beauty’ of people and the application to sports and sportsmanship, and the club’s expectations for actions and conduct in training, competition, school, and life per se.  Subsequently we discovered that one of the 8-year old boys gave a report in school on KALOS and its philosophy. We were very pleased that he was proud to be a member of KALOS and able to relay the club’s philosophy. Interestingly, our team tended to encounter ridicule from other teams for our philosophy and our approach to the educational model. One of our swimmers was told “Why don’t you join a real team!” Other times we heard during swim meets that our swimmers were “never going to be competitive” because we introduced competition gradually. I kept reminding myself of Norway’s National Sport Executive, Thor Ole Rimejorde: his philosophy of  “daring to be different” and the subsequent approach and undertaking to totally ‘revamp’ the national sport system, which resulted in superb results at the Winter Olympics thereafter. By the way, Team Kalos, was an 8-year experimental study on developing twenty-four 4.5-5-year old Non-swimmers, who I recruited from my recreational gymnastics club.

My other favored quotes are:

  • “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds” (Albert Einstein)
  • “I took the road less traveled by and it made all the difference” (Robert Frost)
  • “Imagination is more important than knowledge” (Albert Einstein)

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