Jul 01

Is Moral Education of Athletes Part of Coaching Responsibility?

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The question arises whether or not we as coaches should engage in moral education of athletes. De Coubertin, founder of the Modern Olympics, definitely believed it is part of sport education (he would turn in his grave given the scandals in present day Olympic sports) . We need to look at this issue more closely. Not only societal values at large but also those in sports have slowly declined over the past decades, at least according to educational moralists and sport sociologists (Bennett, 1992; Lumpkin, Stoll & Beller, 1994; McNamee & Parry, 1998; Morgan, Meier & Schneider, 2001; Coakley & Donnelly, 2004; and others). Unsportsmanlike conduct, aggressive on-and off-the field behavior, spectator and parental violence (parents attacking referees, pushing a stroke judge into the pool because the child is disqualified), increase substance use have been evidenced. Such examples are definitely not the type of behavior we promote as acceptable behavior and ‘fair play.’ Then again, organizations and coaches, specifically, have to be skilled, educated and trained, and strong enough in character, and emotionally ready to deal with moral and ethical issues. The National coaching Certification Program (NCCP) of Canada requires all coaches in training to enroll in the course ‘Ethical Decision Making’ and then pass an online test for certification. The classroom course is 4.5 hours long and lays out the 6-step process of legal and ethical decisions. There is no such program in the USA as we still defend our individualist approach

Foremost, we ought to start questioning the popular ‘hype’ or slogan, ‘sports build character,’ which is perpetuated by society and media alike (my cynical expression: replace that with ‘CharacterS’). Its has been the traditional tenet that participation in sport alone builds moral character based on the belief that moral values such as honesty, fairness, and respect are the foundation of competitive sport. Partaking alone supposedly provides a unique medium for instilling moral character. Paradoxically, however, an abundance of anecdotal and empirical evidence suggests that many athletes and coaches favor ‘winning at all costs’ over ‘competing with moral character.’ They both have seemingly been socialized into believing that winning is the ultimate goal and competing with moral character (fair play) is insignificant (Rudd, 2007).

The current ‘win at all costs’ mentality has led not only to questionable behavior among athletes, coaches, parents but also to increased substance use in many professional and amateur sports, including high school students. Here are some eye-opening statistics, according to Livingston (2005). This data is somewhat dated but newer ones are not available as of yet.

  • Lives are being altered – even lost to the use of performance-enhancing substances that have made their way to the corridors and playing fields of the nation’s high schools. The use takes place openly in the locker rooms, weight rooms and cafeterias of public and private high schools.
  • Coaches as well as athletes ‘know what’s going on but are often powerless to stop the use of performance-enhancers. Some, in fact, are willing to turn a ‘blind’ eye. The pressure to win is enormous and extends to athletes, who are also competing for college scholarships, coaches, and administrators.
  • Although the vast majority of student-athletes consider steroid use ‘cheating’ and acknowledge some degree of risk, some are willing to sacrifice long-term health for short-term benefits (Livingston in Sports Weekly for USA Today, June 8, 2005).
  • According to a survey by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention steroid use among high school students more than doubled between 1991 and 2003. More than 6% of 15,000 students surveyed admitted trying steroid pills or injections. At the same time, less than 4% of the nation’s high schools were testing for steroids, according to the National Federation of State High School association’s survey of athletic directors.
  • The ‘Monitoring the Future’ 2004 survey, funded by the National Institute on
  • Drug Abuse, indicated 1.9% of eighth-graders, 2.4% of 10th-graders and 3.4%
  • of 12th-graders used steroids at some time.
  • The Associated Press cited studies that up to 5% of high school girls and 7% of middle school girls admit trying anabolic steroids at least once, with use rising steadily since 1991 (Moore, USA Today, May 4, 2005).
  • Studies in Canada have reported overall levels of steroid use for high school-age students similar to those in the United States (American College of Sport Medicine, retrieved April 29, 2008).
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) funded 2007 Monitoring the Future Study showed that 0.8% of 8th graders, 1.1% of 10th graders, and 1.4% of 12th graders had abused anabolic steroids at least once in the year prior to being surveyed (Retrieved from NIDA, http://www.nida.nih.gov/and Monitoring the Future http://www.monitoring theFuture.org/). Monitoring the Future is an ongoing study of the behaviors, attitudes, and values of American secondary school students, college students, and young adults. Each year, a total of approximately 50,000 8th, 10th and 12th grade students are surveyed (12th graders since 1975, and 8th and 10th graders since 1991).


The Canadian Center for Ethics in Sport Ethics [CCES] in its Final Report on National School Survey on Drugs and Sport lists these findings (p. 35, exhibit 5.1):

Use of Anabolic Steroids by Age and Gender


Percent who had used Anabolic Steroids

All Students

11-13 years

14-15 years

16+ years





Male Students

11-13 years

14-15 years

16+ years





Female Students

11-13 years

14-15 years

16+ years






Sport coaches are primarily concerned with the physical, psychosocial, emotional, and social aspects of young athletes although Pierre de Coubertin strongly promoted moral education through/via sport. Therefore, teaching moral behavior and ethical decision-making is part of our social responsibility. Children should undergo moral education as soon as they enter into sports because as they mature they have to make decisions on acceptable and or legal behavior. Coaches often ignore this because they themselves lack ‘moral education’ or training in ethical decision-making (Hahm, Beller, & Stoll, 1991; Stoll, Beller, & Durant, 1993). The authors at the Center of Ethics, University of Idaho, provide some shocking findings:

  1. Athletes score significantly lower on moral reasoning inventories than non-athletes.
  2. Moral reasoning scores of non-intervened athletic populations are decreasing at significant rates.
  3. The longer one is in athletics, the more affected one’s moral reasoning.
  4. Intervention programs can have a positive effect on moral reasoning.
  5. Effective intervention programs have a long-term effect on moral reasoning.
  6. Moral reasoning is one facet of a highly complex process of moral development.

As stated earlier, character development through sport has been a reinforced precept for a long time. It always was and still is assumed to ‘happen’ – a somewhat flawed premise. Researchers now suggest that typical interventions such as sportsmanship campaigns or stiffer penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct are ineffective for developing moral character. What is effective, on the other hand, is the teaching of moral character, which involves critical judgment and reasoning. Athletes, coaches, athletic administrators, and even parents need to be morally educated in order to appreciate the moral side of sport (Rudd, 2007). The process is, however, complex because existing lack of conceptual clarity among sporting bodies makes it more difficult and definitely challenging to teach moral behavior or ‘character’ in sporting environments.

We to ask ourselves, how do coaches get certain ideas/concepts across to athletes and how do they find the time? How do we incorporate the process of ethical decision-making in the training of athletes? What teaching scenarios can we create? The experiential learning- or problem-solving teaching are helpful when teaching children about social responsibility, accountability, and ethical values styles. This can be achieved through a moral dialog in multiple instructional settings with question-answer strategies (Mosston & Ashworth, 1994; Hellison on teaching responsibility through physical activity, 1993, 1995). A social day for athletes could be scheduled for such occasion. Years ago in Tempe, Arizona, I started the ‘Friday Athlete Round-Table’ whereby all sort of issues were brought up for discussion as coaches created ‘role playing’ scenarios.

Furthermore, athletes can and should assist in establishing rules and guidelines for their respective sporting environment. This includes acceptable and non-acceptable behavior with respective consequences for misconduct. I used to make up all the rules for the team in my early coaching years – and of course, swimmers always violated several. One day, a 6-year old told me: “Coach, if we made up the rules we would not break them because they’re ours! Delightful lesson for the coach on athletes ‘taking ownership!’ Swimmers involved in Kalos (the 8-year Calgary-based study on age group development) signed ‘binding’ behavioral contracts with set out consequences, determined by the athletes (swimmers, parents, coaches signed the contracts). On one occasion a young swimmer ‘cheated’ during a task assignment (actual fact), practice was stopped (actual fact), and the issue was discussed (actual fact). We discussed: What does this mean? Is there something wrong? Who is affected? How do we feel? There were, however, some curious questions by parents about the event but the coaching staff took a strong stand on the importance of ethical behavior. The parental reaction at that time: Good grief, coach – they are just kids – This “did not fly in my books, however!” Interestingly, the cheating by the young athlete was an attempt to receive additional praise for a certain task completion.

Other topics such as use of acceptable language and social interaction can be debated since children learn lots of unacceptable ‘lingo” nowadays in schools, from TV, and other environments (‘trash’ talk by professional athletes displayed on TV have become ‘role’ models because it is ‘cool’ to do so). Debates on sport violence can be incorporated as part of teaching ‘fair play’ principles, athlete conduct, team spirit, team image, etc. In respect to team image, Kalos athletes alternately assigned themselves to ‘clean’ their team area at competition sites after the completion of competition events. The inherent value was: the team is a guest and we respect property of others. I must admit the pool lifeguards just loved us!

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