Creating an Environment for Sportsmanship Outcomes: A Systems Perspective; Systems Modeling Can Guide the Changes Needed to Improve the Sport Environment

Article excerpt

The following two articles complete this two-part feature edited by Gary Ellis. In the August issue, after an introduction by Ellis, Greg Bach described the Parents Association for Youth Sports and its approach to improving spectator behavior. Then Elaine Raakman explained the Justplay system, which surveys game officials and uses the results to enhance the management of sport behavior.--Ed.


Poor sportsmanship is an increasingly serious problem in youth sport programs. In addition to the horror stories of violence and aggression that we read in newspapers or hear in the media, Fred Engh (2002) of the National Alliance For Youth Sports pointed out that almost half of all youth sport participants (45.3%) have been yelled at or insulted; 21 percent have been pressured to play while injured; 17.5 percent have been hit, kicked, or slapped; and 8 percent have been pressured to intentionally harm another player.

Perhaps even more frightening are the examples of poor sportsmanship from parents and other adults who should serve as role models for young participants. Sportsmanship violations involving parents and other adults range from verbal abuse and taunting, to assaults against players, other parents, and officials, and in an extreme case, to manslaughter. These negative experiences and critical incidents reflecting poor sportsmanship can lead youths to restrict their participation in physically active recreation or to drop out altogether. In fact, in Why Johnny Hates Sports, Engh (2002) reports that of the 20 million youths who participate in sport each year, approximately 70 percent will stop participating before they reach age 13. This dropout rate evokes particular concern in light of alarming increases in childhood obesity and other health problems related to inactive lifestyles (National Institutes of Health [NIH], n.d.).

Creating environments that encourage sportsmanship may help to combat this trend of critical incidents, boost participants' levels of fun, and, as a result, increase their desire to stay involved in youth sports. Recently, the authors of this article implemented a program to address the sportsmanship problem by employing a number of techniques stemming from prosocial behavior theory. Prosocial behavior is a voluntary and positive form of social behavior, toward an individual or group, which is unselfishly motivated and results in positive social feedback or rewards (Bar-Tal, 1976; Bierhoff, 2002). Based on this theory, the program uses three general strategies:

1. It "personalizes" referees, teammates, and opponents through pre-game introductions and post-game social events.

2. It provides punishments and rewards for poor and good sportsmanship, respectively. Punishments were implemented through liberal use of technical fouls and similar techniques among players, coaches, and spectators, while rewards included good sportsmanship certificates and awards.

3. It promotes a positive attitude toward participation by using the following methods:

* Creating a community of good sportsmanship by displaying banners about the league's commitment to sportsmanship, by maintaining a league web site, and by periodically distributing--to players, officials, coaches, and spectators--stickers attesting to the value of good sportsmanship.

* Strengthening personal commitment to good sportsmanship. This was accomplished through the public display of a signed petition on a large poster at the entrance to the gymnasium. All players, coaches, and spectators were asked to sign the petition.

* Reducing score discrepancy effects (blow-outs) by resetting the scoreboard to zero when one team scored 16 points more than its opponent. Previous research has shown that close games, even when participants lose, are evaluated as being more fun than being on a winning team during a "blow-out."

This article shows how a systems model can evaluate the effects that a prosocial behavior-based youth sports program had on participants' enjoyment, on the number of critical incidents, and on participants' intent to continue in the program. …