Promoting Sportsmanship in Youth Sports: Perspectives from Sport Psychology; Sport Psychology Provides Crucial Insights for Improving Behavior in Sport

Article excerpt

This article provides theoretical and practical information about sportsmanship in youth sports. The authors first define the concept of sportsmanship and discuss how competition influences it; then, a brief overview of the theoretical underpinnings of sportsmanship and relevant empirical findings from physical education and sport environments are provided. Next, the article reviews two recent initiatives, from Australia and the United States, that were developed and implemented to deal with recent behavioral issues in sport. Lastly, the authors make suggestions that can be implemented by today's practitioners to make their sporting environments better for all involved.


What is sportsmanship? In today's sporting culture, most people would find it difficult to give a clear definition of the term and would defer to the "I know it when I see it" approach. Unfortunately, to some youth sport participants, coaches, and parents, the practical application of the concept has been reduced to little more than the mandatory shaking of hands at the end of a game.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA, 2003) defined the concept as the

  set of behaviors to be exhibited by athletes, coaches, officials,
  administrators and fans (parents) in athletic competition. These
  behaviors are based on such fundamental values as respect, fairness,
  civility, honesty, and responsibility. (p. 15)

Taking the concept a step further, the NCAA's bylaws state that those associated with intercollegiate athletics must also abide by a code of ethical conduct that is defined as the

  set of guiding principles with which each person follows the letter
  and spirit of the rules. Such conduct reflects a higher standard than
  law because it includes, among other principles, fundamental values
  that define sportsmanship. (NCAA, 2003, p. 15).

Shields and Bredemeier (1995) emphasize these values in their succinct definition of sportsmanship as the virtue of coordinating play with competition "in light of moral goals."

Competition and Sportsmanship

Competition is inextricably linked to sportsmanship. Psychologists distinguish between two "orientations" that people have toward competition: ego orientation and task orientation. Individuals driven by ego orientation choose to compete in order to beat their opponents. Through winning, they seek to affirm and display their superiority. To individuals with strong ego orientations, winning is achieved by all means and at all costs, even if it means cheating or hurting their opponents. Other people are driven by task orientation. Competitors with strong task orientation concentrate their energies not on winning, but on the task at hand. These individuals choose to enter into competition in order to continually improve their skills. Competition thereby becomes a contest with themselves. They focus on setting personal performance goals that are part of larger goals. It should be noted that this line of research has demonstrated that both constructs exist simultaneously in individuals; however, the relative degree of each construct will vary (Sleek, 1996).

When ego orientation is dominant, sportsmanship takes the back seat. Unfortunately, today's sport culture, especially the model of professional sports, enhances this view of competition and thereby undermines the development of sportsmanship in young athletes. Among some selfish and self-absorbed professional athletes, gracious losers and winners are hard to find. Instead, attempts to cheat, taunting, and head butting are the norm. When youth sport participants are constantly exposed to such models, it is no wonder that they show little sportsmanship and respect for their opponents.

Research suggests that ego orientation is common among youth sport participants. One study, for example, found that 84 percent of teenage soccer players reported that they would deliberately foul an opponent to keep her or him from scoring (Raspberry, 1998). …