In his monthly column on youth sports heroes, Doug Abrams highlights two high school baseball pitchers who refused to follow their coach's instructions to intentionally throw at the head of a batter.
His article highlights one high school baseball coach but proves two larger points.
The first is that while the vast majority of youth sports coaches strongly agreed that teaching sportsmanship was a major part of their job and with the statement "Coaches have a responsibility to help members of their team become better people, not just better athletes" 1 some coaches appear to be doing a poor job of teaching sportsmanship and moral reasoning.
The second is that, even where a coach not only condones but actively encourages poor sportsmanship, an athlete's values, the moral ethics he or she learns, first and foremost, from his or her parents, can carry the day.
As Michael Josephson, head of the Josephson Institutes's Center for Youth Ethics, noted in commenting on the Institutes's 2004 Sportsmanship Survey, "Too many youngsters are confused about the meaning of fair play and sportsmanship ... and have no concept of honorable competition. As a result they engage in illegal conduct and employ doubtful gamesmanship techniques to gain a competitive advantage."
Sadly, it appears that the problem is getting worse not better, and, in a sign that does not bode well for the future, that the younger the coach, the more likely he or she is to possess cynical attitudes about the necessity of cheating to succeed.
Indeed, a 2009 online survey by the Josephson Institute for Sports Ethics of 1,250 members of the American Baseball Coaches Association, including coaches at the college, high school, club and youth level, found that coaches 25 to 40 were four times more likely than coaches over 50 and twice as likely as coaches 41-49 to believe that "in today's society, one has to lie and cheat, at least occasionally, to succeed."
Josephson found that such "cynical coaches" (those who believe that cheating is necessary to success) are substantially more likely to lie, cheat, or engage in dubious gamesmanship strategies than those who don't, and that the younger the coach the more likely they are to engage in such behavior.
The survey found that coaches 24 or younger are:
- More than three times more likely than coaches 50+ to believe it's proper to fight fire with fire in terms of illegal recruiting (8% v. 3%);
- More than two times more likely to instruct their pitchers to throw at or dangerously close to an opposing batter who hit a home run the last time at bat (10% versus 5%);
- Six times more likely to instruct their pitcher to hit an opposing batter because one of their batters was hit in the previous inning (35% v. 6%);
- More than three times more likely to provoke an umpire to throw them out to fire up their team (69% v. 18%);
- Eighteen more likely to make the visitor's locker room too hot or too cold to gain an advantage (18% v. 1%); and
- Three times more likely to teach their players to make a trapped ball look caught to fool umpires (73% v. 25%).
In an environment in which winning is paramount, children may internalize the value that it is acceptable to do anything to win, even if means cheating, bullying teammates, breaking the rules, intentionally injuring an opponent, or faking an injury to get a time-out or break in the action to rest.
Learning values starts at home
Part of the problem may also be our culture - a society in which too many professional athletes exhibit poor sportsmanship - so it's even more important that coaches, parents, officials and youth sports organizations do a better job of teaching moral behavior to athletes.
As a society we would not find it acceptable if teachers encouraged their students to cheat on tests (which, sadly, is rampant these days, with 59% admitting in a 2010 Josephson survey to cheating on a test during the last year, with a third cheating more than twice).
Youth sports should be no different. Programs to teach athletes moral ethics and to help coaches teach athletes fair play and sportsmanship should be instituted or expanded in every community and should include such topics as leadership, teamwork, respecting opposing players, cheating and the consequences of off-the-field behavior.
Ultimately, of course, part of the problem may be that children are not being taught moral values by their parents at home. As the youth sports heroes in Abrams' column show, where athletes bring strong values and solid ethics to the playing field, they will be more likely to have the courage to stand up to a coach who doesn't share those values.
When they aren't, they are much more likely to fall victim to the increasing cynicism of today's coaches, with untold consequences for sport and the moral fabric of American society.
1. Shields D, LaVoi N, Power F.C. The Sport Behavior of Youth, Parents, and Coaches: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Journal of Research in Character Ed. 2005; 3(1):43-59.