Sport builds character – but is there something missing?

Sport builds character – but is there something missing?

Ms Sally Northcroft, Director of Sport

It is well documented that competitive sport provides a framework for us to develop our character in a setting where we learn how to co-operate with others, develop resilience and master specific skills. This is not a new notion and in fact was employed by the Ancient Greeks, adopted by British boys’ boarding schools as sport travelled around the globe before settling into American and Australian cultures.  The educational value of sport in any environment is well supported, however opponents to competitive sport also mount a strong argument. The evidence of sport-related cheating, aggression, and self-aggrandisement (to name a few) are outlined by Alfie Kohn in his case against competition. Based on the research, it is clear that by simply competing in sport there is no guarantee that a person will develop into a morally responsible, empathetic, respectful and well-balanced individual. The opposite could quite easily occur.

In a report from The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, authors Bredemeier and Shields say ‘Participation in sports does not have any automatic beneficial effects on character. On the other hand, it seems equally evident that sports are powerful social experiences that may under the right circumstances, have positive benefits.’

Therefore, in order to identify the right circumstances, we also need to identify the wrong circumstances. Consider this:  if you are in a competitive situation that requires you to perform at your best, do you want your opponent to also be at her best? Or would you rather she was feeling a little unwell or had a slight injury? If you are like most people, Bredemeier suggests that you would prefer that your opponent is weakened somehow. The reason behind this thinking is that we tend to see the contest as a miniature war and the ultimate goal is to defeat the enemy, the opponent.’ It is with this thought in mind that I consider the reactions and behaviours of the latest Olympians. How did they approach their competition and has that participation brought out the best in their character? Did they approach the Games with a spirit of true competition or were they engaged in the opposite, decompetition?

True competition is described by psychologists Brenda Bredemeier and David Shields as being mutually beneficial to all who participate ‘Winning is great when it happens, but the ultimate goal is to improve ourselves, to test the limits of our ability.’ When two opponents meet in a contest and challenge each other to seek excellence in their performance in collaboration with each other, not against each other, this is true competition.  The benefits of true competition allow us to develop a love for the game that is founded on a sense of commitment to one’s teammates in the game itself. Celebrating a victory as a result of pursuing excellence allows no room for cheating or devaluing the spirit of competition.

The most recent example of true competition occurred on the cycling track at the London Olympics. After competing with Victoria Pendleton for more than  a decade and losing to her at the 2008 Olympic Games, Australian Anna Meares knew that she had to be her very best to meet her goal. She had to beat the best performer in the event and that was Pendleton. Similarly, Pendleton respected the quality athlete in Meares. In the women’s sprint event, Meares was victorious in a thrilling final sprint, staging an incredible performance. Without Pendleton as her opponent, Meares acknowledged that she would never have developed into the quality performer that she was on that day in London. After the race, Pendleton said ‘I am glad it got to that stage because I believe she’s (Meares) the best rider on the field. We have met many a time. I wish her (Meares) all the best.’ No doubt, Pendleton would be disappointed, but her character in acknowledging the strength of her opponent and the quality of the performance required on the day will be strengthened just as much as that of Meares. Together, they pursued excellence and without the other, that level of excellence would not have been achieved. They are both winners.

At the other end of the true competition spectrum is decompetiton.  It is short for decomposed competition in which we strive against our opponent in order to be victorious. The contest is seen as a miniature war in which the goal is reduced to conquering over others, whereby the rules are open to interpretation and the only goal is the win. Red Sanders (UCLA Bruins Football coach) said in 1950 ‘Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing!’

It is a well-known quotation in sports and its assertion about the importance of winning has been touted as a basic tenet of the American sports creed. At the same time it is identified as encapsulating what is purportedly wrong with competitive sports. To this end, the news of eight women badminton players banned for not using their ‘best efforts’ in their round robin matches, was quite disturbing. It was brought about by the Chinese doubles pairs who, by losing a match, would see them play off against two less challenging opponents in the semi finals. If both doubles pairs then went on to win their semi final, China would be guaranteed not only a gold, but a silver medal as well. In 1981, when Trevor Chappell bowled the infamous underarm bowl, the Australian team may have won the one-day international series against New Zealand, but were booed off the field as if they had lost. In both these examples, we see the demonstrated behaviour slid down the competitive spectrum to become decompetition. The opportunity for character development in terms of pursuing excellence and striving together to achieve a goal has been erased due to the singular focus on winning, without thought or respect for others in the competition, or for the sport itself. When emphasis is on decompetition, it is difficult to teach character, excellence and respect.

The Olympics provided many examples of both true competition and decompetition. There are far more subtle ones that can be seen in competitive sport every day. Thinking of the contest as a miniature battle promotes distracted thinking, lack of consistent focus, unreliable motivation patterns, undesirable stresses and lack of adequate impulse control. True competition not only builds on sound ethics, it results in excellence of performance.

Girls who play sport at Brisbane Girls Grammar are encouraged to seek out true competition at every opportunity.  The challenge in striving for this is that every individual must support this concept. This includes not only the players but also the coaches, parents, umpires and officials.  True competition allows girls to develop moral reasoning which relates to factors such as appropriate aggression, sportpersonship and beliefs and behaviours relating to fair play including respect for your opponents and umpires. Sport at Brisbane Girls Grammar provides the framework on which girls can participate for the love of the game. The desire to develop mastery and achieve excellence within the game should be the primary reason they seek to participate.  The whole sport, including the traditions and rules that make up the sport, is presented so that they learn to appreciate and respect the history and culture of the sport. If the primary focus is on what a girl can get out of the sport, be it a reward, adoration, praise or simply feelings of superiority, the motivation has changed to pursue decompetition and must be avoided at every opportunity. The intrinsic rewards are celebrated because they highlight the values that can be transferred from one life context to another. What is emphasised is the ability to both win and lose with grace and humility.

It is appropriate to want to win, however this should not be the only focus. The main focus of performance is excellence and enjoyment of the game irrespective of the outcome.

With this in mind, the quote by the American sports writer Henry Grantland Rice captures the spirit of true competition ‘It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.’



Alberts, C. (2003). Coaching issues and dilemmas: Character building through sport participation. Reston, VA: NASPE Publications.

Bredemeier, B., & Shields, D. (2009). True Competition: A Guide to Pursuing Excellence in Sport & Society. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

Kennedy, C. (1931) Sport and Sportsmanship. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Kohn, A. (1992). No Contest: The Case Against Competition: Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Morgan, W., Meier, K., & Schneider, A. (Eds.). (2001). Ethics in sports. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Shields, D., & Bredemeier, B. (2005). Can sports build character? In D. Lapsley & F.C. Power (Eds). Character psychology and education. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame.

Shields, D., Bredemeier, B., LaVoi, N., & Power, F.C. (2005). The sport behaviour of youth, parents and coaches: The good, the bad and the ugly. Journal of Research in Character Education, 3, 43-59.

President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Research Digest; Series 7, No. 1. March 2006



Leave a Reply