Do Sports Really Build Good Character?

People in the fitness business, school coaches, and parents all share a similar thought; team sports will aid children in building a good, stable character. We lead children of all ages in joining team sports like soccer, basketball, and baseball/softball so that they learn lessons in cooperation and friendship. This is a commonly held belief, and not many people question the idea that improvements are made to the mentality of a child who plays a team sport. I am here to question that very belief; does participating in team sports develop good character? There are two sides to an argument, and this article is going to discuss the viewpoints each side might hold.

While Side A believes, yes, participating in team sports develops good character, the opposition does not share the same perspective. Side B, on the other hand, thinks participating in team sports does not develop good character. It’s important to explore both sides in order to fully answer the question being debated.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, good is defined as “right; proper; excellent; virtuous; kind” (Webster 130). Character is defined as “essential feature; nature; total of qualities making up individuality; moral qualities” (Webster 46).

In arguing the benefits of team sports, one point to consider is that children learn to cooperate with each other for the sake of the game, promoting ease of compatibility in regular life. Side A thinks that this is a common benefit to playing on a team sport. A study performed by a team led by Andy Rudd, PhD. and Sharon Stoll, PhD. showed that children and teenagers given HBVCI styled surveys scored high on the social character index. The HBVCI method is a “moral reasoning instrument with a deontological theoretical base specifically designed to measure moral reasoning in the athletic setting” (Matthew T. Webb). It typically involves a total of 30 questions; ten questions based on justice, ten on responsibility, and ten based on honesty (Webb). The answers given by kids and young adults were entered into “statistical software to process survey answers” and the results clearly showed that children that participated in team sports scored higher on the social character index, indicating that these children are more socially equipped. Healthier social character affects how children interact with each other, and typically show greater compatibility with fellow humans. This is something Craig Clifford and Randolph Feezell, authors of Sport and Character: Reclaiming the Principles of Sportsmanship agree on. Their experientially-based opinion is, “Respect for teammates, like respect for opponents, has to do with how we treat other human beings, win or lose…” (Sport, 43). Based on that excerpt, we can see that experienced coaches witness a kindness developing amongst athletes for not only their teammates, but their fellow humans. This is considered a great aspect of social character, and it lends more proof to the idea that team sports teach compatibility and cooperation to children.

Side B thinks it’s not possible to tell if a child’s ability to socialize and cooperate is due to participation in a team sport. The authors of Lessons of the Locker Room: the Myth of School Sports, Andrew W. Miracle, Jr. and C. Roger Rees, have experienced firsthand the difficulty in attributing the success of children to something so specific as participation in a team sport. They wrote, “For one thing, all the factors other than sport that might change one’s character cannot be held constant while the research project is taking place” (Locker Room, 82). This is a reasonable observation; you can imagine that with contributing factors like rough childhoods, poor environments, mental health conditions, location, and class mobility the ability to run a study on the character of athletic children could not be general. There would need to be many studies focusing on several different groups in order to get a varied idea of the effect of team sports on children as a whole. The authors of Extracurricular and Other After-School Activities for Youth agree with the difficulty in studying the effects of sports in children.

“Research designs being used, including in-depth ethnographic studies of small and large local programs, cross-sectional and longitudinal survey-type studies of youth development across a diverse set of contexts, large- and small-scale experimental evaluations of both long-standing programs and new programs, descriptive studies of programs considered to be effective by the communities in which they reside, meta-analyses of other published articles, and more traditional summative reviews of both published and non-published reports the “outcomes” being studied, which ranged from such youth characteristics as increases in academic achievement, school engagement, mental health, and life skills to decreases in, or avoidance of, such problematic outcomes as teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug use/abuse, and involvement in delinquent and violent behaviors, as well as the quality of implementation of program goals” (Extracurricular, 4).

Based on this information, it can be seen that social scientists tend to agree that it is hard to definitively state whether or not a child’s ability to socialize and cooperate are influenced enough by team sports to make a significant difference.

Another point to observe is that team sports provide an opportunity to learn a type of bonding that is good for healthy relationships in the future. Side A agrees that team sports aid in bonding skills and teach children to build relationships with each other. A recent Canadian study found that children that engaged in a team sport, especially a school sport, were more mentally healthy. The doctors involved in the study, “suspect it might be due to school sport providing adolescents with opportunities to bond with other students…” (Sabiston). The result of this study along with an article written by former athlete Kevin Griffin for Seattle Times, gives credence to the ability of team sports to provide bonding skills to children. He references his life-long friend who participated in team sports with him. His mention of this friend is evidence of the bonding experiences athletes have when they’re involved in sports.

Side B disagrees, and thinks that team sports do little for real bonding. Amber Preheim, former instructor at Wellspring Academy of California, saw firsthand the effect of team sports on children who had trouble finding bonds in the first place. In an interview about her experiences with the boarding school for children with behavioral and weight issues, she notes what she saw in the interactions the children had with each other.

“We’d take a vote on which sport the kids wanted to play on the given day. Ordinarily they didn’t choose their form of exercise, so this excited them. They unanimously agreed on basketball nearly every time. However, despite their excitement for a team sport, they argued and played separately for individual goals rather than for the team as a whole. The games rarely ended without a few tears, and they frequently had fights in the dorm the night of the game. For a group of children in need of bonding the most, the techniques here just didn’t work. They were torn apart, rather than able to find camaraderie with the team” (Amber Preheim).

It is hard to form opinions based solely on information that you read, however, when you read it or hear it directly from a reliable source it is hard to question their experiences. This particular observation was made with a group of children that already possess skewed ideas of bonding, but the fact that the team sports could not draw them together as some studies imply, shows that it may not be the sport teams that are responsible for teaching children bonding skills.

When debating the benefit of team sports, one also needs to consider that team sports allow children to feel like they are part of a community. Side A believes that community is a large benefit participants in team sports receive. Kevin Griffith writes for the Seattle Times an accounting of his own experiences with team sports. Throughout the article, he includes several stories from the perspective of high-school athletes to give proof to the community-building theory. Kevin recalls one particular sporting event in which a member of the track team began excelling at the high-jump activity. The crowd was hushed in the appropriate moments, but when the time came they jumped for joy at this athlete’s success. Kevin believes that team sports even continue to “lift the spirit of communities and students” after the event is done and the athlete has moved on. This implies a life-long character benefit for children and teenagers involved in a team sport.

Side B does not think that team sports do any good when it comes to confidence-building, and can in fact help achieve the opposite. This perspective maintains that while team sports may build community, it is in an unhealthy and detrimental way. Experts in the fields of sociology and anthropology who have thoroughly studied the effects of team sports on children believe that the type of community kids, teenagers, and young-adults feel is not a positive kind.

“If the high school coaches are following a professional win-at-all-costs model, and the local community lives and dies by the success of the high school team, then the message is that they must win first and play fair second” (Locker Room, 96).

The type of community that pressures children to “win-at-all-costs” is the negative type of reinforcement that drives kids to make rash and morally questionable decisions. For a time, the connection to sport-related pressure and athlete misbehavior was conjecture. However, studies relating the two have been done and now there is proof showing the connection. During the study designed and carried out by Sharon Stoll, PhD. and Andy Rudd, PhD., they found that team sport athletes scored the lowest on the moral character index. They believe it might be due to the “sport milieu in which many team sports athletes learn that winning takes precedence over the moral idea” (What Type of Character). Andrew W. Miracle, Jr. and C. Roger Rees write about the type of community that comes along with popular team sports, as well.

“Sport symbolizes the school and the school remains the single most important symbol for many communities across America. Thus when a school athletic team wins, the entire community can bask in the reflected glory of its young gladiators. When the team wins, it can cast the entire community in a positive light and the community can feel proud” (Locker Room, 158).

This may sound like a positive description of the community that surrounds young athletes. However, the authors go on to say, “It is not surprising, then, that communities are less interested in what high school sport does for the participants and more interested in what it does for the fans” (Locker Room, 158). It’s an interesting perspective, as most adults never examine the motive behind the community’s interest in the athletes.

Finally, you must consider that children learn responsibilities for their actions on a team. Their actions affect the team as a whole, and tend to make a child’s actions more rational. Side A believes this is true, and that this form of social exposure is a sure way to learn responsibility. Craig Clifford and Randolph Feezell, athletic coaches, former athletes, and authors of Sport and Character: Reclaiming the Principles of Sportsmanship hold true to this by writing in their book the benefits they themselves gleaned from team sports. “As a member of a team, I have a responsibility to play the game and to behave on and off the court in such a way as to contribute to the team’s effort to win” (Sport, 50). Other coaches believe in the ability children have to learn responsibility through team sports and books like Using Physical Activity and Sport to Teach Personal and Social Responsibility are widely available to help coaches facilitate their team in developing responsibility.

Side B thinks that team sports are unnecessary for teaching a child responsibility. The authors of Lessons of the Locker Room: The Myth of School Sports believe that sports team only harm the ability of athletes to learn responsibility for their actions. The scientists behind the book believe that athletes are prone to “positive deviance”, a theory in which athletes learn to accept ordinarily wrong activities or behaviors for the sake of the sport. They give steroid-use and further drug abuse as examples of the morally-questionable activities teenagers are willing to do because they are accepted by older athletes, and sometimes even coaches. A father of a football player who was famously part of the sexual-conquest-marking group, the Spur Posse, was quoted as saying that his son’s actions were typical of any “red-blooded American boy”. (Locker Room, 119). The authors imply that this behavior would not be acceptable if participated in by a non-athlete, and that this acceptance leads high school athletes towards deviance. “If such behavior is part of an athletic culture – how athletes perceive that they ought to behave – then athletics can be linked to the development of delinquency among athletes and non-athletes alike” (Locker Room, 117).

The last point to consider in this inspection is whether or not team sports truly do develop good character. Side B wholly believes that it does not do much to build character, and may even harm a child’s ability to build a decent moral character. Even ancient philosophers like Aristotle believed that the character of a person, their justness and their morals, were up to the individual to develop. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle held that the building of character is dependent on the intentional steps and methods a person takes to become a good person. This along with the studies, observations, and experiences compiled in this essay combine to imply that team sports really don’t have much to do with the ability of a child to grow up with good character, as morals are up to the person in question. We did see that coaches can have a positive effect on the character of their athletes, similarly to the way parents can affect their children’s behavior and character, but in the end the idea that sports teams alone can positively change every child’s character loses to an inability to measure results. Social character was markedly enhanced by the participation in a team sport, but as far as moral character, children have little to no moral use for sports.

In conclusion, based on the evidence I found in various books and professional articles scoured off the web, the clear winner of this argument is Side B. Side A’s argument simply wasn’t strong enough, and it possessed the least proof overall. Side B provided many convincing pieces of evidence for its argument, and surprisingly, in the end it was clear that team sports do not do enough to help children develop good character. Because of the multitudes of evidence collected, the clear and obvious winner is Side B.

The winner of this debate doesn’t say that children should not play team sports, and I do not mean to purport that sports are “bad” by any stretch of the imagination. The point here is that sports cannot be relied upon as the sole teacher in a child’s development. All of us, parents and coaches alike, are responsible to ensure that children are getting the attention they need, whether that attention comes during a game, match, or family dinner. Sports are a great tool to teach children the lessons mentioned in this article, like cooperation, but they are exactly that; a tool. A tool for mental health, physical health, and overall well-being in most cases. The best advice to anyone in a coaching or parenting position is that you should teach your child how to use this tool properly.

As always; stay happy, and stay healthy.

-Coach Jo


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Watson, Doris, and Brian Clocksin. Using Physical Activity and Sport to Teach Personal and Social Responsibility. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2012. Print.

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