by Mimi Winsberg, M.D.
Sports and morality have an intertwined relationship. Many of us expose our children to organized sports at least in part to promote social behavior and good sportsmanship. Athletics are seen as a vehicle for moral development that encourages and rewards qualities such as courage, honesty, tenacity, self-control and respect.
Yet displays of unsportsmanlike behavior are apparent throughout competition, and there is ongoing debate about whether sports participation actually leads to increased social development. Even among adult age group athletes, where there is arguably little at stake, we still witness immature and destructive competitive behavior at times -- between social peers no less. So what gives? Why are some athletes able to be good sports? Why is winning (or losing) a bigger deal for others?
Some research has shown differences in competitive behavior across gender lines. Many studies have found that male athletes perceive sport aggression to be more legitimate. From a neuroscience perspective, there seem to be differences in the female brain, including more blurring between feeling and thinking, sensitivity to non-verbal cues, and a reliance on language rather than physical force. Women who were raised to think of aggression as socially unacceptable may have more feelings of discomfort around winning, imagining that it represents greed and selfishness.
Overt competition is more stereotypically male behavior, whereas competition among women can take a covert form. In covert competition women purposefully or unintentionally harm each other emotionally as they strive to win. This is not to say that men are better sports than women, but instead that aggression among women is likely to manifest in less direct ways.
In college studies, length of participation in sport, or participation at a higher level of play has been linked to poor sportsmanship in some studies, with varsity and more experienced athletes having a greater acceptance of coach aggression, disrespect and unsportsmanlike attitudes. Presumably when the stakes are higher, being a good sport is seen as a less important component of success.
Typically, there is a progression toward moral maturity with advancing age. If there is a relationship between age and sportsmanship, studies have not conclusively demonstrated it.
The moral culture set by coaches has been shown to influence sportsmanlike behavior. A perception that a coach is encouraging rule-bending behavior, disrespectful attitudes towards other athletes, or a win-at-all-costs mentality will promote poor sportsmanship among his athletes.
A Psychological Examination of Sportsmanship
The psychologist Daniel Goleman introduced the concept of emotional intelligence as measured by the emotional intelligence quotient (EQ). There are four components to EQ: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. These are not innate talents but rather leaned skills that can be practiced.
Interestingly, a high emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) is found to be associated with higher pleasant emotion and lower unpleasant emotion before and after racing. It may be that athletes with higher EQ are better able to regulate their emotions before, during and after competition, and self-awareness enables them to gain perspective and practice good sportsmanship.
Psychologist Carol Dweck describes the difference between a fixed mindset (judging: this is how I am) and a growth mindset (learning: how can I improve?). People that have a fixed mindset as opposed to a growth mindset often feel more threatened by competition. A fixed mentality implies that you feel you will be judged or lose status from a poor performance, while having a growth mentality enables you to see competition as an opportunity for learning and improvement. Developing a growth mindset will encourage good sportsmanship.
Some athletes compete to compensate for some basic insecurity about themselves. A mixture of lack of confidence and too much identity wrapped up in success makes competition less about winning and more about validating self-worth. This is clearly fertile ground for unsportsmanlike attitudes unless the athlete has decided that good sportsmanship is also key to their self-worth.
There are times when being unsportsmanlike may give athletes either a material advantage or the feeling of having an advantage. Athletes use unsportsmanlike behavior as a tactical winning strategy. This is more commonly seen at higher levels of competition where small differences in performance may boil down to a mental edge. Experienced athletes will find ways, consciously or unconsciously, to push the socially acceptable norms of sportsmanship in order to gain small advantages over their competitors.
There is probably a range of appropriate sportsmanlike behavior. If the goal is glory and fame, sportsmanship may feel less important. If the goal is enjoying pushing oneself as hard as possible and camaraderie, sportsmanship is clearly a key ingredient.
Competition makes us stronger, even when it's not much fun in the moment, by testing our ability to harness emotions, including negative ones. While racing does not ensure the development of good sportsmanship, it offers the potential for concentrated lessons in self growth.
Mimi is a psychiatrist, multiple-time Kona qualifier and Endurance Corner team member. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.