February 23, 2011
This question of whether participation in sports builds character is very much on my mind. We’re writing a new statement at Earlham to guide the evaluation of our coaches. Everyone (or nearly so) agrees that winning should be one of the considerations in evaluating coaches, but nearly everyone says there should be more. What’s that more? We want our students who participate in sports in be learning and growing through their participation in sports.
Here’s what the draft document says at present: “In evaluating coaches, we should look to see whether students are learning individual skills in the sport, growing in their understanding of how to play together as a team on and off the court, and learning competitive values that can be acquired through participation in athletics: self-confidence, perseverance, personal responsibility, respect for oneself and others, sportsmanship, integrity and others.”
That list of “competitive values” that begins with self-confidence is quite a list: they are all things we want our students to learn. In a by-gone era, we would call them “moral virtues.”
When I hear people defend athletics as an essential aspect of what colleges and universities do, the defense usually includes an affirmation that we believe sports inculcates these moral virtues. But is there evidence to support that claim? Not much, I’m finding. There are conflicting studies that report opposite conclusions, sand most of the supportive studies have serious research flaws. For example, they have selectivity bias: we can’t tell whether the athletes had these values before they decided to play sports. A good summary of the research to date is to be found in Robert Fullinwider’s “Sports, Youth and Character: A Critical Survey” (2006).
I’m inclined at agree with Anthony Bradley (an ethicist and theologian at King’s College) that the key to students learning moral virtue is not sports per se, but rather a certain kind of interaction with older adults that can come through sports OR can come in other ways. He says, “Sports do not build character in young people but virtuous adults do. In one sense youth sport is simply a medium for adult mentoring within the context of challenging situations. Character is bestowed — or not — from one generation to another.”
If you know of compelling evidence that sports participation builds character (something more than anecdotes, powerful though these may be) I’d love to hear about that evidence.