Developing 'Sportsmanship' and 'Character'

There’s not a lot you can do when as a goalkeeper, you find your boot laces untied when your gloves are strapped on! In such a situation, the decency of an opposing player stepping up to lend a helping hand instead of taking advantage is worthy of praise.

This is what happened in the 2013 Saudi Premier League game between Al-Nahdha and Al-Ittihad! However, the referee decided to penalize the goalkeeper for holding onto the ball for too long and gave a free kick in favour of the ‘lace-tier!’ Thankfully sportsmanship prevailed in the end when the team being awarded the free kick protested and tapped the ball into touch so that the other team would regain possession.

Shortly after Roger Bannister made history by becoming the first person to run a mile in just four minutes in 1954, Australian runner John Landy copied the feat over six weeks later.

In the 1956 Australian National Championships, Landy made history again, but this time for a different reason. During the third lap of the final race, a 19 year-old sprinter, Ron Clarke tripped and fell on the track.

Landy, who was behind him at the time, jumped over his fellow Australian to avoid a clash and in doing so, accidentally scraped his arm with the spikes of his footwear. Instead of carrying on for gold, Landy stopped running and helped his countryman and opponent back to his feet.

To the astonishment of everyone in the terraces, Landy set off again and made up the huge gap to win the race in a time of 4 minutes, 4 seconds.

Today, a statue is found in Melbourne to commemorate this inspirational moment which is aptly titled “sportsmanship.” Sportsmanship it is, but from where does such qualities arise?

Examples of seeing professional athletes respecting their opponents could be said to be few and far between today. The ‘win at all costs’ attitude seems to be prevalent and so when a mark of decency is found on a playing field, it is now an exception that is worthy of acknowledgement.

While winning is important, it can quickly become the case that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” in the words of legendary football coach Vince Lombardi.

Society seems to place the big emphasize on winning as being the essential to success, making much of the ‘best record’ or ‘leading scorer,’ as we give out championship trophies and praise the most valuable players.

When coaches, parents and spectators begin to look on winning in these terms, it often results in mistaking the winning or losing of ‘competitive contests’ with the success or failure of the contestants.

While it may be good for one’s ego to win, or better an opponent at a particular time, to concentrate solely on a final score as the important outcome of a game pushes us to a very narrow definition of winning. The consequences of this can be potentially damaging to young and developing athletes.

The way out of this narrow view of winning in youth sports activities may lie in forming the attitude that Lombardi taught us: “Winning isn’t everything - striving to win is.” 

For young people who participate and develop a genuine interest in sports of all kinds, it follows that a fair question to ask is: Why do we participate in sport anyway?

Sport is at its best when it is played fairly and where respect is shown to the opposition. Participation in sport contributes to holistic development. We learn about the importance of key values such as:

  • Teamwork

  • Honesty

  • Commitment

  • Dependence

  • Fair play

  • Respect for ourselves and others

  • The necessity for rules

It also provides an opportunity to learn how to deal with competition, the glory of winning and the disappointment of losing. All these learning aspects bring into focus the impact of physical education and sport on a child’s social and moral development.

While many today emphasize school education as being all about learning and sharing knowledge, others still stress that it is also about character and how we can teach virtues effectively about virtue. Businesses seem to agree with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) saying that schools should give more attention to the development of ‘character.’

This is not something new. Aristotle believed that the fulfilled person was an educated person. His work stated that educators must be infused with a clear philosophy of life. There has to be a deep concern for the ethical and moral choice. To flourish as human beings, he said that we should act to work for that which is good or ‘right’, rather than that which is simply ‘correct’.

According to him ‘balance’ is key to our development. General play, physical training, musical expression, debating skills, and the study of science and philosophy all had a role in the formation of body, mind and soul. Plato before him, stressed that ‘learning’ was something that went on through life as we gain more experience at the various stages of aging.

Even at the early age of 19, swimmer Michael Phelps showed balance in action when he manfully, sportingly and respectfully put things in perspective. He had just produced an amazing victory at the Athens Olympics in the 100 metres butterfly and so won his 4th gold medal in the games. Knowing that he had further opportunities to add more gold medals to his collection, he surprised everyone by announcing that he would step aside in the 4x100m medley relay “to give a team-mate a chance.”

He had just won more respect in showing a real understanding of the true spirit of the games, one from which we could all learn.


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