“Young players play with a great deal of fairness and sportsmanship. Once they learn how important the game is to adults, they will learn how to cheat.” – Dr. Ron Quinn, Professor of Sports Ethics at Xavier University.
My friend Ann Dewitt is a family therapist and parenting expert, as well as the host of a great podcast called “Passport to Parenting.” The other day she posed this question to me:
“What is cheating, and is it different from gamesmanship and using the rules to your advantage?”
In other words, where do we draw the line between what is outside of the rules, and what is within the rules, but outside of the spirit of the game? Can we teach short cuts to success in sport and then expect our athletes to not find shortcuts to success outside of sport? Can we call one OK, and the other unacceptable?
To answer this question, I made a number of phone calls to people I highly respect in coaching and education. Many of them gave very different answers, and we came up with numerous scenarios as to things that fall in the middle of right and wrong. In fact, every one of them had differing opinions on nearly every issue except one.
They all said “I am glad I am not writing that article!”
I am going to give it a go anyway!
The culture of winning, and all the material benefits that come with it, encourages top athletes to bend the rules, look for ways to take advantage of situations, and achieve success and recognition any way they can.
But what about youth sports? Danny Alomonte, the 14 year old who dominated the 2001 Little League World Series, received international recognition and a key to the city of New York before he was eventually disgraced in a public manner for being overage. Clearly using illegal players is cheating, and never should be tolerated. Performance enhancing drugs should never be tolerated. Deliberately injuring players should not be tolerated. There are a whole host of situations that are black and white; they are clearly cheating in order to gain results. We should never, as coaches or parents, teach our kids to cheat to win, or that the ends (winning) justify the means (cheating).
But then there is the grey, the vast area between right and wrong that may not break the letter of the law, but certainly does not exist within the spirit of the game.
Do you claim an out of bounds ball that went off you?
Does a defensive back hold a wide receiver that has him beaten and will likely score a touchdown?
Does your soccer team stand in front of every dead ball so the other team cannot take a quick free kick?
Should coaches of young athletes teach them gamesmanship and how to manipulate the rules in order to succeed?
Whether you are a parent of an athlete trying to decide what coach to entrust your child to, or you are a coach deciding “what am I willing to compromise to win,” this is a question we all face.
To answer it, I think one really must answer another two other questions first.
Question 1: “What is the purpose of youth sports?”
Is my purpose and focus solely to prepare players for the next level, for collegiate or professional sports? If so, then perhaps your answer is “yes”, I should be teaching them all the things they need to be successful at the next level. Let’s not be naïve and think that gamesmanship is not a part of high level athletics; it is and always will be.
On the other hand, is my sole purpose to use sports to teach character and core values, to prepare people for life both during and after sports? If so, then your answer is probably “No way!” Honesty is honesty, rules are rules, and if we are teaching that “bending the rules” in sports is OK, are we not also teaching our athletes that the ends justify the means, and it is acceptable to bend the rules when paying taxes, or taking a test, or trading stocks? Consistency is key, and I see both coaches and parents being inconsistent by allowing certain types of behavior in sports that they would never allow in other aspects of life.
But what if our purpose as a coach is both? Many of us use sports to teach values and life lessons, but also coach high level athletes who aspire to play high school, college and professional sports. Are we diminishing their chances to succeed when we teach them to play within both the letter and spirit of the rules? Are we being inconsistent when we preach sportsmanship and integrity yet teach that gamesmanship is a part of the game, and is an acceptable way to gain an advantage?
As a coach for two decades, I never asked a player to intentionally cheat or to deliberately injure an opponent. I was always a stickler for respecting officials, and hated players who felt that trash talking was a necessary part of the game.
That said, I did encourage players to help a referee make up his mind on a throw in or a corner kick. I did tell players to take their time when taking a set piece if we were up a goal near the end of a game. I did make a late substitution to kill some time off the clock. I did teach players how to front free kicks so the opponent could not play them quickly.
Was this wrong?
I know many ethical, honest people who disagree on the answer to this question. Was this teaching gamesmanship, even though it was not breaking the rules?
This also leads to the second essential question we must ask ourselves, posed in a discussion with my friend Bruce Brown of Proactive Coaching:
Question 2: “How much am I willing to devalue my success by cutting corners to win?”
When athletes and coaches engage in gamesmanship, they are taking their eyes off of learning and executing the fundamental sport skills in exchange for a win. If we cannot defend well, do we foul, or take our lumps while we learn to defend? If we cannot possess the ball in soccer, do we play long balls all game long, hope for a goal, and then sub on every stoppage to run out the clock and break the other team’s rhythm, or do we work on possessing the ball?
Athletes cannot concentrate on playing the game if they are spending their time manipulating the rules, taunting opponents, and feigning injuries or fouls in order to get an advantage. Coaches cannot teach fundamentals when they do this. We trade short term success for long term development.
We might win a game, or we might win for a season or two by faking results, but isn’t our job as coaches to teach and improve our players? Isn’t our job as parents to find our children teachers, and not manipulators of results?
Sport is an incredible venue to teach children character and life lessons in an environment that provides (usually) a safe place to learn these things. It also can provide adult mentors to guide our children through the trials and tribulations of learning, and give them positive role models for life.
Unfortunately, it is also a convenient place for children to learn how to cheat, how to cut corners, and how to take short cuts in pursuit of success. They can find adults who teach them that the win is all that counts, no matter how it is achieved. If we encourage this in sports, how do we discourage it in school, in marriage, in work, and throughout life?
Where did Bernie Madoff and the other Wall Street bankers who caused the financial meltdown, where did the CEO’s of Enron, TYCO and other massive business blow ups learn that cutting corners is great as long as you do not get caught?
But coach, didn’t John Wooden preach integrity and sportsmanship, yet also tell his players not to give up the easy layup, and to foul the opponent and make him shoot two free throws instead? Where do we draw the line?
I realize that writers are supposed to provide answers, and I have asked a lot more questions than I answered here, but the point of this article was to make you think about a scenario that for many people is not black and white. I certainly have had to do a lot of thinking to write this. As I said above, I introduced gamesmanship to my players when I coached. Yet now, as a much more experienced coach, my heart tells me I was not right, that many times I was focused on outcomes and not process.
I believe there is a third path, one that prepare players for higher level sports AND prepares them to be good people.
It starts with our entire approach to youth sports.
As Dr Ron Quinn so eloquently states in the passage I used to open this story, kids play with fairness and sportsmanship until they learn how important winning is to the adults. Then they learn to cheat.
What if winning was less important to us adults? What if our child’s development, improvement, level of enjoyment and effort were all that mattered, at least until high school? There would be no need to teach or engage in gamesmanship.
Perhaps our answer lies not in whether we should teach gamesmanship, but whether we should be so focused on winning during our players’ developmental years that we feel a need to even ask such a question!
I think it’s time we demanded that coaches teach fundamental technical and tactical skills, and give our kids a solid foundation before they begin manipulating results through substitutions, teaching gamesmanship, and the like.
If we were not so focused on winning, then perhaps we would spend more time trying to possess the ball under pressure, and accept the fact that from time to time we might lose the ball and our lead. We might learn how to press as a unit, and give cover and balance all over the field, instead of fouling to break up plays. The players who are going to be better in the long run are the ones who try to do it right and fail, not the ones who take the short cut. Do you recognize and encourage this as a coach and parent? Does your team?
I am convinced that regardless of the position I take, I will be called naïve by some. People will say you cannot be a top level player without understanding the gamesmanship required to eek out results, so we must teach it. They will say other teams do it, so it is not an advantage, just leveling the playing field (wasn’t this Lance Armstrong’s argument?)
Others will say that I am being inconsistent by asking my players to display sportsmanship, and be good people on and off the field, while at the same time encouraging gamesmanship.
Writing this has made me think long and hard about what I am willing to compromise in order to get a result. Here is where I stand on the issue.
I feel secure in the science that says most fundamental sport skills are a combination of genetic sensitivity to learning and deliberate repetitive practice of those skills at a young age (through high school). Gamesmanship and acting, on the other hand, can be learned at any age.
We should not waste valuable time that we could be teaching technique, time we will never get back, by teaching our players how to cut corners for results. That is something that they can learn, if they choose to, later on in their careers. I am pretty sure no pro team ever selected a player for his or her ability to feign an injury, waste time, or talk trash to an opponent. They selected them because they were good players and good people.
On a second, far more important level, if you really want to help an athlete become a high-performer, then focus on the things that will make that happen. They are not necessarily the things that will help win today’s game. I believe that my role as a coach is not to prepare my players for success in today’s game, but success in all their games, throughout the game of life. As the Lance Armstrongs of this world have discovered, you cannot fake your way through life forever. Even unprecedented on and off the field success will not prevent you from being found out and exposed eventually.
If my players begin emulating top players in order to win a game, I ask them “How much are you willing to compromise and devalue your success by cutting corners? At what point does that sour taste in your mouth outweigh the sweet taste of victory?” I encourage them to compete fairly, even when their opponent does not. There is no honor in a tainted victory. And in my opinion, when it comes to youth sports, there is no victory without honor, integrity and development.
Every athlete, eventually, has to make that call for themselves. When they are young, we can help guide them toward an answer that will serve them for the long term.
Every coach has to decide where he or she draws the line. As parents, we can help our coaches make choices that serve our kids throughout their lives.
Every parent has to decide what path do they want their own child on, elite performance or immediate success. We all can model what we believe to be the right choice.
As a parent or coach, ask yourself at what point is the success of your athletes devalued so much by the methods of achieving it, that it is no longer worth achieving. Then ask yourself “Is that how I am leading my kids?”
Once you know how much integrity you are willing to sacrifice for victory, sadly, I have no doubt that you will be able to find a path that meets your needs and expectations, however high or low they are.
I know what my path looks like for my kids.
I don’t know if I was the coach to deliver that path many years ago.
But I do know that I could today.
Well, what do you think? Please share your thoughts and comments below.