Character Building and Competitive Sports Participation-Do They Mix?

The traditionally-held notion that athletes build character through their participation in sports is something that certainly seems debatable based on our current sports and youth sports culture. If we base our opinion solely on what we see in the media regarding athletes and behavior (both on and off the field), you would likely come away thinking that character building in competitive sports is non-existent. However, the customary thought process still holds merit with many.

So then, why the difference of opinion?

In order to answer that question, and unravel some complexities of character building, we must first take a look at what character is, or what it might mean to have good character. Once we clarify this aspect, we can then determine if character is something that can be built through participation in competitive sports and, if so, give suggestions for how to make that possible.

Character is defined (the kind we are discussing here) by Merriam-Webster Online dictionary as:

“moral excellence and firmness” as in,

His refusal to partake in the use of alcohol and break the athletic code showed character.

Personally…I would replace the word “moral” with the word “ethical,” adapting the definition to be more individualistic. It is just that morality tends to be a little vague, as well as dependent on societal (and for many) religious norms. What might be immoral from one group’s perspective could be “no big deal” from another’s.

However, the word ethical (at least for me) brings a more sports-related focus to the topic. It just seems more applicable.

Adapting Merriam-Webster’s definition with all this in mind, I might write the definition like this:

One who displays ethical excellence and firmness as a matter of course

In other words, it is doing the “right” thing just because it is the right thing to do regardless of any outside pressures or common behavior exhibited by others.

In directly applying this to sports participation, it means to consistently conduct oneself in an ethical and fair manner. And that automatically implies ethical conduct both on and off the field, as one’s character is not normally considered something that can be turned on and off like a switch, using it only when one deems it necessary. On the contrary, that in and of itself would show poor character.

Now here is where it gets confusing. Traditionally, it was assumed that playing competitive sports would naturally build one’s character because sports are governed by rules one must follow and are thought to require a strong work ethic in order for an athlete to be good.

And if you think about it, that logic does seem to hold value, right? You do have to do the “right” thing in order to play by the rules and you have to work hard to excel, and, in so doing, help your team to be successful.

However, this assumption is where everything goes awry because it leaves out an important component to the building of character; that is, the freedom of choice. Even though it is expected that you play by the rules, work hard and help your team and teammates any way you can, you don’t have to. You certainly can “play” the game and/or “compete” without doing so. Examples abound where athletes with poor character still play sports; some even “win.”

It is these facts above that necessitate a change in the thought process about competitive sports and character. Rather than merely accepting the traditional assumption that competitive sports builds character, it might be best to conclude that sports participation actually reveals one’scharacter. And due to their very nature, sports offer athletes and teams the opportunity to build their character through the choices they make based on the environment they are in and situations they face.

Using the above viewpoint of character building in sports, you can surely understand how “winning at all costs” attitudes, along with a loss of perspective, can negatively impact an athlete’s character. Conversely, how a conscious, determined, intentional effort and focus (by all those involved) to shape one’s character through participation in competitive sports can become part of the solution. In the latter, it is not something you assume will happen; it is something everyone works toward making happen.

Several things to keep in mind in order to create a better opportunity for building character through sports participation include:

A High Emphasis on Character

A high level of value must be placed on good character in order to see its importance. So much so that good character becomes the norm rather than the exception. In this manner, each individual becomes part of the process as they hold each other accountable based on the high ethical standard that is the norm.

High Expectations of Behavior

Whether in or outside of practice, in training or socially, there is no substitute for high expectations of behavior. You can only get out of someone, some team, or yourself what it is you expect; the less you expect, the less you can anticipate getting. 

Set a Good Example

Illustrating what you expect out of others through your own behavior gives them a solid pattern to follow. Hypocrisy has no room in this equation. Say what you do and do what you say; to say one thing and do another will negate all other efforts to the contrary.

Good Sportsmanship a Must

Sportsmanship and character go hand in hand; it is a contradiction in terms to have one without the other.


A part of the check and balance in building character; as long as fairness, compassion, and consistency are applied in the process, its importance cannot be underestimated.

Holistic Approach

A means by which one looks beyond the “X’s and O’s,” “wins and losses,” viewing sports participation from a more global, well-rounded development of a person.

And most importantly (with regard to character building), if “winning” and “character” are ever at odds with each other, character must come out on top. Not choosing character over winning, when at odds, will put all past, present and future character development at risk.

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