Why sports often doesn’t develop character

The word sport came from a Old French verb, desporter, meaning to divert or amuse or play. Ref a few testosterone-laden soccer games and you’ll see why the “sport of kings” originally referred to war-making.

I have higher aspirations for sport. Can it serve a purpose above the motivations of war? Will it remain the domain of diversion and amusement to pass the time? Or will it simply be a spectacle to be charged for at the gates? I hadn’t considered this question until a recent Artist in Residency partnership with Sport Calgary had me thinking about what sports offer, if anything, to society. With over 500 amateur sports organizations and 80 categories of sports in Calgary alone, there is no doubt it plays a big role in the community.

Unfortunately, in an age where success is often measured by fame and fortune alone, the spirit of sport is lost in the economic drive to commercialize all aspects of life. But I think sport, if properly understood, is a potential vehicle for developing values that make for a strong and vibrant community.

At its core, sport is a form of organized play requiring physical prowess. For some, this form of play may become a lifelong profession. For many others, playing is a healthy form of leisure. But as every child learns, play is a form of practice for the big game of life and it should be taken seriously.

Sports inherently creates conditions where good character could be developed. One may need to overcome fear and stress to overcome obstacles, or compete with intelligence and respect against an opponent, or strive for excellence in one’s ability. But it can just as easily descend into a winner-takes-all attitude where slavish loyalty to the team trumps ethical behaviour. Famous basketball coach, John Wooden, was on to something when he said that “Sports do not develop character. It reveals it.”

The issue is that sports by itself is insufficient for developing character. Sure the structure of the sport, whether team or individual, plays a role in the types of skills developed. Nevertheless, coaches, parents, celebrities, schools, sports films, and news play as much, if not more, of a role in shaping how athletes approach their sport. Imagine a coach who preaches respect and fairplay in the dressing room, but dresses down the ref on a bad call, or parents who pressure kids to win at all costs even if it means sneaking one past the ref. The lessons learned from an activity depends on the culture surrounding the individual athlete.

Yet, even if there is a supportive network of people present to draw out the best in the athlete, there is also no guarantee that qualities developed in one discipline will transfer into other areas of life. You can be disciplined in your training, but undisciplined in your personal relationships. Or you might excel in sport, but lose sight of the bigger picture of life.

Consider the values that could be learned through sport:

  • Resilience – the ability to manage setbacks or failures in productive ways
  • Persistence – the resolve to continue to pursue objectives despite challenges
  • Adaptive Learning – the ability to learn from mistakes or failure and build new skills for changing circumstances
  • Courage – the ability to manage fear and move ahead regardless of it
  • Fairness – the ability to act well despite the heat the moment or the pressure to achieve objectives
  • Respect – the quality of treating people, friends and foe alike, with dignity and compassion.
  • Teamwork – the ability to work with and coordinate with other people to achieve the same objectives
  • Excellence – the drive to continuously improve oneself

At a high level, they make perfect sense. The devil really is in the details. Knowing is not the same as having the capacities. They require as much practice and training in life as in sport. Developing the courage to climb Mt. Everest is different than the moral courage to question your own team, but climbing Mt. Everest might help. The specific disciplines in kicking a ball accurately every time under pressure is different than the specific disciplines of doing an investigative documentary on a corrupt politician. But the general principles of diagnosing problems, self-correcting, pulling back ignorance, and managing the pressures performance does cross disciplines.

I’m interested in hinting at the possibilities that sport offers beyond the vague generalities that sports commercials offer. Hence, the artist in residency. If you have any thoughts on what sport could develop and how, I’d love to hear what you think. Until then, remember that you are what you train in sport and in life.

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About the Artist in Residency

Hidden Story Productions and Sport Calgary would like to invite you to participate in an exciting exploration of the true spirit of amateur sport through a series of short documentary films. Our goal is to illustrate in cinematic style these values through the thoughts and feelings of local athletes and the sports that they play. To this end, we are looking for amateur athletes in Calgary willing to share their stories, the behind the scenes of their training, and how it shapes their life. We are now looking for amateur athletes in Calgary of any age, skill level, or sport (except for hockey, soccer, baseball, basketball… sorry too mainstream).

This project is sponsored in part by Calgary 2012’s Artist-in-Residency Program. Calgary 2012 is an independent, non-profit organization that helps showcase Calgary’s culture and create legacy projects to encourage future cultural achievements.

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