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.


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.


Get Your Black Belt… Then Let It Go

After eleven years of study and training, my wife finally received her first degree blackbelt in karate called a shodan in Renbukai karate. It was a proud achievement, but in the oriental tradition, the shodan merely indicates that she is now ready to be a serious student of the art.

My wife's Renbukai karate belts including her first black belt.

In this respect, I notice a big difference in learning approach between Western and Oriental culture. In general, the Western Culture exults achievement while Oriental culture tends to exult the process.

In practice, this means that getting the black belt from a Western standpoint is the destination or the end of the journey whereas from the Oriental standpoint it is a milestone in a life-long process. I often thought that the multi-coloured belts were designed to give Western students a sense of accomplishment as they proceeded up the ranks. In Japan, for instance, judo students either have a white belt or a black belt. In many cases, a Judokan with a white belt might have ten years of serious experience. Woe to the Canadian blue belt who underestimates his or her white belt opponent.

Both viewpoints provide important philosophical lessons. Yes, set goals and take pride in getting to the next level, but when you get to the next level, it is also time to let it go. The goal has served its purpose in motivating you to reach that level. Now it’s time to reach for higher levels.

It takes a wise person to find the balance between the process and the outcome. Having reffed many a minor league soccer games, I can tell that some coaches care only about winning and hence verbally abuse their team. Then there are the coaches that understand it’s more important for their kids to learn about fair play, teamwork, and emotional control.

The Canadian Olympic Team exemplified another aspect of why we shouldn’t measure all performance by outcome. Did you notice that we won less medals than we anticipated, but also won more gold medals than any country has ever won in the Winter Olympics? Why?

I think it’s because when athletes go for gold, they are pushing themselves that little bit harder. In an event like skiing, that extra push may send them careening off the course or alternatively, that little push might just be a new world record. I respect those champions who would rather go for a new personal record than play it safe and win a medal.

So consider, where in your life are you trying to get to a destination, but not focusing on life-long process of learning? Are you taking on progressively more difficult challenges in key areas of your life? It may not be possible to be Olympians in all areas of our lives, but we can try in some.

Chris Hsiung
Better Life… Better Business

Breathing in Combat

Last week I held a very basic self-defense workshop for the City of Calgary Waterworks division. Now some of you might be wondering why a leadership coach / consultant would teach a self-defense course. First of all, it’s fun, but second of all as the Olympics show us, intense physical challenges teach us something deeply important about the human spirit.

Although self-defense is not a sport, think of what it takes to manage fear in a crisis situation. When faced with a life-threatening situation, people experience not only a flight or fight response, but also a third more deadly “freeze” response. Higher level brain functions shutdown and primal instincts take over.

In leading ourselves, we may not face life and death situations all the time, but we often experience situations that overwhelm us. You know it when you feel panic or extreme anger or any loss of emotional control. In other words, your higher brain functions shutdown.

How do we bring our emotions back under control? In combat, soldiers are taught “combat breathing”. Breathe in deeply, hold it for three seconds, then breathe out and hold for three seconds. By slowing down their heart rate, they can regain control of their thinking ability.

Believe it or not, this works for controlling our emotions as well. Give it shot! Next time you feel the stress, the anger, the panic… breathe.

Do you play for fun or play for points?

When you play soccer for fun, the aim is not about scoring the most number of goals, but about practicing your craziest and wildest moves (if you’re just that good) or helping others practice their crazy and wildest moves (as far as they are able to). There is an unspoken rule that the game is meant to be fun for everyone.

When you’re playing soccer for points, suddenly a different mentality settles in. For the competitive, “win at all cost”. And so it is then that as a ref, I get to see that “fog of competition”. Coaches see only the other team’s faults or yell at their own players, players push other players without apology and lose their temper, and the ref charged with failing to ref.

And that’s just for the minor leagues.

But every once in awhile, I see the coach that encourages his players and players that respect their opponents even as the score remains close. These are people of character, that give me hope for people’s ability to see the fun and seriousness together.

We must remind ourselves over and over again that even as we compete, we are collaborating. Let’s keep our exploitive and prejudicial tendencies to a minimum shall we?

Refereeing Freedom

I am officially a new soccer referee.

Ahead of me is a life of attempting to make sound judgments while enduring angry players, opinionated spectators and stressed out coaches. To you it may sound like a depressing way to spend my time. To me I think, what better way to combine my favourite sport with a character-building experience?

As I stumble my way through missed calls, improperly awarded penalty shots and carding players that bug me, I am discovering the intricate and rich relationship between the spirit of the game and the referee. The role of the referee appears simple: apply the laws of the game. However, apply the rules too strictly and the game gets bogged down. Fail to apply the rules and the game descends into a chaotic mess. This dynamic balancing act is captured by the mysterious and unwritten rule called Law 18. Law 18 states that the referee must prioritize the spirit of the game above the other seventeen laws.

The connection between the game, the rules and the referee had me thinking about other kinds of games we play in such arenas as finance and economics. What is the connection between lending and regulation? Markets and rules? Freedoms and limits?

To begin with, kids who play with other kids quickly understand three basic tenets. First, a game without rules is not a game. Second there is no game if there are no players. And third, a game is not fun if people don’t follow the spirit of the rules. These fundamentals can help us understand something about the adult games that we play.

No Rules No Game

As the US and Canada post record job losses in November, more and more people are asking questions about the financial game we take for granted.

That we have moved from trading crops to trading minerals or paper to trading electronic bits and bytes is a testament to the complex system we have learned to play. But sometimes we forget the basics. Sub-prime mortgages given to unqualified buyers is one of the obvious ways in which we rigged the game to fail. The underlying issues, on the other hand, are more numerous and complex than I can likely explain in my lifetime (consider asking George Soros instead).

Nevertheless, at least one part of the crisis story is the trend over the last few decades towards killing the referee. Governments call it deregulation. In the US and to some extent in Canada there has been an almost fanatical belief that free-markets can solve anything and everything and therefore must be unshackled from government rules and regulations.

Consequently, restrictions and requirements for mortgages, auto loans, credit cards were significantly relaxed starting in the Reagan years. New financial instruments allowed banks to sell off bad loans around the world to hide their value. Rating agencies, unable to determine risk, relied on the issuers to figure out risk. Imagine the referee asking the offending player what the rules of the game are!

The idea of being “unshackled” from the rules may appeal to our deep adolescent desires of raging against the machine. Yet if one were to stop and consider even momentarily the consequences of a game played without rules, it’s not hard to imagine the kind of game that would be played. Cheating, aggression, violence, spectator fights… and I’m only thinking about soccer.

Players will agree that there are good refs and there are bad refs, but no serious player would claim that having no refs is good for the game. Likewise, there are likely good and bad regulations or regulators, but this is not an argument for removing them.

Unfortunately, it is easy during the game to think that it’s all about scoring the highest number of points or making the most profit, and forget that a referee is what keeps the game playable. Corporate executives will, like players, push the limits of the rules, but the whistle must still be blown and blown with confidence.

No Players, No Game

In the end, the “free” market is one among many kinds of games that are played in life. The market can solve a limited range of human challenges, but with its short-term memory and transactional mindset, the market is hardly capable of solving all problems.

Markets rarely explore the frontiers of our understanding (too impractical) or invest in long-term projects with high social benefits (not enough return on investment). Furthermore the market also cannot tell us who we are as much as advertisements might claim otherwise.

Ultimately we must remember that the game is created to serve society and not the other way around.

So why do we play games? Why do we have our kids play soccer for that matter? Some hopeful parents might intend for their kids to become rich and famous. Wiser parents know that the game is meant to develop their kid’s discipline, teamwork, and resiliency among many other character traits.

Likewise, adults may think they play the market and financial game to make a profit. While it’s true no one likes to lose at the game, would you play a game where people cheated all the time, injuries were faked, and the opposing team was so impoverished they hardly constituted the title of “opponent”?

The true benefit of markets is that they enable innovation precisely because they allow the players to compete, fail, and try again. But they need players. A society that gives all the advantages to the wealthiest and fails to support the social programs that enable everyone else will collectively have less ability to face global challenges. (See Mokr’s Gifts of Athena for more on the connection between innovation and social structure).

So you see, the best kind of games are ones that have a lot of replay value. We play games so that we can play again. Playing games that kill off other players defeats the purpose.

No Limits No Freedom

What does all this mean to us practically speaking?

It means that before we rail against the seeming injustice of taxes and regulations and limits, we should stop and think more broadly about what it is buying us. For example, if the speed limit were lowered, we might feel that our freedom is being limited, but what if it also “frees” us from the risk of a pointless death? Or from the financial, emotional, spiritual toll of accidents? Likewise, each time we remove a regulation to increase our return on investment or reduce our taxes, what is the cost to our collective ability to play the game?

Perhaps having limits and rules is what makes us more free. Perhaps the challenges facing our globe require us to involve as many players as possible.

Life evolves quickly though and we must be ready to adapt the structure of the game. We must be ready to cultivate our own Law 18, a law that is unwritten precisely because it relies on our judgment and sense of fairness to figure out how the game should be played.

Your Turn to Comment

  • What do you think about freedoms and limits, free-markets and regulations, games and rules?
  • What makes it hard to compete as a collective?
  • What is the role of the referee in life?

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
U Venture

Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.