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Clearly define what character and sportsmanship look like

This is an excerpt from Successful Coaching-5th Edition by Rainer Martens & Robin S. Vealey.

It’s easy for athletes to get confused about what it means to demonstrate character and good sporting behavior when they receive messages that opponents are enemies unworthy of respect or that cheating is acceptable based on the importance of winning. Although there are many behaviors that represent character, we suggest four qualities of character that coaches may want to emphasize: respect, fairness, responsibility, and gratitude (see figure 8.2).

Figure 8.2 Four qualities of character to emphasize with athletes.
FIGURE 8.2 Four qualities of character to emphasize with athletes.


Treating others with respect is a key character behavior. We can clarify for athletes that they can compete intensely, while still respecting their opponents. They can strive to win with all their effort, while still respecting (and thus following) the rules of the sport and respecting the officials who are interpreting those rules. Of course, they should respect their teammates and coaches. Remind athletes of the importance of “Honoring the Game” at its ROOTS by showing respect for Rules, Opponents, Officials, Teammates, and one’s Self (Thompson, 2003).

Coaches can be clear in defining what respect looks like by providing specific dos and don’ts that represent respect in various forms. Examples from different sports might include the following:

  • Never argue with an official about a decision.
  • Do not throw equipment in anger or frustration.
  • Make eye contact with coaches and teammates when speaking with or listening to them.
  • Accept and support differences between teammates, opponents, and officials.
  • Sincerely congratulate and shake hands with opponents, despite an emotional loss.


Fairness is treating others in a way that is considered right or reasonable. If something is fair, it is free from dishonesty or injustice. The most common way in which sport becomes unfair is when coaches or athletes cheat or violate the rules and regulations of their sport.

Coaches need to help athletes understand what is fair and what is cheating, as this is often seen as a gray area in sport. For example, stealing signs has a long tradition in baseball, with players in the dugout or on second base trying to figure out which pitch is being called. However, Major League Baseball investigated and confirmed in 2020 that the Houston Astros illegally used a camera system to steal signs during the 2017 season and postseason, in which they won a World Series. The club was fined $5 million, lost several draft picks, and the manager and general manager were fired in the scandal. Players from other teams were outraged, and claimed that the World Series had been stolen.

A particularly challenging situation is the need for athletes (and coaches) to control their emotions when bad calls or outright unfairness occur in sport. Officials are human, and they make mistakes. Explain to your athletes that unfairness occurs in sport, and unfortunately, it’s part of sport. It’s acceptable to be angry, yet unacceptable to act out in anger—a hard lesson for all of us!

Here are some specific examples related to defining fairness for your athletes:

  • Call the lines (tennis) to the best of your ability to be fair to your opponent.
  • Don’t flop in soccer (pretending to be fouled by an opponent to get a penalty on them).
  • Accept (not emotionally react to) all decisions by the officials, even when they clearly have erred.


An important moral and life skill is to be responsible for oneself. Responsibility means we meet our obligations, and that we are answerable or accountable for our actions.

Former college football coach Urban Meyer (2015) asked his players to remain Above the Line to engage in responsible behaviors. The line represented the boundary between taking responsibility for one’s actions (staying Above the Line) or being irresponsible and engaging in behaviors that hurt the team (Below the Line). Meyer termed Below the Line behavior BCD. If athletes’ first reactions are to Blame (others), Complain (about circumstances), and Defend (themselves), they are engaging in BCD behavior that is Below the Line.

Meyer explained to his players that behaving Above the Line or Below the Line is a matter of choices that they face each day. How do they respond to criticism, unfair officiating, getting beat out of a position, or a cheap shot by an opponent? Meyer admitted that staying Above the Line isn’t easy, and that it is a skill and habit that must be developed. Players were taught to imagine themselves “pressing pause” in all challenging situations to help them avoid emotional reactions. Meyer (2015) summed up his belief in the importance of responsibility by saying, “If you screw up, I don’t want your explanation, and I don’t want your drama. I want your ownership.”

Following are some specific dos and don’ts that help define responsibility for athletes:

  • Be taped, dressed, and on the floor for practice 10 minutes before the start time.
  • Apologize, while maintaining eye contact, to teammates for losses of temper or inappropriate actions.
  • Offer assistance (e.g., carrying equipment, helping a teammate, joining a drill) without being asked.


In an era where many athletes are viewed as entitled, gratitude seems to be an important quality to enhance their character. To be grateful means that we are deeply appreciative of benefits that we’ve received. Think of it as a conscious effort to count one’s blessings. Gratitude is powerful because it helps athletes connect to something larger than themselves as individuals. It’s a powerful tool for strengthening interpersonal relationships, and it helps athletes appreciate what they’ve received in life. Expressing gratitude also helps them feel like they’ve given something back to those who helped them.

Coach Teri McKeever of the University of California at Berkeley swimming and diving team incorporates gratitude exercises in her team, and feels these activities transform the energy in the team. Her athletes write and deliver thank-you notes to the support staff who plan their travel, take care of the pool, serve as academic advisors to the swimmers, etc. They use stickers to acknowledge what they notice teammates have done to contribute to the team’s success. They list and share three things they are grateful for at times before practice. Helping athletes become more grateful through weekly activities creates an attitude of gratitude, which is an important character quality to develop. Many activities that coaches could use to teach gratitude to athletes can be found online.

Following are some specific suggestions to help athletes understand the importance of gratitude:

  • Attend other team events at your school to show support and appreciation for them supporting you.
  • Provide community service, such as to a free youth clinic in your sport.
  • Emphasize kindness within the team, to be kind and grateful to others. Remind athletes of the importance of words such as please, thank you, I’m sorry, and I appreciate you.
  • Find ways for athletes to acknowledge the “unsung” members of the team, who help them prepare and work hard, yet don’t have an active role in competition.

Athlete Character Code

Table 8.1 lists the four character qualities, or moral values, discussed in this section. You can revise this code for your team as you wish. There may be other moral values that you would add (e.g., loyalty), as well as additional actions you would like your athletes to engage in for each value. However, it’s important that you clearly define to your athletes your expectations for demonstrating character and competing honestly. Of course, these same expectations apply to you as the coach, and you should make sure your athletes know this as well.

How can you help athletes become aware of their behavior in relation to the team’s Character Code? Because character cannot be directly observed but is inferred from behavior, you need to help athletes see the connection between their behavior and the value it represents. You can do this by labeling their behaviors:

  • Respect. When a player argues with an official, you can point out that it shows disrespect.
  • Fairness. When your high school golfer calls a one-stroke penalty on herself because her ball moved a fraction in the rough when she pulled a leaf away from it, you can say “I’m proud of you for calling the penalty on yourself. Golf rules sometimes don’t seem fair, but they are the rules and you showed true character in that situation.”
  • Responsibility. When an athlete skips practice for no good reason, you can let her know that she has not acted responsibly.
  • Gratitude. When an athlete complains about a meal provided to the team by parents, you could note that he is being ungrateful for the support that was provided.

Once you help your athletes understand the connection between the behavior and the character quality it reflects, be it positive or negative, then you can express your expectation about that behavior in the future. For example, after discussing an athlete’s tardiness, you might say, “Show me you’re responsible by coming to practice on time tomorrow.” Coaching for character requires constant lessons and discussions with athletes so they understand and begin to internalize good moral values.

Remember that the development of good character is not unlike the development of sport skills. Few athletes get them right the first time. You’ll need to be tolerant of mistakes, provide immediate and accurate feedback, demonstrate the appropriate action, and give your athletes repeated chances to practice. Reward progress even if the behavior is not totally what you want.

Table 8.1 Athlete Character Code

More Excerpts From Successful Coaching 5th Edition