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Sports and character development

Key Message

Coaches can shape the climate of a sport team. To reduce morally problematic behaviors and/or to increase prosocial ones, coaches need to simultaneously increase task motivation and decrease ego motivation.


Light Bredemeier, Brenda & Light Shield, David. (2006). Sports and character development. Research Digest, Series 7, No. 1. Washington, District of Columbia: President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sport.


For more than a century, the contention that sport builds character has been popular among educators. The more cautious perspective of researchers is that sport might build character, but only under the right conditions. In this paper, the authors report on three aspects of character that may be influenced by sport participation: perspective-taking and empathy; moral reasoning; and motivational orientation. In each area, research-based recommendations are offered for coaches and others in sport leadership positions.

The idea that competitive sports provide effective means for promoting character has been around for a long time, at least since the Ancient Greeks. In modern history, the British boarding schools of the nineteenth century gave new impetus to this theme. Believing that muscles and morals develop simultaneously through involvement in team sports, these schools’ administrators encouraged or required their students to participate in competitive athletics. The idea soon crossed the Atlantic and became popular in U.S. schools and culture. Sport builds character became a popular cultural saying providing the rationale for including sport programs in a wide range of educational institutions. Even today’s highly commercialized big-time collegiate sport programs are often justified by appeal to the idea that these programs contribute educational value to the athletes by nurturing positive character traits. Opponents of sports, on the other hand, often cite an abundance of anecdotal evidence of sport-related cheating, aggression, self-aggrandizement, disrespectful behavior, and corruption to suggest that sports have the opposite effect—they undermine positive character.

In this paper the authors summarize what is known about sports and character. While there are large gaps in the knowledge, a few evidence-based conclusions seem warranted. These conclusions point to a middle position between proponents and opponents of the idea that sports build character. At this point, it is clear that the early optimism regarding the character-building power of sports was overstated or unfounded. Participation in sports does not have any automatic beneficial effects on character. On the other hand, it seems equally evident that sports are powerful social experiences that may, under the right circumstances, have positive benefits. If sports are to have a positive impact on the character development of participants, the leadership and behavior of the coach is key. Consequently, in this paper the authors also offer recommendations for those involved in coaching or sport leadership. First, however, they must clarify what is meant by character.

What is Character?
The word character has gone in and out of vogue in the psychological literature. It was a popular term early in the twentieth century. At that time, it was thought that a person had character to the extent that they possessed a set of virtues or moral personality traits like honesty, integrity, generosity, and trustworthiness. By mid-century, however, the word had fallen into disfavor and was rarely used. The primary reason for its rejection by psychologists was that human behavior, according to the dominant theories of the time, was determined less by the individual than by the environment.

Today, it is widely recognized that character is a complex, multifaceted concept. While the word has sometimes been used synonymously with “personality,” the term “character” has moral or ethical connotations. A person of character is a person who acts consistently in an ethical way. Character refers to those aspects of a person that guide moral life and that enable the person to live in fidelity with their moral values, judgments and intuitions. Deficiencies of character may reflect shallow or misguided moral desires or, alternately, failures of will—insufficient determination, perseverance, or courage to act consistently with one’s ideals (Shields & Bredemeier, 1995). Character is comprised of a number of distinguishable components. Since virtually every conceivable psychological quality, capacity, or process can at least indirectly influence a person’s moral commitments and behavior, a complete list of character components is probably impossible. But it is relatively easy to identify a number of clear and important components of character. For present purposes, the authors identify three clusters: perspective-taking, role-taking, and empathy; moral reasoning and beliefs; and motivational orientation. Elaboration of each of these clusters is provided in the relevant section below.


The operational dynamics are often highly complex. Both the task and ego dispositional orientations and the perception of performance and mastery motivational climates are orthogonal constructs. It is possible, therefore, for a person to be high on both task and ego, high on one and low on the other, or low on both; the same is true of perceived motivational climate. Consequently, there are numerous possible interactions that one could examine and a number of researchers have begun to explore more complex relationships (Dunn & Dunn, 1999; Gano-Overway et al., 2005; Kavussanu & Ntoumanis, 2003; Lemyre et al., 2002; Miller et al., 2004; Stornes & Ommundsen, 2004).

Though more research is needed, the overall results from the various studies are clear. If the aim is to reduce morally problematic behaviors and/or to increase prosocial ones, then coaches need to simultaneously increase task motivation and decrease ego motivation.

This research is particularly significant for coaches because the coach can shape the climate of the sport team. Thus, a number of specific recommendations for coaches flow from investigations of motivational climate variables.

The following three are particularly important:
• Emphasize effort and task mastery rather than ability and competitive outcome. Stated differently, emphasize what is within the athletes’ control rather than what is outside their control. Most importantly, athletes can control their effort, so increased effort (regardless of skill level) should be acknowledged and celebrated. Increased effort also leads to greater task mastery if appropriate self-referenced task goals have been established. Athletes cannot, however, control their genetics or the performance level of competitors.
• Emphasize team cooperation rather than rivalry. Encourage athletes to help one another and see everyone on the team as uniquely valuable. Build a sense of supportive community in which every athlete feels needed and cared about. Finally:
• Help athletes appreciate the important role of mistakes in the learning process. Keeping the team climate positive and constructive, coaches should focus primarily on what athletes are doing right and help them see errors as learning opportunities.

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