Sports are a very important part of the lives of many students. In particular, many students rely on sports to provide such students with many healthy aspects of life. For example, for many students sports provide the primary means to make friends and social connections. Also, sports may the only way that many students are physically active. Moreover, many students rely on scholarships from playing sports to attend and be able to pay for college. Sports, thus, plays an extremely important role in the lives of students. One particular role of sports that coaches tend to stress is the role building character. Sports, especially team sports, seem to be able to teach athletes numerous lessons about life, authority, and social interactions. As Lumpkin (14) argues, sports can be used to make up for deficiencies in the lives of students. While some students may play sports because they are naturally talented or competitive in nature, other students may actually enjoy the other aspects of sports, such as working with others towards a common goal and being able to excel as a team in a competitive environment. These aspects of sports may be the most important with regards to character building. But the question is do sports actually build the characters of athletes or is it that something else is going on? For example, it may be the case that students with strong characters tend to play sports more often. It may also be the case that sports increase extroverted behaviors in students, thus making it appear that such students have improved character. To determine whether playing sports actually does build character, an examination of recent studies on this topic will be explored in this project.
Before delving into the recent research findings, however, it may be important to determine exactly how sports might be building character. After all, it is difficult assess whether sports actually do build character without at least having an idea of how this process may take place. Bredemeier and Shields (115) sought to answer this question. The researchers came to the conclusion that there are three ways in particular that sports can build characters in students. First, perspective-taking and empathy can be improved when students play team sports. Second, playing sports can develop one’s ability to reason morally because playing sports provides so many opportunities for more decision-making. Third, playing sports can boost the motivation of students to be more active in the community and in helping others (Bredemeier and Shields 121). However, the researchers also concluded that these means for sports to build character in students are only applicable in certain conditions. With an improved understanding of how sports can build character, this project turns to the question of do sports actually build character.

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Camiré and Trudel (196) investigated the perspectives of high school athletes on the effects of sports on their character development. The researchers interviewed twenty high school athletes, ten of which were men and ten were women. The participants were recruited from a single high school in which basketball, volleyball, badminton, and soccer were offered to both men and women. The participants were interviewed for between thirty and sixty minutes on the topic of how sports have affected their character development. The interviews were semi-structured with predetermined questions presented to all participants and follow-up questions used by researchers to further extract information from each participant about how sports have affected their individual character development. Each interview was conducted in private at a time convenient for each participant. The interviews were recorded with an audio recording device and notes were taken during the interviews. Such notes included information about the participants’ non-verbal speech cues. The interviews were then transcribed before being coded. The resulting data was analyzed to determine whether there were any trends in the data concerning whether playing sports was viewed as being a contributing factor in character development.

The results of the Camiré and Trudel (196) study revealed that most of the athletes in the study believed that playing sports was a major factor in the development of their characters. In particular, the athletes indicated that playing sports provided a platform for them to develop social skills in competitive contexts. The athletes believed that being a competitive environment in which respect must be given to the competing players helped developed positive social characteristics. In addition, the athletes indicating that because of the high amount of teamwork required in the sports offered at the school, athletes are able to effectively develop numerous aspects of their characters. In fact, most of the athletes indicating that participating in team sports has allowed such athletes to develop improved teamwork skills, trust, and learning to follow directions. While the students identified a number of different ways that playing sports have contributed to their characters, some of the most common ways were through teambuilding and playing in a competitive environment. Also, many students identified gamesmanship as an important component of sports, even individual sports, in developing character. While the results of this study provide strong evidence that athletes believe that sports improve their own characters, the results do not necessarily suggest that sports actually do built character. Even so, the results of Camiré and Trudel (198) can be viewed as contributing to the position that sports may be able to build character in certain contexts or when applied appropriately.

Doty and Pim (25) investigated whether character-building sports education programs are actually effective at building character in students. The researchers assessed a character-building sports program that was offered at West Point, New York. This program was developed and ran by the Competitive Sports Office at West Point as a formal character education program. The participation in the sports program was voluntary, but once a student joined the program he or she was required to participate in mandatory sports training sessions and performances. In addition, such performances were competitive, meaning that students were not simply going through a routine but were actually competing with other groups. During the first year of the program, a baseline character assessment was conducted to establish a character baseline for participants. The program lasted for three years. At the end of the program, the participants were assessed for character qualities again. These results were compared to the baseline results and to the character qualities of students at West Point who were not part of the sports program.

The findings of the Doty and Pim (31) were mixed. In some sports groups, there were widespread increases in character development, even when compared to similar students who did not attend the program. However, in other groups the results were much poorer. In some of the groups, there was no significant different between the characters of the participants at the beginning of the program than at the end. Likewise, there were no significant differences found between the characters of the participants and those of who were not part of the program. Finally, the results indicate that a few of the groups actually had worse characters after the program. While these findings ultimately do not provide strong support for the argument that such programs improve the characters of students, it does seem that there may be something about such programs that enables groups to develop their characters through sports. After all, several of the groups in the West Point program had much improved characters after the program. Whatever it was about the sports played by these groups that enabled them to build their characters may be able to be applied to other groups. In addition, Doty and Pim (28) argued that the program was still in its nascent stage at the time of the study. As the program grows, it will likely improve in its ability to improve the characters of students. However, it should be noted that this sports program was specifically designed to improve the characters of students. The fact that it failed to improve the characters of students across all groups, or even most groups, is bad news for the argument that sports improve the characters of students. After all, if sports programs designed to improve the characters of students fail, then it seems much less likely that sports programs in general will be able to improve the characteristics of students.

As research continues on whether sports can be used to improve the characters of students and how sports programs can improve the characters of students, a number of issues are emerging. One such issue is whether current character measures adequately measure the characters of students. Researchers such as Doty and Lumpkin (18) have proposed a reliable instrument for measuring specifically which programs contribute to character building. The researchers distinguish such programs from those that, instead, simply reveal the characters of such students. The researchers apply this measure to their own exploratory study. The goal of the researchers was to discover whether the sports program actually improved the characters of the participating athletes or, instead, the program simply revealed the characters of the athletes. The findings from this exploratory suggest that the program in the study actually did improve the characters of the athletes. However, the study included a relatively small sample size as an exploratory study. Nevertheless, the results at least support the need for further research on the topic.

The research findings discussed in this project yielded inconsistent results. While Camiré and Trudel (196) found that most student athletes believed that playing sports helped build their own characters, Doty and Pim (30) found that a sports program designed specifically to build character was largely ineffective. To complicate matters, Doty and Lumpkin (18) found positive results for sports being used as a means to build character, despite a small sample size. What seems to be the most important consistent aspect of each of these studies is the prospect for sports being used to successfully build characters in students. After all, in the Doty and Pim (30) study, the researchers held that many of the groups had vastly improved characters after the program. One of the primary reasons that more groups did not have this success, the researcher argued, was that the program was still in its early phases and that the directors of the program were still learning how to best make use of sports training and sports competitions as important parts of a character-building program. Thus, the conclusion of this project is that sports can certainly build character in students, but only in certain environments that promote team-building, taking the right approach to competition, and making good moral decisions. The results of these three students seem to be exactly what Bredemeier and Shields (115) described in their argument that playing sports by itself does not build character in students, but that playing sports in positive environments certainly can build strong characters.

  • Bredemeier, Brenda Light, and David Light Shields. “Sports and character development.” JPAH 3.2 (2010): 113-127.
  • Camiré, Martin, and Pierre Trudel. “High school athletes’ perspectives on character development through sport participation.” Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy 15.2 (2010): 193-207.
  • Doty, Joseph P., and Angela Lumpkin. “Do Sports Build or Reveal Character? An Exploratory Study at One Service Academy.” Physical Educator 67.1 (2010): 18-35.
  • Doty, Joseph, and Ralph Pim. “Do character education programs in sports work? A three year assessment.” Journal of College and Character 11.2 (2010).
  • Lumpkin, Angela. “Building character through sports.” Strategies 24.6 (2011): 13-15.