Sportspeople ‘suspend sense of right and wrong’ on pitch

Research suggests ultra-competitive coaches can bring out the worst behaviour in athletes

France’s Thierry Henry handles the ball to set up the goal that helped France beat Ireland in a Fifa World Cup play-off. Photograph: Sky Sports

France’s Thierry Henry handles the ball to set up the goal that helped France beat Ireland in a Fifa World Cup play-off. Photograph: Sky Sports

 

Sportspeople often suspend their sense of right and wrong when they enter the field of play, viewing sport as a world where they jettison responsibility to act in a moral way, according to a new study.

When athletes focus on the outcome of a game or race solely to earn a ‘reward’ or avoid ‘punishment’, they are more likely to engage in anti-social behaviour in order to win or demonstrate their sporting pedigree.

In addition, ultra-competitive coaches can bring out the worst behaviour in athletes – making them feel inferior or guilty if they do not act in particular, mostly anti-social, ways.

The research was carried out by experts at the University of Birmingham and Sultan Qaboos University, Oman, and was published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

The study involved the evaluation of 27 existing reviews of research into “pro-social” and “anti-social” behaviour in sport.

“Certain conditions in sport may lead athletes who are relatively upstanding individuals in everyday life to suspend their sense of right and wrong when they step into a competitive sporting arena,” said study author Dr Maria Kavussanu.

“In the pursuit of victory, coaches may ask players to cheat or injure their opponents, and players may see their teammates doing this. It may be easier to morally disengage in sport because responsibility for one’s inappropriate actions can be displaced onto others.”

The study notes that temporarily suspending right and wrong in sport is described as “bracketed morality” with athletes choosing to demonstrate less mature patterns of moral behaviour than in everyday life.

Similarly, instances of athletes demonstrating their superior ability or “ego orientation” tend to be higher in competition, which is an integral part of sport, compared to training.

When athletes take part in sport solely to obtain rewards and prizes, show others how good they are, or avoid feelings of guilt and shame, they are more likely to engage in anti-social behaviour to achieve these goals.

Researchers also found that coaches use coercive practices and pressure participants. Examples of this include using controlling language, granting rewards for performance and manipulating athletes’ feelings and emotions.

Controlling coach behaviour led to moral disengagement such as where athletes attempt to justify their anti-social behaviour, which in turn led to anti-social behaviour toward both opponents and teammates.

The researchers also discussed their studies on the consequences of teammate behaviour for the recipient.

Encouragement

Pro-social behaviours supporting, congratulating, and encouraging one’s teammates generally resulted in them trying harder and performing better.

Adult football and basketball players who felt that teammates acted pro-socially toward them during a match reported experiencing more enjoyment, applied more effort, perceived better performance and were more committed to continue playing for their team.

Such behaviour towards teammates could also prevent burnout, as well as psychological, emotional, and physical withdrawal from a previously enjoyable activity in response to chronic stress.

However, the report said anti-social behaviour towards teammates can cause stress and burnout for individuals. When athletes experienced anti-social behaviour, such as verbal abuse from their teammates, they felt more anxiety and reported symptoms of burnout.

Repeatedly expressing frustration at a teammate’s poor performance can leave that athlete unable to contribute to team goals and diminishes their ability to cope with the demands of their sport.

Anti-social behaviour could also increase feelings of anger and negativity, as well as damaging team spirit.

However, in experimental research, basketball players subjected to anti-social behaviour from teammates performed better than players who were not in a two-minute free-throw shooting competition.

The authors said this suggests that anti-social behaviour may be beneficial for performance under certain circumstances, but it is unlikely that these benefits would continue in the long term.