Training program for U.S. Olympic coaches (Ethics)

Training program for U.S. Olympic coaches

Ethics and sportsmanship: Part I


Ethical Considerations Pervade Every Aspect of a Coach’s Behavior


Any act that can be evaluated in terms of moral principles like honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and sportsmanship has ethical significance.

Everything a coach says or does sends a message about values. Coaches are often the most influential adults in the lives of youngsters and adolescents. What they say and don’t say, do and don’t do – on and off the field – sends a message about values and reveals something about their priorities and character. Thus, coaches must always ask themselves: “What message am I sending?”

Ethics is not always simple. Although many people trivialize discussions of ethics in sports as if knowing and doing the right thing were a simple matter, in fact, it is enormously complicated at times, and it takes extraordinary vigilance and a strong character to perceive and properly deal with all the ethical opportunities and obligations that arise in coaching. Thus, when it comes to ethics, you don’t have to be sick to get better.

A good coach. A good coach is not only a competent coach but a good person who is dedicated to using the sports experience to help others become better people and citizens as well as better athletes. A good coach consciously strives to live up to the highest standards of ethics and sportsmanship.

What Is Ethics?

Ethics refers to moral principles of duty and virtue that define what is right and wrong and prescribe how we should behave to be good and honorable.

Duty and virtue. The dual concepts of duty and virtue suggest both a minimal, mandatory aspect of ethics (duty) and a realm of special moral excellence that goes beyond what is required (virtue).

Duty. In sports, duty refers to the minimal expectations embodied in core ethical principles. According to the Arizona Sports Summit Accord, these principles are the “Six Pillars of Character”: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. It is, therefore, unethical to violate these standards of duty by being dishonest, disrespectful, irresponsible, unfair, uncaring, or ignoring requirements of good citizenship.

Virtue. Virtue refers to a special degree of moral excellence above minimal ethical requirements. A person of character should aspire to be virtuous, and virtuous conduct is highly commendable. But a person is not unethical for failing to go above and beyond his or her moral duties.

Examples of Virtue

1936 Olympic Games. In the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, Adolf Hitler said, “Americans ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be worn by Negroes. I myself would never shake hands with one of them.” Jesse Owens, the great American track and field star had already embarrassed the German dictator by winning gold medals in the sprint and relay. But in his first two attempts at the long jump, he stepped over the foul line. He recalls being scared stiff that he would foul on his third attempt and not make it to the final. His fiercest rival in the event was Luz Long, the German athlete. Despite the risk of infuriating Hitler and the chance that Owens would beat him, Long took a towel, laid it down a foot before the foul line, and advised Owens to use it to assure he would qualify. Owens did, and he ultimately defeated Long to win the gold medal. Long’s extraordinary display of sportsmanship and courage went well beyond duty but demonstrated the highest standards of ethical virtue in sports. Aftermath: Luz Long was sent to the Russian front where he was killed. When his daughter was married years later, Jesse Owens walked her down the aisle.

1964 Olympic Games. In the two-man bobsled event at the 1964 Innsbruck Winter Olympics, the British team driven by Tony Nash discovered that its sled had a broken bolt on the rear axle. They were about to quit the competition when Italian bobsledder Eugenio Monti heard of the problem. Monti’s team had already made their last run, so without hesitation he took the bolt out of his rear axle and sent it up to Nash. The British team won the gold medal and Monti’s team the bronze. “Tony Nash did not win because I gave him a bolt,” Monti said later. “Tony Nash won because he was the best driver and deserved to win.”

Two Aspects of Ethics: Discernment and Willpower

Discernment. In morally ambiguous situations where ethical duties are not clear or there is no single right thing to do, an ethical person must seek to discern right from wrong. Discernment involves the application of ethical principles to real situations. In sports, the line between right and wrong is not always apparent.

  • What is cheating? There is wide disagreement on what is cheating and what is just clever play, what is a “legitimate part of the game” and what is unsportsmanlike conduct.

  • What is respect? A foundational concept in ethics and in the concept of sportsmanship is the obligation to behave respectfully and to treat opponents, officials, fans, and others with respect. Thus, acting disrespectfully is unethical and unsportsmanlike. There is no exemption from this ethical duty when disrespectful conduct provides a competitive advantage or is provoked.

Willpower. Moral willpower and ethical commitment is needed in situations where ethical duties are clear but the potential cost of doing the right thing is so high that it takes strength of character to overcome the pressures and resist the temptations to do otherwise. Coaches and athletes are continually faced with opportunities to cheat or engage in improper and unsportsmanlike conduct, and there are often great pressures for them to do so in order to get a competitive edge.

  • Resisting pressures. Coaches must be vigilant for and resist these pressures and demand that athletes do likewise.

  • Do the right thing. In 90 percent of the ethical problems we face, we know what we should do. Ethics demands that we do the right thing even when it is likely to cost more than we want to pay.

Ethics Is More Than Compliance

While illegal conduct in sports is unethical, an act is not necessarily ethical simply because it is legal. An ethical person often does more than the law requires and less than it allows.

  • Terminating coaching services. For example, a coach may have a legal right to terminate coaching services in the middle of a season, but it might be unfair to a team or an athlete to do so.

  • Recruiting. Similarly, it is not illegal for a college coach to recruit an athlete who wants to come to the coach’s institution even though he knows it’s likely the athlete will be moving on to a professional team. However, it is unfair, disrespectful, and dishonest (violating the principle of candor) to do so.

“Is” Versus “Ought” Ethics

Ethics is not about the way things are, it’s about how they should be.


Ethics is a much broader term than sportsmanship. Ethics refers to moral standards that apply to all aspects of human activity while sportsmanship refers to the ethical framework and standards of conduct that define the honorable pursuit of victory in competitive activities. Although there is a long tradition and a core set of values and behavior generally agreed to comprise the foundation of sportsmanship, there is substantial disagreement regarding the precise content of those standards.

Arizona Sports Summit Accord and the Six Pillars of Character. The essential elements of character building and ethics in sports are embodied in the concept of sportsmanship and six core principles: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. The highest potential of sports is achieved when competition reflects these “Six Pillars of Character.” (Arizona Sports Summit Accord ¶1)


The principles of ethics and sportsmanship require coaches and athletes to always behave in ways that justify and generate trust. This includes demonstrating scrupulous integrity and honesty, keeping promises, and being loyal.

Honor the letter and spirit of rules. A sportsman/woman does not use manipulative tactics or legalistic evasions to justify conduct clearly intended to be prohibited. This includes the official rules of the sport and rules regulating recruitment, eligibility, compensation, practice limitations, equipment tampering, drug and alcohol use, etc.

Never cheat. Cheating is defined as deliberately violating the rules or traditions of a game to gain an unfair advantage. In some sports like basketball and hockey, the established traditions of the game permit a player to deliberately foul an opponent and take a penalty as a matter of strategy. This is not cheating.

Don’t lie or deceive in communications or representations. A coach should not lie or deceive an athlete, parent, or official in any representation. Of course, in many sports, deceiving an opponent during a game is “part of the game.” Thus, it does not violate the principle of integrity to “fake out” an opponent. Similarly, in baseball, the practice of a catcher “framing” a pitch to make a ball look like a strike has become a tradition so well accepted that it isn’t considered unsportsmanlike.

Don’t fake injuries. The concept of faking is for opponents, not sports officials. Thus, it is inconsistent with integrity to fake an injury to gain advantage or extra time. There is some disagreement on whether it is proper to fake a foul, pretend a ball was caught though it hit the ground first, or try to convince a referee that an opponent touched the ball last. The purest interpretation of sportsmanship would preclude these attempts to dupe the official into making a bad call.

Sometimes call plays against oneself. In volleyball, many coaches train their players to call a “touch” if a ball hits them before going out of bounds and the official misses the play. Similarly, in tennis, many coaches consider it proper etiquette and sportsmanship to call a ball that hits the line if the umpire erroneously calls it out. And golfers are expected to report extra strokes.


Good sportsmanship requires participants to behave respectfully and to be civil, polite, even gracious. Coaches are expected to treat athletes, parents, officials, and others with respect. As sports deteriorate into entertainment spectacles, one of the first things that goes is respect. In fact, taunting, fighting, insults, and dirty play are encouraged as a way of heightening entertainment value. Thus, professional wrestling has long abandoned any legitimate claim to be a true sport. Many people feel professional hockey is moving in that direction.

Win and lose with class. Sports should be looked at as an honorable contest of athletic skill. The duty to show respect for one’s opponents and the game itself requires coaches and their athletes to demonstrate grace and respectful civility whether they win or lose. Thus, bragging or boasting in victory are forms of unsportsmanlike behavior, as are complaining, blaming bad luck or officials, and whining in defeat.

Demonstrate appreciation of opponent. Coaches and their players should willingly and graciously acknowledge good plays and outstanding effort by opponents and applaud respectfully when they are introduced.

Help a fallen opponent. Coaches should teach their players to help a fallen opponent get up.

Shake hands with or cheer opponents with sincere respect. Coaches and their players should sincerely and respectfully participate in pre- and postgame rituals including hand-shaking, bowing, or giving formal cheers.

Don’t fight with opponents. Other than in strict combat sports (boxing, wresting, martial arts), it is improper to fight with, threaten, or personally insult an opponent.

Don’t permit taunting or trash-talking. Coaches should not permit their athletes to engage in taunting, trash-talking, ridiculing, or other disrespectful behavior.

Don’t use profanity. Coaches of character do not use, nor allow their athletes to use, profanity or obscene gestures in practice or games. Profanity is inherently disrespectful.

Assist opponents. One of the highest and most admirable forms of sportsmanship is when an athlete does more than he/she has to by assisting an opponent (e.g., lending equipment, offering help in warm-ups, etc.).

Show respect for athletes. The USOC makes clear the ethical obligation of coaches to treat their athletes with respect: “When engaged in coaching, coaches must recognize the power they hold over athletes and therefore make reasonable efforts to avoid engaging in conduct that is personally demeaning to athletes and other participants” (USOC 4.03(b)). Similarly: “Coaches should interact with their players in a respectful, non-degrading manner while encouraging them to perform at their highest level. (Article 8, Rule #3, American Football Coaches Association Code of Ethics).

  • Classroom standard. To teach and model respect and to promote the educational goals of athletics, a coach should not use techniques that would not be proper in a classroom.

  • Respecting beliefs. Coaches must respect the rights of others to hold values, attitudes, and opinions that differ from their own. (USOC 1.06)

  • Avoiding harassment . Coaches must not engage in behavior that is harassing or demeaning to persons with whom they interact in their work based on factors such as those persons’ age, gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, or socioeconomic status. (USOC 1.09)

Show respect for teammates. Coaches should encourage athletes to demonstrate respect and appreciation for teammates by cheering, complimenting, and supporting each other before and after events.

Show respect for officials. Coaches must be sure that their conduct stays within the bounds of respectful disagreement and should generally refrain from challenging or protesting calls in an insulting or combative manner. Under no circumstances should a protesting coach touch an official, kick dirt, or throw anything at or in the direction of an official. Don’t publicly complain about bad officiating.

Show respect for parents. Although parents can sometimes be a major problem for coaches, they have a legitimate and critical role in the athletic lives of their children. While coaches can and should establish ground rules that preserve their autonomy, they should communicate openly and regularly with parents and be open to discussions and feedback.


Exercise self-control. Coaches should demonstrate and require their athletes to demonstrate self-control, avoiding visible displays of anger or frustration whether directed at athletes, parents, officials, or media. Under no circumstances, should a coach engage in physical altercations.

Pursue excellence. Coaches should be the best they can be in all phases of coaching responsibilities – from skill-building to character-building to counseling.

Develop and maintain competence. Coaches must develop and demonstrate professional knowledge of the rules and strategies of their sport, basic coaching principles adjusted for the age group that they coach, fundamentals of first-aid, and methods of teaching and reinforcing good character through athletics.

Provide for the safety and welfare of athletes above all else. Coaches should take all reasonable steps to assure that the safety and health of athletes is the priority issue in practices, games, and in the environment provided.

  • Protect athletes against physical abuse, sexual harassment, or exploitation. Coaches must protect their athletes, never engaging in or allowing anyone under their control or influence to engage in physical abuse of athletes or any form of sexual harassment or exploitation.

  • Prepare athletes to deal with temptations and pressures. We need to warn and teach talented youngsters about the seductions they will face, seductions that can demean and endanger them – easy sex, available drugs, intoxicating praise, and those who exploit them economically, politically, or socially.

Sports-related temptations and dangers for student-athletes:

  • NCAA violations including work, compensation, and gifts

  • Use of performance-enhancing drugs

  • Unhealthy practices to gain or lose weight

  • Unhealthy win-at-any-cost attitudes that promote cheating and unsportsmanlike conduct

  • Imprudence or recklessness regarding personal health and safety

  • Excessive violence or the intent to injure others

  • Taunting or excessive celebrations

  • Disrespect for officials

  • Special off-the-field temptations and dangers

  • Distraction and minimization of importance of academic performance and education

  • Ignoring social and emotional needs

  • Recreational drugs including alcohol and tobacco

  • Gambling and dealing with gamblers (e.g., point-shaving)

  • Sexual promiscuity and related concerns including pregnancy and disease

  • Violence including fighting and sexual assaults

  • Unrealistic or imprudent dependency on making a living as an athlete

Be a positive role model. While many aspects of personal behavior and private activities seem far removed from official duties of coaching, all coaches should be sensitive to their position as role models for their athletes. Private activities perceived as immoral or illegal can influence the coaching environment, and coaches are encouraged to observe the standards of this Ethics Code consistently. (USOC 1.01)

Coaches must articulate and enforce policies that assure that athletes and others under their supervision exemplify good character and conduct themselves as positive role models on and off the field. (Arizona Sports Summit Accord ¶4)

Maintain the integrity of the sport. Coaches must assure that their sports are conducted with the utmost integrity. Cheating of any sort should not be tolerated. Although there is technically a choice between the gamesmanship and sportsmanship models of sports, coaches have an ethical responsibility to pursue, teach, and demand the sportsmanship model.

Maintain safe and respectful conditions. Coaches should assure that those under their supervision treat the traditions of the sport and other participants with respect. (Arizona Sports Summit Accord ¶11)

  • Protect visitors. Visitors should be protected from improper and unsportsmanlike behavior of fans. This includes providing adequate security and enforcing reasonable rules.

  • Regulate spirit groups. Mascots, cheerleaders, drill teams, and bands are an integral part of the atmosphere of a sporting event. It is the responsibility of coaches and athletic administrators to assure that their behavior reflects a sincere and solid commitment to the standards of good sportsmanship.

  • Regulate spectators. The behavior of spectators can have a dramatic impact on the atmosphere of a sporting event. All athletic contests should be regulated to reflect high standards of sportsmanship.

  • Parents. Many of the most passionate spectators are parents and relatives of athletes. It is especially important that coaches consciously attempt to educate this group as to its responsibilities. Inappropriate conduct from parents (e.g., yelling insults to players, coaches, and officials; “riding” a player; etc.) not only pollutes the atmosphere of honorable competition but usually embarrasses the athlete. The sport becomes unpleasant for many youngsters who are mortified by their parents’ conduct.

  • Create a positive environment. The sportsmanship ideals of an institution can be advanced by positive signage at the venues (e.g., mottos on scoreboards, fences, etc.), statements included in programs and schedules, and in pregame public-address announcements.


Coaches should assure that their teams and athletes play by the rules and treat everyone fairly. The concept of fair play is fundamental to sports. Anything that gives one an unfair advantage violates the spirit as well as the integrity of the sport. Thus, all forms of cheating violate the fairness and trustworthiness Pillars. Similarly, deliberate rule-breaking or evasions of the spirit of rules violate the fairness principle and citizenship obligation.


The professional duty of coaches to put athletes’ welfare first is one element of caring. Coaches also have a duty to care about the health and safety of opponents. Good coaches are always sensitive to the psychological and physical impact their words and decisions may have on athletes and others.


Coaches should model good citizenship by abiding by the rules and principles of sportsmanship.

Rule-breaking changes the game. In sports, rules are worthy of special reverence and respect. Rules define the nature of the sport and set the goals and objectives of the game. When one violates these rules, whether they be rules of the game or rules regulating eligibility, they change the game in a way that places value on skills or strategies not intended to be part of the game.

Rule-breaking is unfair. When one side breaks the rules, there is no longer a level playing field, and the nature of the competition changes.

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