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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Teaching young athletes not to cheat

The ball tampering events of the last two weeks left me thinking about the early experiences of elite athletes that set the ground work for poor moral choices later in life. In amidst the chest beating and borderline hysteria over events in South Africa, I was struck by the observation from US baseball commentators that, although against the rules, ball tampering occurs on a regular basis. Baseball players are penalised, but less and not banned for a year. Interestingly, questions have yet to emerge about whether penalties imposed on the cricketers amount to an unreasonable restraint of trade.

But back to youth sport. In 2007, US education researcher, Nancy Tuana, observed:

“If we have learned anything at all from the economic impact of the ethics violations of companies like Enron or the social and civic impacts of the recent Congressional ethics violations, we should certainly have learned that to fully answer the challenge of a changing world, we cannot ignore the essential role of moral literacy in our children’s education.”

Thus, from that starting point, we can place cheating in sport within the wider context of what Tuana and others have described as ‘moral literacy’.

Few parents would want their children to take part in sport if their children were known as cheats and, accusations about other people’s children, opposition coaches and referees ring out every week from the sidelines of kids’ sport. So I guess, we do take it seriously.

To be ‘literate’ (thinking about reading and numeracy) is not simple. While some of those ‘literacies’ can be picked up or copied from others successfully, for the most part they require teaching and practice. And we assume the teachers of reading and maths know what they are doing i.e. qualified. It seems entirely reasonable that given the centrality of sport in the lives of many children and its accompanying ethical challenges, we should expect the same careful teaching and practice of ‘moral literacy basics’.

Without doubt, parents, wider family members, religion and others influence the way in which children shape their understanding of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. But at critical stages in young people’s lives, teachers and coaches have the opportunity to concentrate children’s minds on things that matter to the child – one of those things is the sport experience.

Sport provides a continual overlay of playing within the rules. However, there are moments in a game or during training when an ethical issue rises the surface. A deliberate push by a a basketball defender on the player going for the winning lay, a soccer dive, to shirt pull or not, to dope or not to dope, to bet illegally or not and so on. Each of these moments will be on a sliding scale of moral intensity.

Do not expect young players to get it right every time; especially if it has not been discussed, taught and practiced at training. I have vivid memories of coaching a thirteen-year old basketballer for the first time. When I asked him why he always fouled his opponent when the opponent beat him, the answer was “Dad said ‘never let your opponent get past you no matter what it takes’.” It took some time to persuade the youngster that no matter what Dad said, this coach would not allow it. And that’s the sort of challenge coaches don’t need. Will I talk to Dad and risk the player being pulled or will he concede?

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned the importance of simulating decision-making in practice. We do it for offense and defense, but how many of us rehearse moral choice situations. Kids sport is fertile ground for providing children with a lasting benefit. What could be more beneficial than moral literacy. In a recent post, I mentioned teaching by analogy. How many of your young athletes download material illegally? “Everyone does it coach: what’s the big deal?” Well there’s a teachable moment!

The important point for coaches (and other involved adults – the entourage), is that the athlete is faced with a choice. Without thinking, we mostly ‘choose’ not to shoplift even when the opportunity presents itself. So it should be the same in sport; players must, ‘without thinking’, choose to behave morally. So here is a thought for the day. Does honesty result from the absence of temptation or the active resistance of temptation?

If you are committed to producing winning players who are better people, then you should build these moral choices into practice, draw them to the athlete’s attention and practice, practice and practice.

(photo source:

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