Do sports build character or reveal it?

Maybe you are tempted to repeat the witty Coach Woodenism: "Sports do not build character. They reveal it." Certainly pressure situations in games will undoubtedly reveal something about what a player is “made of.” Yet within a singular sport there often are multiple situations in which a player can respond with forthright, admirable, and upstanding behavior, or NOT.

Actions like words can be taken out of context. For instance it is not a stretch of the imagination that in today’s culture one may gain RESPECT by being slam dunk “in-your-face” disrespectful towards a competitor. Now when reputations collide with character some opportunity for improvement reveals itself. To restore character is difficult because its reward of feeling good about doing the right thing is not always reflected on the scoreboard or supported by your peers.

The rewards for building character however are about more than a feeling. It is about gaining a deeper perspective in life, a sharper mind and body. It may lead you to understand how rules can actually help you and your co-participants excel. Kids these days are specializing in sport much earlier in their lives. And it seems the action of the children is taken out of context when parents exhibit and model poor sportsmanship as spectators. Give them the time and space to build their own character.

In a related article I mention the need for more explicit character development in physical education. The main point is a character building program involves a process that must be explicitly planned and not taken for granted. It is not mere coincidence that rules for sportsmanship at high school athletic events in New Jersey were founded on a law enacted to counter harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) behavior in public schools. No wonder then that education critics such as Alfie Kohn have declared competition among students inherently bad since they unavoidably lead to open aggression, hostility and prejudice as an outcome of the set-up of contests.

Kidsbridge Tolerance Museum at The College of New Jersey
With regard to anti-bullying and anti-prejudice efforts I was fortunate enough to work one summer at Kidsbridge ToleranceMuseum which is only youth-oriented tolerance museum in the United States. Kidsbridge purchased the Chicago Children 's Museum 's "Face to Face: Dealing with Prejudice and Discrimination" in 2006 and moved it to the campus of TCNJ in Ewing, NJ. The ideas of having children encounter hateful and prejudicial language they may not otherwise know in order to instruct and enable them to prevent discriminatory behavior initially met with some criticism. But a lot has changed since the exhibits opening …namely a requirement of school districts in NJ to track incidents of HIB.

The Founder and Executive Director of Kidsbridge, Lynne Azarchi, is a leading advocate for anti-bullying, self-esteem building, personal empowerment, character education and diversity appreciation. The Museum's elementary and middle school programs are evidence-based. The higher docent-to-student ratio ensures that experiential learning at Kidsbridge is much more effective than large and perhaps impersonal assembly programs typically administered at schools.

At Kidsbridge small groups of students rotate from station to station. Stations may include Kid heroes, power chargers, school bus, disabilities, religion and a puppet skit/show. TCNJ teaching majors in health and exercise science may volunteer to guide a physical activity station. Given the criticism from Alfie Kohn regarding competition mentioned above students were encouraged to do more collaborative and cooperative activities (e.g. line dancing).

Over the summer I was afforded the opportunity to put together some mini-lessons in which I incorporated some ideas from Project AdventureAn important part of the lessons was the debriefings in which students could think critically about their performance and how it may have connected to the other Kidsbridge stations.

As I reflect upon the mini-lessons at Kidbridge I remember more than a good feeling about providing a few opportunities for children to work together. Sure they even had some fun with the deck ring relay which involved a little playful competition. Clearly there are competitive games still used in many PE classes that allow open hostility toward others mainly as a result of their set-up (i.e. Dodgeball). It is important in PE to address the mental set-up of activities in PE as well. Get students to talk about sporty vs. gamey behavior and how it may affect more than their feelings. Empower them to think critically by having them encounter examples of gamesmanship and to stand up against it with acts of sportsmanship. Game on!