Character Development

The term character has a long, complex, and controversial history. An old adage holds that “sport builds character” and historically the inclusion of sport  programs  in  educational  settings  often  has been  justified  through  appeal  to  their  supposed character-building  efficacy.  The  following  entry elaborates  on  the  meaning  of  character  and  discusses how sport researchers have dealt with this complex concept.

What Is Character?

Etymologically, the term character comes from the Greek charakter, meaning “indelible mark.” Over the  centuries,  the  term  evolved  and  took  on  various and shifting connotations, yet it continued to carry the meaning of enduring qualities that mark a person. Today, there is no shared agreement on the definition of character. Some, for example, use it simply as a synonym for personality, while others promote a more narrow interpretation of character, limiting it to the moral dimensions of personhood.

Following the lead of the Character Education Partnership,  the  nation’s  leading  umbrella  organization  of  character  educators,  we  elaborate  a middle-road view of character that defines it more broadly than moral character yet not as broadly as including  all  dimensions  of  personality.  For  present purposes, let us define character as the set of psychological  characteristics  that  motivate  and enable the individual to seek truth and goodness. Character is rooted in desire for what is true, right, and  good,  and  a  honed  ability  to  translate  that desire into effective action. The term virtue is often used to describe a quality of character when it is well established. In turn, let us describe character development as the learning and development that individuals  undergo  as  they  acquire  and  solidify the requisite dispositions, competencies, and skills of character.

Character  is  evident  in  action,  but  a  person’s character does not fully determine behavior. Action arises  from  complex  interactions  among  personal and situational influences, and sometimes temptations  or  pressures  may  overpower  the  tendencies that  arise  from  one’s  dispositions.  Nonetheless, research  has  demonstrated  that  character  can  be an  important  influence  on  behavior  across  contexts and situations.

Character  can  be  elucidated  in  terms  of  four forms  or  dimensions  of  character:  intellectual character, moral character, civic character, and performance  character.  All  four  are  rooted  in  stable dispositional   tendencies.   They   are   elaborated below.

Intellectual Character

In  his  influential  book,  Intellectual  Character, Ron  Ritchhart  describes  intellectual  character  as a  set  of  dispositions  that  both  shape  and  motivate  intellectual  behavior.  The  dispositions  that make  up  intellectual  character  include  curiosity, open-mindedness,  and  truth  seeking.  Those  with well-developed  intellectual  character  are  curious about  the  world  around  them,  think  critically, and  are  constantly  seeking  a  deeper  understanding. Athletes with exemplary intellectual character, for  example,  may  ponder  questions  such  as  how sports influence broader society; what responsibilities elite athletes bear; how race, gender, and class limit  opportunities;  and  so  on.  While  it  may  be hypothesized  that  intellectual  character  contributes to a range of positive actions in sport settings, sport researchers have left this dimension of character largely unexamined.

Moral Character

When people talk of character, most often they mean  moral  character.  Moral  character  refers  to those  psychological  characteristics  that  motivate and  enable  the  individual  to  function  as  a  competent  moral  agent.  These  include  moral  reasoning  competency  and  perspective-taking  ability, empathy and moral identity, value hierarchies, and moral  belief  systems.  At  root,  moral  character  is grounded in a basic and fundamental desire to do what  is  good  and  right.  A  person  of  high  moral character is one who has a disposition to focus on moral dimensions of situations and act consistently with considered moral convictions.

Often, moral character is most evident in situations where values collide and choices need to be made.  For  example,  an  athlete  may  believe  that cheating is wrong and simultaneously want to gain the benefits of victory. If moral character is strong, the  moral  concerns  will  take  precedence  over  the more self-aggrandizing thoughts. It is important to recognize, however, that even a person with well developed moral character may not be completely consistent in thought and action. All people, it is reasonable to assume, fail to resist the temptation to depart from their better selves on occasion (see “Performance Character” below).

Civic Character

Civic  character  refers  to  those  psychological characteristics  that  motivate  and  enable  the  people’s  active,  prosocial  involvement  in  the  groups to which they belong. A person with strong civic character  tends  to  be  engaged  in  communities and society, seeking to improve them. People with strong  civic  character  tend  to  think  in  terms  of shared interests and the common good. An athlete who seeks voluntary leadership roles on the team, not for selfish reasons but to serve, is likely to have well-developed civic character.

Performance Character

A  dimension  of  character  that  has  received growing  attention  in  recent  years  is  performance character. This dimension of character refers to all of those psychological characteristics that motivate and  enable  the  individual  to  function  effectively, efficiently,  and  competently  as  a  value-pursuing agent.  People  with  strong  performance  character have  an  increased  likelihood  of  accomplishing their  goals.  Performance  character  includes  such qualities  as  determination,  perseverance,  resilience, optimism, courage, loyalty, and attention to detail. Performance character reflects skills of self-management.  It  is  important  to  recognize,  however, that the qualities that make up performance character,  while  sometimes  called  virtues,  are  in themselves  neither  good  nor  bad.  Is  it  good,  for example,  to  be  loyal  to  an  ignoble  leader  or  persistent in trying to rob a bank? The value of performance  character  depends  on  the  goals  served. When  combined  with  a  well-developed  moral character, performance character enables a person to resist distractions and temptations and act effectively in the moral domain.

Character Development

How the multiple dimensions of character develop is a topic of considerable dispute among developmental  and  educational  psychologists.  The  two most influential schools of thought have their origins  in  behaviorist  and  constructivist  approaches to psychology.

The Behaviorist Approach to Character Development

According to behaviorists, and those influenced by  them  (such  as  social  learning  theorists),  character development is primarily under the molding influence  of  the  environment.  From  this  perspective,  the  dispositions  that  constitute  character are  products  of  reinforcement  contingencies  and modeling  opportunities.  For  example,  if  an  athlete frequently gets in fights with opponents, it is because  the  athlete  has  learned  that  the  negative consequences  to  fighting  are  outweighed  by  the rewards  like  an  intimidated  opponent.  Similarly, if an athlete upholds the ideals of sportsmanship, it is because that athlete, through years of experience, has learned that there are significant benefits, such  as  an  enhanced  reputation  and  praise  from others, from acting in a prosocial manner.

Character educators who rely predominantly on the perspectives of behaviorists and social learning theorists place a great deal of emphasis on the role of authority figures, such as parents and coaches. It is these people who have the greatest power to control  how  rewards  are  distributed.  By  modeling  desired  behaviors  and  managing  the  costs and  benefits  that  follow  actions,  behavior  can  be shaped and eventually dispositions established and reinforced.

In addition, direct teaching of character virtues is often advocated by behaviorists and neobehaviorists.  For  example,  coaches  are  encouraged  to explain what respect means, model it themselves, and  then  shape  the  behavior  of  their  athletes by  rewarding  respectful  behavior  and  punishing  deviations.  Critics  maintain  that  the  strategies  recommended  by  behaviorists  may  work  to modify behavior, but only in the short term. What happens  when  the  modeling  and  reinforcements change? What happens, for example, when a new coach  arrives  who  rewards  winning  rather  than respectful behavior? Since the behaviorist’s strategies  don’t  address  the  core  beliefs  and  values  of the learner, they may create situational conformity to  expectations  without  genuinely  influencing character.

The influential work of Albert Bandura provides something of a bridge between the behavioral and social  learning  traditions  of  psychology  and  the constructivist approaches to be discussed next. His theoretical roots extend deeply into social learning theory, but over the past couple of decades he has increasingly  incorporated  cognitive  mediators  of behavior.  Like  other  behavioral  and  social  learning  theorists,  character,  for  Bandura,  is  rooted  in environmental experiences, and society is the ultimate  arbiter  of  what  counts  as  moral.  Bandura extends the paradigm, however, by suggesting that the  person  can  develop  and  employ  self-management  skills  that  can  provide  stability  to  character despite  changing  contextual  influences.  Cognitive processes,  however,  can  also  derail  character. Bandura discusses at length the cognitive processes of  moral  disengagement  that  function  to  provide self-justifying excuses for antisocial behavior.

The Constructivist Approach to Character Development

The constructivist approach to character development maintains that the child is not a blank slate ready to be written on through modeling and reinforcement.  Rather,  the  child  is  a  meaning  maker who actively interprets experience and selects what aspects  of  the  environment  to  attend  to.  When, for  example,  an  adult  rewards  a  child,  the  effect is  not  automatic.  Rather,  the  child  interprets  the informational value of the adult’s action and may choose to comply with or rebel against the effort to  shape  personal  behavior.  Children’s  character is  influenced  as  much  by  the  child’s  own  choices and initiative as through such external sources as modeling and reinforcement.

Character educators who draw from constructivist  theories  engage  with  the  child  on  the  level of  meaning  and  relationship,  not  just  the  level of   reward   and   punishment.   They   emphasize such  processes  as  dialogue,  group  dynamics,  and building  communities  where  trust  and  care  are nurtured.  The  foundation  of  character  is  in  positive  relationships  where  personal  dispositions  are forged  through  enduring  patterns  of  interaction. When a person feels known, valued, included, and empowered,  the  person  is  more  open  to  positive social influence.

Character Development and Sport

It  is  clear  that  the  physical  activities  of  sport— throwing, kicking, or hitting balls, running, jumping,  and  so  forth—do  not  have  any  significant impact  on  character  development.  To  the  extent that  sport  experiences  contribute  to  the  development of character, it is because of the opportunities they provide to set and pursue goals, build meaningful and purpose-driven relationships, cooperate to achieve shared aims, experience and manage a range  of  intense  emotions,  and  test  ethical  commitments  through  the  challenges  of  competition. Perhaps more than any other widely shared activity, sports can provide many young people with a chance to build nurturing relationships with both peers and adults.

As historians and sociologists have pointed out, the  specific  virtues  that  sport  is  claimed  to  nurture have varied considerably from one historical period  to  the  next.  In  19th-century  England,  for example,  team  sports  were  a  regular  part  of  life in many boarding schools because it was believed that  they  would  build  those  qualities  useful  to the  elites  of  the  far-flung  British  Empire.  It  was claimed that sports would develop leadership, strategic thinking, loyalty, courage, and other aspects of  manliness.  By  the  early  20th  century  in  the United States, the character-building ideology continued, but with a different cast of virtues. With a large  influx  of  immigrants  and  a  growing  urban economy,  sports  were  seen  as  vehicles  to  prepare a  compliant  workforce  with  such  dispositions  as obedience, discipline, patriotism, and self-sacrifice.

The changing definitions of character highlight the  need  for  researchers  to  carefully  and  operationally  define  the  term.  To  date,  most  research on  character  in  sport  has  focused  on  the  moral dimension.

Research on specific aspects of moral character, such  as  moral  reasoning  capacity,  has  shed  some light. There has been no research to support a positive role for sports in advancing moral reasoning, apart from a small number of intervention studies. A few studies have suggested that participation in some sports, particularly at the college level, may have  negative  effects  on  moral  reasoning,  though inconsistent  results  and  methodological  concerns prevent this from being considered a verified conclusion. The research on what has been called the professionalization of values, though, has demonstrated that the longer one participates in sport and the higher the competitive level, the lower playing fair is as a value relative to winning.

Research related to dimensions of performance character  is  more  encouraging,  but  the  evidence is  indirect.  For  example,  based  on  longitudinal investigations,  it  appears  that  participation  in high  school  sports  is  associated  with  later  educational  attainment  and  lower  drop-out  rates.  One likely  explanation  for  these  positive  outcomes  is that sports develop qualities like goal setting, time management,  delay  of  gratification,  sequential thinking,  initiative,  concentration,  and  attention focusing. These skills and dispositions, which are core to performance character, can lead to greater success  in  both  sports  and  school.  Additional research is needed, however, to investigate directly the  hypothesized  links  and  to  examine  potential mediating  effects  of  such  variables  as  sport  type, coaching styles, and team culture issues.

One encouraging finding is that when character development is an intentional and explicit aim of physical  activity  programs  and  when  leaders  are trained  to  implement  it,  positive  results  can  be obtained.  Don  Hellison,  for  example,  has  developed an influential approach to character development  through  physical  activity  and  sport.  In  his model for developing personal and social responsibility, he combines a focus on both moral character and the self-control dimensions of performance character.

No doubt, many practitioners will continue to list  character  development  as  one  goal  for  sports participation,  and  researchers  will  continue  to investigate the promises and pitfalls of such a goal.

To move forward, both theory-based practitioners and  practice-based  researchers  will  need  to  work diligently to clarify their terms and elucidate their theoretical  framework.  Character  will  continue to  be  a  disputed  concept,  but  an  important  one nonetheless.


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  2. Clifford, C., & Feezell, R. M. (2010). Sport and character: Reclaiming the principles of sportsmanship. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  3. Hellison, D. (2010). Teaching personal and social responsibility through physical activity (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  4. Lapsley, D. K., & Power, F. C. (2005). Character psychology and character education. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
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  8. Shields, D. L., & Bredemeier, B. L. (2011). Coaching for civic character. Journal of Research in Character Education, 9(1), 25–33.

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