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 charakte–r, 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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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- Shields, D. L., & Bredemeier, B. L. (2011). Coaching for civic character. Journal of Research in Character Education, 9(1), 25–33.