Sportspersonship has long been a topic of interest in physical education (PE) and sport environments and is one of the most frequently mentioned virtues promoted by sports. Sportspersonship represents a wide-ranging concept that has important consequences for the physical and psychological welfare of all sport participants. From a psychological perspective, the concept of sportspersonship is closely related to that of moral behavior and development. However, theory in this area has not systematically addressed the role of both person and contextual variables in explaining moral behavior and moral development in sport. Therefore, Robert J. Vallerand and colleagues have proposed a social–psychological approach to sportspersonship.
First, this approach posits that both individual differences and social forces influence sportspersonship behavior. Second, the behavior of others plays an important role in helping individuals define the content of sportspersonship. It is through their interaction with their peers, parents, coaches, and other sport participants that children come to learn what sportspersonship is and what it is not. In line with these assumptions, Vallerand and colleagues proposed and empirically validated a multidimensional definition of sportspersonship that incorporates five facets:
- A full commitment toward sport participation by working hard and showing up during practices and games, acknowledging one’s mistakes, and trying to improve
- Respect for social conventions to be found in sports, such as shaking hands after the game or recognizing the good performance of the opponent
- Respect and concern for the rules and officials
- Respect and concern for the opponent (i.e., fair play), such as refusing to take advantage of an injured opponent or agreeing to wait for a late opponent instead of winning by default
- Absence of a negative approach toward sportspersonship, which can manifest itself in the adoption of a win-at-all-costs mentality or by losing one’s temper after making a mistake.
In sum, sportspersonship can be defined as the concern and respect of one’s full commitment for the sport, the rules and officials, social conventions, and the opponent as well as the relative absence of a negative approach toward participation.
The social psychological approach further proposes that it is important to distinguish between three key elements: sportspersonship behavior, sportspersonship orientations, and the development of sportspersonship orientations. Sportspersonship behavior refers to the display of behavior at one given point in time. Sportspersonship orientations pertain to individual differences in the propensity to act in a sportspersonlike fashion. Finally, the development of sportspersonship orientations refers to the process through which sportspersonship orientations develop. In line with the social psychological approach, sportspersonship orientations refer to individual differences in the propensity to behave in line with each of the sportspersonship dimensions outlined previously. For instance, athletes with a high orientation toward concern for the rules and officials would be less likely to cheat than athletes who score low on this orientation. Consequently, Vallerand and colleagues developed a scale in order to capture individual differences
in sportspersonship orientations. This scale, labeled the Multidimensional Sportspersonship Orientation Scale (MSOS), is based on the sportspersonship definition outlined previously and serves to measure athletes’ orientation on the five sportspersonship dimensions described previously. Each dimension is measured using five items. Support for this multidimensional conceptualization of sportspersonship has been provided by extensive validation work. Finally, the development of sportspersonship orientations refers to the process through which sportspersonship orientations develop.
Determinants of Sportspersonship
As stated earlier, both personal factors and the social environment influence the determinants of sportspersonship orientations. As it pertains to personal factors, research has shown gender differences in sportspersonship orientations. Specifically, girls have been found to exhibit higher levels of moral reasoning and moral functioning, as well as less aggressive behaviors, than boys in sport. Additionally, motivation toward one’s sport has also been shown to influence one’s sportspersonship orientation. More precisely, it has been shown that intrinsic motivation was positively, while extrinsic motivation was negatively, related to sportspersonship. Moreover, the motivational climate of the team has been related to sportspersonship orientations. Specifically, athletes who play in a strong task(or mastery) oriented climate where one focuses on learning and self-referenced achievement and progress are more likely to develop and display higher sportspersonship. Conversely, athletes perceiving a high ego(or performance) oriented climate where the focus is on normative achievement and criteria of success and failure are more likely to display low levels of sportspersonship. The same line of reasoning applies to individual achievement goal orientation. More precisely, task-oriented goals in athletes are typically associated to high sportspersonship levels, whereas ego-oriented goals are related to low sportspersonship levels.
Consequences of Sportspersonship
Sportspersonship orientations have been shown to be associated to various consequences by influencing the way individuals approach their sport. In fact, individuals who display higher levels of sportspersonship are less likely to display unethical behaviors, such as cheating or using performance-enhancing substances. Furthermore, stronger sportspersonship orientations have been shown to lead to less reactive aggression in sport. In other words, sportspersonship orientations seem to reduce athletes’ tendency to use malicious or injurious behaviors within a competitive setting. Conversely, individuals with high-level sportspersonship orientations are more likely to use instrumental aggression, an unemotional and task-oriented way of interfering with an opponent. Simply put, they will respect the rules and social conventions of their sport when determining what is acceptable while competing.
In sum, a social–psychological and multidimensional approach to sportspersonship provides a broader, yet integrative, perspective of the personal and contextual factors influencing the development and display of sportspersonship orientations. Furthermore, it leads to a better understanding of important consequences of these orientations for moral as well as immoral behavior in sports.
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