Promoting Social and Moral Development through Sports
Marty Ewing, PhD

US Youth Soccer Parents Resource Library

For most people the development of social roles and appropriate social behaviors should occur during the childhood years. Physical play between parents and children, as well as between siblings and/or peers, serves as a strong regulator in the developmental process. Physical play may take the form of chasing games, rough housing or wrestling, or practicing sport skills such as jumping, throwing, catching, and striking. These activities may be competitive or non-competitive and are important for promoting social and moral development of both boys and girls. Unfortunately, fathers will often engage in this sort of activity more with their sons than their daughters. Regardless of the sex of the child, both boys and girls enjoy these types of activities.

Physical play during infancy and early childhood is central to the development of social and emotional competence. Researchers have reported that children who engage in more physical play with their parents, particularly with parents who are sensitive and responsive to the child, exhibited greater enjoyment during the play sessions and were more popular with their peers (MacDonald, 1988). Likewise, these early interactions with parents, siblings and peers are important in helping children become more aware of their emotions and to learn to monitor and regulate their own emotional responses. Children learn quickly, through watching the responses of their parents, that certain behaviors make their parents smile and laugh while other behaviors cause their parents to frown and disengage from the activity. If children want the fun to continue, they engage in the behaviors that please others. As children near adolescence, they learn through rough-and-tumble play that there are limits to how far they can go before hurting someone (physically or emotionally), which results in termination of the activity or later rejection of the child by peers. These early interactions with parents and siblings are important in helping children learn appropriate behavior in the social situation of sport and physical activity.

Children learn to assess their social competence (i.e., ability to get along with and acceptance by peers, family members, teachers and coaches) in sport through the feedback received from parents and coaches. Initially, children are taught "you can?t do that because I said so." As children approach school age parents begin the process of explaining why a behavior is right or wrong because children continuously ask, "why?" Similarly, when children engage in sports, they learn about taking turns with their teammates, sharing playing time, and valuing rules. They understand that rules are important for everyone and without these regulations the game would become unfair. The learning of social competence is continuous as we expand our social arena and learn about different cultures. A constant in the learning process is the role of feedback as we assess the responses of others to our behaviors and/or comments.

In addition to the development of social competence, sport participation can help youth develop other forms of self-competence. Paramount among these self-competencies is self-esteem. Self-esteem is how we judge our worthiness and indicates the extent to which an individual believes her/himself to be capable, significant, successful and worthy (Coopersmith, 1967). Educators have suggested that one of the biggest barriers to success in the classroom today is low self-esteem. Children are coming to our schools and sport teams with low self-esteem.

Self-esteem is developed through evaluating our abilities and by evaluating the responses of others to us. Children actively observe parents' and coaches' responses to their performances looking for signs (often nonverbal) of approval or disapproval of their behavior. No feedback and criticism are often interpreted as a negative response to the behavior. Within the sport arena, research has shown that the role of the coach is a critical source of information which influences children?s self-esteem. Little League baseball players whose coaches had been trained to use a "positive approach" to coaching (more frequent encouragement, positive reinforcement for effort and corrective, instructional feedback) had significantly higher self-esteem ratings over the course of a season than children whose coaches used these techniques less frequently (Smith, Smoll, & Curtis, 1979). However, the most compelling evidence supporting the importance of coaches' feedback was found for those children who started the season with the lowest self-esteem ratings. In addition to evaluating themselves more positively, low self-esteem children evaluated their coaches more positively than did children with higher self-esteem who played for coaches who used the "positive approach." Moreover, Barnett, Smoll and Smith (1992) found that 95 percent of the youth who played for coaches trained to use the positive approach signed up to play baseball the next year compared with 75 percent of the youth who played for untrained adult coaches.

The importance of enhanced self-esteem on future participation cannot be overlooked. A major part of the development of high self-esteem is the pride and joy that children experience as their physical skills improve. (As adults we experience the same feelings when our boss compliments us on a job done well!) Children will feel good about themselves as long as their skills are improving. However, if children feel that their performance during a game or practice is not as good as that of others, or as good as they think mom and dad would want, they often experience shame and disappointment. Some children will view mistakes made during a game as failure and will look for ways to avoid participating in the task if they receive no encouragement to continue. At this juncture, it is critical that adults (parents and coaches) intervene to help children interpret the mistake or failure. Children need to be taught that a mistake is not synonymous with failure. Rather, a mistake means a new strategy, more practice, and/or greater effort is needed to succeed at the task.

Because children often use social comparison as a way of determining their ability in sport, the highly visible arena of youth sports provides children with many opportunities to determine their ability compared with others on their teams. Unfortunately, given the influence of other factors such as maturation and previous knowledge of a sport on one?s ability to perform a sport skill, children often reach incorrect conclusions about their abilities. Thus, the role of parents and coaches becomes significant in helping children interpret the failure.

The development of self-esteem and perceptions of competence are not as simple as providing only positive feedback. The role of coaches? feedback, while critical, is complex. For example, among 13 to 15 year old female softball players, skill development was the primary contributor to positive changes in self-perceptions of ability (Horn, 1985). However, certain coaching behaviors also influenced perceptions of self-esteem during practice situations. Specifically, players who received more frequent positive feedback or no feedback in response to desirable performances during practice scored lower in perceived physical competence, while players who received more criticism in response to performance errors had higher perceptions of competence. Although these results appear contradictory to interpretations of the roles of positive and negative reinforcement, Horn attributed these findings to the specific nature of the comments. Positive reinforcement statements given by coaches were often unrelated to players? skill behaviors. That is, statements were not responses to desirable skill techniques and behaviors, but rather were more general (e.g., "good job, Sally" rather than "good job, Sally, on using two hands to catch the ball"). Coaches? use of criticism was often a direct response to a skill error and usually contained skill relevant information on how to improve (e.g., "That?s not the way to hit a ball, Jill! Put both hands together and keep your elbows away from your body"). Thus, the quality of coaches? feedback is critical to children?s understanding of the feedback. Specifically, instructional content, rather than the quantity of the feedback is the key to helping athletes develop skills and perceived competence.

Another issue related to social competence, particularly during the adolescent years, is how youth perceive their competence in an activity, including sport. Research has shown a significant relationship between physical competence, interpersonal skills, and peer acceptance (Weiss & Duncan, 1992). Boys and girls who believed that they were physically competent in sport were rated as having higher physical competence by their teachers. Those who believed that they were physically competent were also those who perceived themselves to be more popular with their peers, were competent in social relationships as rated by their teachers, and expected to be successful in interpersonal situations.
Finally, the development of high self-esteem is critical to help youth buffer the negative influences experienced by youth in today?s society. For example, the Women?s Sports Foundation has proposed that girls who have high self-esteem are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers and are more likely to leave an abusive relationship than girls with low self-esteem. When teenagers evaluate themselves in a positive way, they are more capable of saying "no" to drugs and gangs. High self-esteem will not guarantee that youth will make the right decisions, but it does provide a stronger basis for resisting the pressures that currently exist.

In addition to developing a positive sense of self, involvement in sport activities can assist children in learning what is right from wrong (i.e., moral development). Indeed, moral concepts of fairness support the very existence of the notion of sport (Shields & Bredemeier, 1995). For youth to learn about fair play, sport activities must be designed to facilitate cooperation rather than just competition. One of the best ways that participation in sport can teach our children about fair play is through teaching the rules of the game and, more importantly, ABIDING by the rules during competition. If the league rules mandate that every member of the team plays for a specified amount of time (e.g., one-quarter of the game or a specified number of innings or minutes), parents and coaches should follow the rule without grumbling about what will happen when we HAVE to put Chris, a low ability athlete, in the game. Equally important is instilling the understanding that time and positions must be shared during the early learning periods. In addition, many of children?s early experiences in informal and formal sports require that children serve as their own officials. Tennis players must call their own lines during competitions while pick-up games require that children call their own fouls. These games only continue peacefully to the extent that everyone cooperates to have a game and is fair in their officiating calls. If fair play is to be taught and learned, it is the responsibility of all those associated with the sport experience to help athletes learn and appreciate the concept of fair play.

Parents, coaches, and officials will undermine the learning of the concept of fair play if they are not consistent in their teaching and personal conduct. Most coaches and parents espouse the virtue of fair play until they perceive that the opponent is gaining an advantage or winning unfairly. Parents may even chastise the coach who abides by the rules and does not win, which sends a mixed message to youth about the importance of fair play. Journalists and broadcasters have fallen into the same trap of believing that the only worthy performance was that given by the winning team regardless of whether they abided by the rules or not. For example, broadcasters laud the cleverness of a team which is able to confuse the official and send a better free throw shooter to the line instead of the person who was fouled. Parents and coaches must help youth interpret the appropriateness of these behaviors in light of what is right and wrong.

Implications for Social and Moral Development Through Sport

The development of appropriate social behavior begins BEFORE children enter sports. Parents and siblings provide important information to infants, toddlers and young children about acceptable ways to respond to being frustrated. For example, children learn that biting, hitting, pinching and kicking are not acceptable ways to retaliate because (1) these actions hurt others and (2) the play often stops when children act inappropriately. Learning the limits to which one can go and still maintain the ?game? is one way children learn how to interact successfully with other children.

Participation in sport extends the learning of social competence by teaching children to cooperate with their teammates and opponents as well as abide by the rules. Without this cooperation the game will not continue. Parents and coaches must be persistent and consistent in teaching the value of cooperation.

Parents must provide opportunities to learn social competence to both their daughters and sons. Fathers, in particular, are often more involved in teaching social competence through physical activity and sport to their sons. The outcomes of a high level of perceived competence (i.e., enhanced self-esteem, higher perceptions of competence, and greater acceptance by friends) are equally important to both girls and boys.
Coaches can facilitate the development of social competence through the use of positive feedback. When teaching sport skills, coaches should provide plenty of instructional and encouraging statements. Children are going to make mistakes while learning and performing sport skills. The use of a positive approach to error correction will assure that children will want to continue to practice and will enhance self-esteem, particularly among youth who have lower self-esteem.

Sport provides numerous opportunities to teach moral principles. The key to children learning what is right and wrong starts with coaches and parents being consistent in their OWN behavior. Coaches and parents should:
use situations that arise in sport as opportunities to teach WHY certain behaviors are right and others are wrong
talk about the importance of being honest
promote acceptance of responsibility for one?s actions
teach children to respect one?s teammates, opponents and officials
Martha Ewing is an Associate Professor at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. The Institute for the Study of Youth Sports (YSI) was founded by the Michigan Legislature in 1978 to research the benefits and detriments of participation in youth sports; to produce educational materials for parents, coaches, officials, and administrators; and to provide educational programs for coaches, officials, administrators, and parents. You can contact the YSI at (517) 353-6689, or at