Submitted by Luke Nielsen

Luke Nielsen is an educator and strength and conditioning coach at Saint Ansgar High School in Saint Ansgar, Iowa. He received his Master of Sports Science degree from the United States Sports Academy, and is currently pursuing a terminal degree through the Academy.


Purpose: This article was adapted from an unpublished essay previously submitted by the author as a course requirement for SAB 634: Ethics in Sports at the United States Sports Academy in Daphne, Alabama. The essay is intended to provide coaches and athletics administrators—specifically those operating within the frameworks of high school, club, and non-profit-generating collegiate programs—with a sound functional overview of existing research related to the influence of the program climate on the moral development of athletes and to offer suggestions for the implementation of research-supported techniques aimed at eliciting high levels of positive moral development. Methods: A broad range of existing literature related to the moral development of athletes was compiled, examined, analyzed, and disseminated. Results: The examined research findings suggest that moral development is rooted in emotional contexts and develops from a high level of externalization toward autonomy. Furthermore, existing research clearly supports a strong positive correlation between the social environment, the motivational orientation of athletes, and moral development. Specifically, coaches who model and support autonomous moral behaviors maintain the most positive influence on the healthy moral development of athletes; and athletes possessing high task-ego goal orientations tend to have the highest levels of moral functioning. Conclusions: Due to their inherently emotional constructs and the progressive development of skills toward autonomy associated with sports, athletics serve as an ideal environment for moral development. By deemphasizing winning as an end goal in order to support task goal orientation and healthy competition, sports programs can effectively promote positive moral development. Applications in Sports: Athletics organizations that claim to exist for the developmental benefit of the participating athletes—specifically non-revenue generating athletics entities—must examine and implement sound research-supported strategies associated with the moral development of athletes. By developing an understanding of the concepts identified and incorporating the practices prescribed within this essay, coaches and athletics administrators may establish sports programs that effectively promote positive moral development.


Media outlets and research findings have often cited a number of socially deviant behaviors connected to athletes and athletics programs. Research has noted a relatively high percentage of athletes connected to crimes—including violent crimes—when compared to the non-athlete student population at NCAA Division I-A institutions; and trends have been identified that indicate a shift in athlete and coach perspectives away from the values typically associated with athletics—chemistry, loyalty, respect—and toward more extrinsic, career-focused goals (6, 7). These deviations from traditionally held standards of ethical behavior have largely been attributed to the commercialization of sports and the resulting “win at all costs” mentality (7, 8). As a result, many of the measures proposed to address such trends of moral deviance have focused on amending the existing structures of athletics to more effectively regulate the consequences of such commercialization (13, 16, 20). While such measures may certainly be valuable and warranted, they do not necessarily address the underlying issue that is the actual moral development of the athletes. A holistic approach to ethical dilemmas in sports must consider such development.

While much of the noted media coverage and research findings related to the deviant behavior of athletes and athletic programs has focused on the major college and professional ranks, interventions related to ethical behavior should also be focused on high school, club, and non-revenue-generating college athletics programs. These groups provide a logical stage at which to address the moral development of athletes due to the available data, the developmental level of the athletes, and the more widespread access to and less commercial nature of these sports groups when compared to major college spectator sports and professional athletics in general. Furthermore, it is sensible to presume that interventions aimed at the positive moral maturation of athletes should be present during a stage of cognitive and social development that exists well before and throughout the post-secondary level.

Research has indicated that the majority of negative ethical issues often associated with sports stem from the established culture of the larger athletic program (21). As such, interventions aimed at moral development must also address the larger program culture. The moral climates established by athletic programs have a profound impact on the moral development of the athletes; and a detailed examination of established theories of general moral development, factors specifically influencing moral development in sports, and interventions aimed at eliciting an environment supportive of increased moral functioning indicates that a positive moral climate in sports must deemphasize winning contests as the primary end goal.


Existing research related to both general moral development and moral development in athletics was extensively examined. Research findings published in reputable professional journals served as the primary sources for gathered information. Research findings were then analyzed, conclusions were formulated, and suggestions for the application of methods associated with positive athlete moral development were disseminated.


Established Theories of Moral Development

Ferrari and Okamoto (9) examined the works of influential psychologists and philosophers William James and Jean Piaget. Williams James, during his work in moral development around the turn of the 20th Century, argued that moral behaviors must be anchored in strong emotions, not solely objective, logical reasoning. The theories of Jean Piaget also support the emotional component of moral development. Piaget suggested that, while moral development may well be informed and developed through reasoning, it is an emotional state.

Piaget further articulated the process of moral development. Specifically, Piaget identified four steps of affective moral development: sensorimotor-affect, context-bound affective representations, concrete affective operations, and formal affective operations. Under this framework, the sensorimotor-affect deals with immediate emotional responses; context-bound affective representations are values that are not innately perceived but are established within specific interpersonal constructs; concrete affective operations are those in which moral constructs can be internalized and reciprocated; and formal affective operations are those processes in which original moral constructs can be developed and a distinct personality can emerge.

James and Piaget also made recommendations for establishing environments that support the identified emotional states and nurture the progressive development of moral reasoning. In basic terms, James suggested that establishing an environment in which individuals are continually immersed in a culture of morality, and not necessarily provided specifics rules or guidelines for preferred behaviors, is the ideal method for moral development. Furthermore, James and Piaget both made recommendations to educators advocating for learning experiences that foster collaboration, support discovery learning, promote empathy, and provide access to student interests.

Huttunen (12) also examined the works of several renowned philosophers, including 18th-Century philosopher and economist Adam Smith, German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, German professor of philosophy Axel Honneth, and philosopher Robert Williams. Huttunen specifically examined the assertions of these philosophers related to moral development. Smith simultaneously advocated for egocentric business practices and moral social practices rooted in sympathy and benevolence. Hegel set out to resolve the seeming paradox of Adam Smith’s theory of economic egoism and social benevolence. Hegel supported a multidimensional nature of morality by identifying three distinct sects of society: the family, the civil society, and what is known as the sittliche—or ethicalstate. At their base levels, the family is the ring of society wherein love rules supremely over reason; the civil society is the ring of society pertaining to business, and this sect is governed solely by egotism and selfish reasons; and the ethical state—or sittliche—is a state of existence governed by reciprocal caring. Essentially, Hegel argued for the possibility of a state of existence in which the love displayed in the family sect is extended to all others in a fashion governed by reason.

While Hegel’s concept of three distinct sects of society has certainly been debated, his notion of recognition has been highly influential. Essentially, Hegel’s concept of recognition is built on the premise that individuals build their own sense of self through interactions with members of their environments via observations and social acknowledgment from others.

Honneth built upon Hegel’s concept of recognition to establish his own version of identity formation wherein an individual constructs a concept of self through others’ recognitions of their attributes, abilities, or accomplishments. Honneth also delineates moral development as a progression from self-confidence to self-respect to self-esteem. While philosopher Robert Williams has certainly made his own assertions, he also supports the importance of recognition. Specifically, Williams contests that self-consciousness in all forms is dependent upon and mediated by interactions with others.

Factors Specifically Influencing Moral Development in Sports

Chatzisarantis and Hagger (5) examined the influences of both recreational and competitive sports on the psychological well-being and life aspirations of athletes in both competitive and recreational sports settings. Chatzisarantis and Hagger referenced hedonic enjoyment, eudemonia, and the self-determination theory. Hedonic enjoyment was identified as essentially being personal enjoyment or pleasure, and eudemonia was defined as a more active process focused on self-realization and the fulfillment of individual potential. The self-determination theory refers to the proposed need of an individual to “experience oneself as initiator and regulator of one’s actions.”

In the study, Chatzisarantis and Hagger (5) gathered 83 male and 35 female university students, who participated in either competitive or recreational sports. The average age of the participants was 20.8 years; and the students represented different academic departments and sports, including rugby, tennis, kickboxing, football, basketball, hockey, triathlon, swimming, golf, dance, cricket, and motor racing. Of the 118 total test subjects, 29 participated in recreational sports (13 male, 16 female), 65 participated in competitive sports at the university level (48 male, 17 females), and 24 (22 males and 2 females) competed at the national or international level.

Life aspirations, psychological well-being, activity types, and past behaviors were assessed. The study found that the attainment of life aspirations positively influenced both hedonic enjoyment and eudemonia, while the attainment of extrinsic aspirations did not harm or enhance hedonic enjoyment or eudemonia. Findings indicated that recreational sports participants assign greater importance to intrinsic aspirations than extrinsic aspirations when compared with those participating in competitive sports. The collected data also supports the identified hypothesis that competitive athletes tended to experience less hedonic enjoyment and eudemonia than recreation athletes.

Chatzisarantis and Hagger (5) suggested that because competitive athletes showed lower psychological well-being than recreational athletes, any positive psychological impacts of athletics participation, at least in this study, could not be solely linked to the benefits of physical activity. Furthermore, the identified mediating effect was “life aspirations.” Essentially, the tendency of competitive athletes to, on average, value extrinsic rewards over intrinsic aspirations was identified as the critical factor affecting psychological well-being.

Camire and Trudel (4) examined high school athletes’ perceptions of their own moral development through participation in sports. Ten male and ten female athletes with an average age of approximately 15 years were gathered from a French-speaking high school in Quebec, Canada. The subjects participated in basketball, volleyball, soccer and/or badminton; and athletes were personally interviewed and asked about their perceptions regarding the impact of sports on their own moral developments.

Athletes were specifically asked about values considered components of social character: teamwork, perseverance, and loyalty, as well as values identified as components of moral character: honesty, sportsmanship, and respect. Participants were also interviewed about their perceived prevalence of gamesmanship, which in this context was identified as cheating or physical and psychological aggression.

While the findings suggest the presences of both social and moral values, most of the athletes noted the most significant developments in sport were those that are social in nature. Furthermore, the athletes noted instances of physical, verbal, hostile, and instrumental aggression; and many of the adolescent athletes being interviewed displayed limited understandings of the abstract concepts of character and moral development.

Long, et al. (15) also assessed the moral reasoning of young athletes. The assembled study sample consisted of 10 elite male athletes from age 15 to 18 years. The identified athletes competed in national and international settings in soccer, rugby, or judo. Positive and negative in-game behaviors with respect to rule adherence were assessed, and underlying factors for such rules transgressions or compliance were examined.

The most commonly identified behaviors cited by the test subjects with regards to rules transgressions were physical violence and gamesmanship tactics, like strategic fouling. Many athletes even cited a number of rules violations considered “part of the game.” The athletes most frequently identified the desire win as the primary factor contributing to rules violations. Subjects also noted the influence of the social environment. Essentially, athletes justified rules violations via social acceptance.

In terms of rule adherence, participants most frequently identified behaviors involving displays of respect toward referees and opponents. The underlying factor most commonly attributed to these displays of respect was also the desire to win, in the sense that incurring penalties could put one’s team at a competitive disadvantage. The second most commonly cited factor influencing positive in-game behaviors was the social environment created by coaches and athletes.

Bredemeier and Shields (3) identified two studies comparing the moral development of athletes when compared to non-athletes. In the first noted study, 50 high school students gathered from two urban high schools in Northern California and 50 college students from five post-secondary institutions, also in urban settings in Northern California, were utilized as test subjects. Each group was comprised of 30 basketball players and 20 non-athletes, and male and female athletes were equally distributed. All subjects were upperclassmen—juniors or seniors—and all athletes were competitors at their respective varsity levels. All non-athlete subjects identified themselves as having never participated in organized competitive sport at any level.

Over the course of an approximately hour-long individual interview, each subject responded to four scenarios presenting moral dilemmas. Of the four scenarios presented, two were sport-specific scenarios, and two were general non-sport moral dilemmas. One male protagonist and one female protagonist were represented in the sport scenarios and the non-sport scenarios.

The high school athletes test group displayed no significant differences in moral reasoning when compared with the non-athlete high school subjects. However, female subjects displayed higher levels of moral reasoning when compared to their male counterparts in both the athlete and non-athlete subgroups. In the college test group, non-athletes displayed notably higher scores than athletes in both sport and non-sport moral reasoning. Females again displayed higher levels of moral reasoning than their male counterparts in the sports scenarios, but not in the non-sport settings.

The second study identified by Bredemeier and Shields (3) was an extension of the first, wherein 10 male and 10 female competitive swimmers participated in the same test battery as the previously identified basketball players and non-athletes. The addition of swimmers to the protocol revealed that the swimmers’ moral reasoning scores were not significantly lower than that of the non-athletes; and as such, were markedly higher than those of the basketball players.

Steinfeldt, et al. (22) examined the moral atmosphere in connection with the traditionally maintained masculine frameworks of American football. In all, 274 college football players from two NCAA Division I and two NCAA Division III colleges in the Midwestern and Mideastern United States were gathered. The average age of participants was approximately 19-and-a-half years; members from all grade levels were utilized (100 freshmen, 69 sophomores, 63 juniors, and 42 seniors); participants represented multiple races and a variety of football positions from across the three phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams; and the average overall subject grade point average of 3.00 on a four-point scale.

Conformity to masculine norms was measured using a four-point Likert-style scale that assessed attitudes toward winning, emotional control, risk-taking, violence, power over women, playboy, self-reliance, primacy of work, and heterosexual self-presentation. For the purposes of this study, emotional control was equated with keeping one’s feeling to one’s self, self-reliance was associated with not wanting to ask for help, primacy of work dealt with work being the most important aspect of life; and heterosexual self-presentation dealt with a strong desire to not be perceived as homosexual.

Moral functioning and moral atmosphere were also assessed via responses to five-point Likert-style scales. To address moral functioning, athletes were presented with moral scenarios. Athletes were then asked to rate their feelings about the appropriateness of the behavior presented, whether or not they would engage in the identified behavior, and whether or not they had previously engaged in the identified behavior. The responses were utilized to gauge moral judgment, intention, and behavior, respectively. The identified scenarios examined intimidation, risking injury to one’s opponent, cheating, and intentionally injuring one’s opponent

The moral atmosphere assessment utilized the same four scenarios that were addressed in the moral functioning assessment. In this context, the athletes identified the degree to which their coach would encourage the behavior identified in each scenario if it were necessary to win. The findings supported the notion that the perceptions of coaches and teammates condoning on-field antisocial behaviors, and perceived pressures to conform to those characteristics identified as traditionally masculine had a strong and direct correlation to on-field antisocial behaviors.

Rutten, et al. (18) examined factors influencing the prosocial and antisocial behaviors of youth athletes. In total, 439 male athletes were utilized as test subjects. The participating athletes ranged in age from 14 to 17 years and competed in various athletics clubs.

The antisocial and prosocial behaviors of the participating athletes were measured through participant responses to 18 items associated with prosocial or antisocial behaviors in sporting contexts. Athletes noted the frequency to which they engaged in the identified actions via a four-point Likert-style scale. Beyond the measure of prosocial and antisocial behaviors, five explanatory variables and three control variables were also assessed. Explanatory variables were identified as moral atmosphere of the sporting environment, moral reasoning about sport dilemmas, fair play attitude, rational support from the coach, and attachment-related support from the coach in terms of psychological availability of and reliance on the coach. The three control variables measured in the study were externalizing behavior in general, prosocial behavior in general, and social desirability. For the purposes of the identified study, social desirability was identified as the tendency to provide “socially desirable” answers.

Rutten, et al. (18) discovered that supportive coach-athlete relationships were positively linked with prosocial behavior and negatively linked with antisocial behaviors in sports contexts. Moral atmosphere and athlete moral reasoning were also positively linked to prosocial behaviors. Furthermore, teams noting higher rates of externalizing behaviors were, in general, more prone to antisocial behaviors in sports.

Creating an Environment for Positive Moral Development

Kavassanu and Ntoumanis (14) examined the moral functioning of athletes, with specific attentions given to the mediating role of an ego motivational orientation in the relationship between participation in contact sports and moral functioning. The study utilized 161 male and 61 female athletes from a university in Great Britain as test subjects. Athlete ages ranged from 17 to 28 years, with the average age being 20 years; 18 total university programs participated; and basketball, football (soccer), hockey, and rugby were all represented.

Goal orientation, moral functioning, and social desirability were assessed.

The Perception of Success Questionnaire was utilized to assess the task and ego orientations of the athletes. This questionnaire required the athletes to respond to 12 statements by rating the degree to which identified scenarios elicited feelings of success. Six of the statements were focused on ego-oriented motivators and six were focused on task-oriented motivators. Responses were scored via a five-point Likert-style scale.

The athletes were then presented with four scenarios designed to examine Moral Functioning. The scenarios were applicable to all of the four sports represented and involved deceiving an official, violating a rule, putting an opposing athlete at risk for injury, and intentionally hurting an opposing competitor. Judgment, intention, and behavior were all assessed under the umbrella of moral functioning. Essentially, judgment dealt with the degree to which athletes felt the identified actions were appropriate; intention assessed the degree to which athletes were willing to engage in the identified actions; and behavior measured the frequency of the test subjects actually engaging in the identified actions. Each component was assessed via a five-point Likert-style scale. Social Desirability assessed whether or not the test subjects found 10 identified attributes socially desirable. Reactions were recorded as either positive or negative, with no ranking of degree of desirability.

The findings of the study suggest an inverse relationship between participation in high contact sports and athlete moral functioning. Furthermore, an ego orientation of motivation was found to be a mediating factor. Athletes who had a longer history of participation in their sports were found to typically have higher levels of ego orientation, and thus, lower moral functioning on average. These findings also support a direct correlation between task orientation and positive moral functioning. Kavassanu and Ntoumanis (14) further suggest that such participation in high contact sports may lead to high levels of ego orientation due to the physical nature of competition.

Ryska and Vestal (19) explored the influence of sports motivation orientations on the attitudes and academic strategies of high school student-athletes. The test group was comprised of 160 male and 163 female high school student athletes. The 323 subjects ranged in age from 14 to 18 years and possessed levels of competitive experience in their sports ranging from one to 10 years. All athletes were participants in a four-week long sport development camp held in the southern United States, and a diverse blend of ethnicities, sports, and high school grade levels were represented.

The Task and Ego Orientation in Sport Questionnaire, which measured the tendency of the athletes to associate with either task or ego motivational scenarios via a five-point Likert-style scale, was utilized to measure athlete motivational orientations. The study also examined academic strategy use, educational goals, academic self-efficacy, and academic performance. Components of the Learning and Study Inventory-High School were used to address academic strategy use. Specifically, information processing, time management, self-testing, and concentration were measured. For the purposes of this examination, information processing was described as the ability to “elaborate and organize material to facilitate higher-order learning”; time management dealt with efficient uses of time related to academic activities; self-testing was identified as “the amount of regulatory checks the student employs in the learning of novel material”; and concentration focused on the degree to which students were able to effectively focus on academic tasks. Again, a five-point Likert-style scale was utilized, and responses measured the degree to which the identified scenarios were typical of the athlete being interviewed.

The Long-Term Educational Goal Scale was employed to assess the education goals of the athletes. The scale measured the degree to which athletes placed value on the accomplishment of specific academic goals during their lifetimes via a four-point Likert-style scale. A portion of the Patterns of Adaptive Learning Survey assessed the degree to which the athletes associated with statements related to their perceived abilities to find success in high school academics. Again, a five-point Likert-style scale was utilized. Lastly, cumulative grade point averages from the most recent six-week high school grading period preceding the camp were utilized to measure academic performance.

After analyzing the data, a variety of conclusions were drawn. Male athletes with low ego orientations were less confident in their ability to perform as college athletes when compared to high ego-oriented athletes. However, low ego-oriented athletes did not display greater utilization of time management strategies. High ego-oriented female athletes were also more confident in their abilities to succeed as college athletes, but noted lower educational aspirations and reported less utilization of information processing strategies when compared to low ego-oriented females. High task-oriented females reported greater utilization of information processing, self-testing, and concentration strategies of academic achievement.

Athletes were also normed into groups based on motivational orientations. Orientations were identified as task (high-task, low-ego); ego (high ego, low task); mixed (high task, high ego); and undifferentiated (low task, low ego). The male ego group cited less time management and self-testing than task or mixed groups; the mixed groups noted the highest levels of educational goals and greater high school self-efficacy; and the ego group had the lowest level of high school self-efficacy.

The female mixed group reported the greatest use of time management; the task group cited the highest levels of self-testing; and the female mixed group reported higher educational goals and greater high school self-efficacy than all other groups. The female ego group displayed the lowest level of high school self-efficacy; and the task and mixed groups showed higher levels of college athlete self-efficacy than their ego and undifferentiated counterparts.

In brief, Ryska and Vestal (19) indicate that the type of sport motivation noted by high school student-athletes may have a direct link to behaviors and attitudes connected to academics. Specifically, the findings suggest that a task orientation in sport may support adaptive academic strategies, and mixed groups reported higher academic self-efficacy when compared to the other identified motivational groups.

Tod and Hodge (23) examined the role of achievement motivation and moral reasoning for eight 19- to 21-year-old male athletes gathered from an urban rugby club in New Zealand. Subjects were interviewed on three separate occasions over the course of their six-month long rugby season, and the participating athletes were asked to respond to four moral dilemmas adapted to rugby. Over the course of the study, participants were identified as both outside observers and the central characters of the presented theoretical moral dilemmas. After being presented with the dilemmas, the test subjects responded to open-ended questions designed to assess their goal orientations, their moral reasoning, and the factors influencing their moral reasoning.

In brief, the responses indicated a link between goal orientation and moral reasoning. Specifically, ego orientations were associated with less mature moral reasoning when compared to task orientations. However, those individuals who noted high levels of task and ego orientations demonstrated the most mature moral reasoning. Significant others, including teammates and coaches, also affected moral reasoning.

Hodge and Lonsdale (11) examined the roles of motivation, environment, and moral disengagement connected with prosocial and antisocial behaviors of athletes. In total, 292 athletes comprised of 175 females and 114 males—with three athletes not identifying gender—were gathered from a university in New Zealand. The average age of the participants was 19.53 years, and athletes represented various sports, including soccer, field hockey, basketball, netball, track and field, tennis, cycling, and swimming.

The study assessed athlete behavioral regulation in sport, moral disengagement in sport, prosocial and antisocial behavior in sport, and athlete perceptions of autonomy-supportive and controlling coaching styles. Athlete perceptions on coaching style were assessed via responses to statements that represented either an autonomy-supportive coaching style or a controlling coaching style. The behavioral regulation in sport component of the study assessed the degree to which the identified athletes associated with the six types of motivational regulation outlined by the Self-Determination Theory, which largely deals with psychological needs and personal growth. The six motivational factors assessed—listed from most to least autonomous in nature—were intrinsic motivation, integrated regulation, identified regulation, introjected regulation, external regulation, and amotivation. Essentially, intrinsic motivation deals with personal enjoyment; integrated regulation deals with perceptions of self; identified regulation is associated with the perceived benefits of the sport; introjected regulation is linked to accepted, but not necessarily internalized, motivational factors, like a sense of shame from quitting; external regulation deals with incentives or pressures, like the pressure from others to participate; and amotivation is associated with general disinterest.

Moral disengagement was assessed via athlete reactions to statements representing varying degrees of moral disengagement. Seven-point Likert-style scales were utilized for all three of the identified areas of assessment. Prosocial and antisocial behavior was measured through five-point Likert-style responses to 20 statements related to athlete behavior. Presented statements identified both positive and negative social behaviors, and athletes identified the frequency with which they partook in such actions.

As hypothesized by Hodge and Lonsdale (11), an autonomous-supportive coaching style was positively associated with autonomous athlete motivation. Autonomous-supportive coaching also showed a positive connection—albeit a weak one—to athletes’ prosocial behaviors toward teammates and a weak negative association with antisocial behavior. A link between autonomous-supportive coaching and prosocial behaviors toward opponents was not determined.

Controlling coaching styles were positively associated with antisocial athlete behaviors toward both teammates and opponents as mediated by moral disengagement. Essentially, controlled motivational states held a direct relationship with moral disengagement, and moral disengagement had a strong direct connection to antisocial athlete behaviors toward opponents and teammates.

Boardley and Kavussanu (1) examined the influence of motivational climate on prosocial or antisocial behaviors toward teammates and opponents and the mediating role of moral disengagement as perceived by field hockey and netball players. The study utilized 200 field hockey players and 179 netball players as subjects. Of the 379 total participants, 155 were male and 224 were female. The average age of participants was approximately 22 years, but subject ages did range from 15 to 64 years. On average, the test subjects had competed in their respective sports for approximately 10 years, and the competitive level of participants ranged from club level to international.

Prosocial and antisocial behavior in sport, perceived motivational climate, perceived coaching character-building competency, and moral disengagement were assessed. Prosocial and antisocial behavior was measured via athlete responses to 20 items associated with prosocial and antisocial behaviors toward both teammates and opponents, and the test subjects identified the frequency in which they engaged in the identified behaviors. Perceived motivational climate was assessed through subject responses to 33 statements associated with either a mastery-focused motivational climate or a performance-centric motivational climate. Data for both aforementioned measures was gathered with five-point Likert-style scales. Perceived coaching character-building competency was assessed through athlete responses to four items related to perceptions of coaching competencies gauged on a 10 point Likert-style scale. Moral disengagement was similarly measured via responses to eight items associated with moral disengagement and gathered via a seven-point Likert-style scale.

Boardley and Kavussanu (1) found mastery-oriented motivational climates to be positively associated with prosocial behaviors and negatively associated with antisocial behaviors when linked to teammates. Similarly, athlete perceptions of the coaches’ character-building competencies were also positively linked to prosocial behaviors toward teammates and negatively associated with antisocial behaviors toward teammates. Perceptions of coaching character-building competencies were also negatively linked to antisocial behaviors toward opponents, and moral disengagement was found to be a mediating factor.


Established Theories of Moral Development

The works of noted psychologists and philosophers William James and Jean Piaget as outlined by Ferrari and Okamoto (9) lay a foundation for an understanding of moral development and the potential influence of participation in athletics on such development. Both James and Piaget identify the importance of an emotional component of moral development. In essence, true moral development that works toward formal affective operations cannot occur without some emotional connection. While detached, objective logic may certainly contribute to moral reasoning, it cannot be the sole impetus for moral growth. As such, it is the inherently emotional nature of sports that provides a link to and foundation for moral development. Sports certainly have the power to elicit strong emotional responses ranging from unbridled joy to visceral disdain, from powerful angst and fear to great inspiration and hope. Whether positive or negative in nature, sports certainly provide the emotional component essential to moral development as identified by James and Piaget.

Sports also serve as a natural fit for moral development because the progression of motor learning mirrors Piaget’s articulated process of moral development. As motor skills progress from a stage of basic recognition and labored practice to a state of fluid, automatic proficiency, moral development as outlined by Piaget also progresses from a state of the initial emotional response to a more autonomous state of moral constructs. Because athletic development is already dependent upon the scaffolding of motor skills as they progress toward states of greater autonomy, sports provide an ideal developmental structure for moral growth.

James and Piaget both advocated for learning environments that provide opportunities for collaboration, support discovery learning, foster empathy, and access student interests. As such, athletic arenas again have the potential to provide ideal environments for development. It is safe to assume that those participating in athletics possess some degree of personal interest in the endeavor, and sports provide nearly unparalleled opportunities for collaboration. While the pursuit of athletic achievement may involve the rigorous repetition of skills, opportunities for discovery learning are abundant, especially as athletes move toward states of skill autonomy, and particularly in cases of open skills in tactical situations. Opportunities to foster empathy, which may be specifically valuable to moral development, are also present in sports contexts. As athletes work together in close proximity and share experiences in the pursuit of common goals, an environment that is, at the very least, conducive to the promotion of empathy is established.

James further suggested the importance of establishing a culture in which individuals are immersed in morality. While the existence of a morally righteous environment is not necessarily a prerequisite for athletic competition, sports programs do often provide an environment in which athletes are immersed in an established culture. If nothing else, it is apparent that sports have the capability of providing the framework for personal growth commensurate with the assertions of James and Piaget regarding the ideal conditions for moral development.

The assertions of philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Axel Honneth, and Robert Williams as identified by Huttunen (12) also support the potential for sports to serve as a viable construct for moral development. Hegel argued for the existence of an ethical state in which the love of family is extended to and reciprocated by all members of a society. While this specific assertion may ultimately represent an unattainable utopian ideal, an attempt to establish such an environment of mutual caring may effectively nurture the aforementioned ideals of collaboration and empathy.

The concept of recognition cited by Hegel, Honneth, and Williams provides further evidence in support of the influence of environment on individual development. Essentially, Hegel, Honneth, and Williams all assert that an individual’s self-concept is largely defined by their interactions with others. With the concept of recognition in mind, the interactive and communal nature of sports may again provide an ideal environment for the development of such personal constructs.

After examining many of the assertions of noted philosophers related to general moral development, the possible role of sports as an appropriate construct for such personal growth is supported. The next step in establishing sports environments that effectively nurture moral development then becomes identifying the factors that influence moral development in sports specifically.

Factors Specifically Influencing Moral Development in Sports

By examining the effects of participation in recreational or competitive sports and the influence of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations on psychological well-being, Chatzisarantis and Hagger (5) noted that the attainment of extrinsic aspirations did not positively or negatively impact hedonic enjoyment or eudemonia, while the attainment of intrinsic life aspirations did positively influence both psychological constructs. Of course, sports—especially at high levels of competition—do carry inherently extrinsic elements, most notably, winning and the rewards that are associated with athletic success, such as attention or financial gain. While the findings of Chatzisarantis and Hagger do not necessarily indicate that the extrinsic element of sports need be eliminated, the data does support the providence of emphasizing intrinsic motivation in sports. The extrinsic motivators commonly associated with success in athletics do not necessarily have a negative effect on the psychological well-being of the athletes in the identified study, and as such, need not be entirely discounted. However, if one of the primary goals of an athletic program—as it always should be—is the well-being of each and every athlete in the program, intrinsic life aspirations should be emphasized and nurtured.

Chatzisarantis and Hagger (5) did also note that recreational athletes reported higher levels of overall hedonic enjoyment and eudemonia when compared with competitive athletes, and this disparity appeared to be mediated by life aspirations. In general, recreational athletes assigned greater importance to life aspirations than did competitive athletes, and competitive athletes placed greater importance on extrinsic motivations than did recreational athletes. The factors influencing this discrepancy do warrant deeper investigation, but it is evident that competitive athletics programs truly wishing to maximize athlete well-being should work to support the higher levels of intrinsic motivation displayed by recreational athletes. However, while intrinsic life aspirations do seem to elicit increased hedonic enjoyment and eudemonia, such factors—as cited by Chatzisarantis and Hagger—do not specifically impact the moral development of athletes. As such, attention must be given to the components of sports directly affecting moral development.

When examining the moral reasoning of high school athletes, Camire and Trudel (4) noted that the identified test subjects displayed limited understandings of the abstract concept of moral development and cited that social character elements—teamwork, perseverance, and loyalty—were more greatly developed through sports than those character elements identified as moral: honesty, sportsmanship, and respect. While these findings may seem discouraging at first glance, it is worth noting that Camire and Trudel did note the apparent presence of both social and moral values. Furthermore, a lack of understanding displayed by high school athletes regarding the complex concepts of moral reasoning need not reflect the absence of moral development, but may rather be indicative of the stage of moral development of the athletes. Because the presence of moral values was cited even though athletes struggled to articulate moral reasoning, it is practical to assume that the identified high school athletes simply may not have developed to the level of moral autonomy as identified by Piaget that would allow for the effective internalization of moral development.

If anything, the lack of moral internalization displayed by the examined high school athletes only supports the need for a focus on moral development. Furthermore, the presence of moral values without the ability to clearly articulate such values may also support the theory presented by William James, wherein athletes are not presented with hard and fast rules regarding moral development but are rather immersed in a culture of morality. Such a state of morality may allow athletes to simply emulate the observed moral practices until such a level of autonomy is reached at which they are able to develop and transfer their own original moral constructs. Lastly, by acknowledging social character development before moral character development, the examined athletes do point to the potentially significant social aspect of moral growth, specifically at the most fundamental levels of internalization.

In examining the moral reasoning of young athletes, Long, et al. (15) noted that athletes identified the influence of the social environment on the prevalence of in-game behaviors considered both morally positive and morally negative. Of course, according to the identified athletes, the influence of the social environment was generally cited as being secondary to the desire to win in terms of influencing behaviors, both positive and negative. It seems, then, that while the social environment may indeed significantly impact moral behavior, such influence may be trumped by the extrinsic motivation of winning. This finding simply provides further support for shifting the locus of athletics programs away from simply winning competitions.

The fact that athletes also cited the desire to win as the primary influence of their positive in-game behaviors again suggests that the concept of winning need not be eliminated. It seems that it would be more efficacious to emphasize winning as a possible outcome associated with positive in-game behavior, rather than the central goal of participation in athletics. By viewing winning as an outcome, rather than a goal, the influence of a social environment structured around moral development may be allowed to supplant the motivation to win as the primary influence on athlete behavior.

The two related studies cited by Bredemeier and Shields (3) also support the prudence in deemphasizing the extrinsic motivation of winning. When first comparing competitive basketball players and non-athletes at both the high school and college levels, the identified high school athletes did not display significantly lower levels of moral reasoning than their non-athlete high school counterparts. This, however, was not the case when comparing the collegiate basketball players to their non-athlete counterparts. In this context, the athletes displayed markedly lower levels of moral reasoning.

While other mediating factors may certainly attribute to this disparity, it is logical to assert that the generally greater emphasis on winning contests at the college level, when compared to the high school level, may be a contributor. College athletics have reached a level of commercialization that has not yet fully reached the high school level, and this commercialism means that millions of dollars may hang in the balance for college athletics programs (2, 11, 16, 17). At the college level, winning contests has become the paramount requisite for the sustainability of athletics programs and their coaches.

The data reported by Bredemeier and Shields (3) regarding the generally higher levels of moral reasoning among female participants when compared to their male counterparts and the generally higher moral reasoning of competitive swimmers when compared to competitive basketball players further supports the mediating ability of an emphasis on winning when examining moral functioning. Because women’s basketball and competitive swimming do not draw the same degree of attention or garner the same extent of revenue as men’s collegiate basketball, for instance, there is a less systemic focus on revenue generation, and therefore, winning at all costs.

The influence of traditionally held beliefs about masculine behavior may also contribute to the general disparity in moral functioning between the male and female subjects utilized by Bredemeier and Shields (3). Steinfeldt, et al. (22) found that perceived pressures to conform to characteristics that are traditionally considered masculine in nature—characteristics like winning, emotional control, risk-taking, violence, power over women, playboy, self-reliance, primacy of work, and heterosexual self-presentation—had a direct link to on-field social deviance. It is worth noting that the “masculine” characteristics identified by Steinfeldt, et al. tend to focus on extrinsic rewards, such as winning and maintaining status or appearance.

The findings of Steinfeldt, et al. (22) also contribute additional data in support of the role of the social environment on moral functioning. Specifically, athlete perceptions of the coaches and teammates condoning on-field antisocial behaviors correlated directly with the actual prevalence of on-field antisocial activity. Conversely, the research of Rutten, et al. (18) noted that a moral atmosphere and supportive coach-athlete relationships positively impacted prosocial athlete behaviors. Furthermore, Rutten, et al. also supported the prudence of deemphasizing the extrinsic motivator that is winning. The cited research findings indicated that higher rates of externalizing behaviors were associated with high levels of antisocial behaviors, generally speaking.

While there are certainly other factors that mediate moral functioning and development in sports, it is clear that the social environment and the nature of athlete motivation are paramount. Specifically, an environment that promotes prosocial behavior and establishing the concept of winning contests as an outcome, rather than an extrinsic motivational factor, is warranted. It then becomes necessary to determine which specific factors may contribute to such an environment.

Creating an Environment for Positive Moral Development

By examining the role of ego motivation in contact sports with regards to moral functioning, Kavassanu and Ntoumanis (14) noted that an ego orientation of motivation was inversely related to moral functioning, and participants in high-contact sports tended to have higher levels of ego motivation. Kavassanu and Ntoumanis suggested that the generally high levels of ego motivation attributed to high contact athletes are likely be connected to the physical nature of competition. High-contact sports naturally require athletes to work to impose their will upon a competitor in a very physical manner, and this highly physical interaction inherently supports ego orientations. This is logical because in high-contact sports, athletes cannot solely focus on the successful execution of a task; they must also concern themselves with physically defeating another individual. By placing the focus on another individual instead of a skill or task, ego orientations are fostered.

Kavassanu and Ntoumanis (14) also noted that ego orientations tended to generally increase as an athlete’s tenure of competition in a particular sport increased. This is another logical finding that supports the previous assertion that Piaget’s framework for moral development mirrors that of skill development in sports. It stands to reason that the longer an athlete participates in a given sport, the more natural and autonomous the skills of that sport become; so while the focus of the athlete must, to some degree, center on skill-development in the early stages of participation, increased skill competence lends itself to the athlete realigning his or her focus on competing against an opponent, rather than against the challenge of developing a skill.

These findings indicate that the motivational climates of sports programs should be focused on task orientations of motivation, which were shown to support positive moral functioning (14). Most specifically, it appears that coaches and other program administrators must give specific attention to deemphasize winning as the primary goal of programs at higher levels of competition. The increased autonomy of sport-specific skills, coupled with the higher stakes placed on winning competitions at the college and professional ranks, spells out a recipe for an ego orientation of motivation. Some of the locus of concentration must be taken off of winning competitions.

Again, that is not to say that winning, or even some level of ego orientation, is bad. Ryska and Vestal (19) examined the influence of motivation orientations on academic achievement and athletes attitudes and suggested that athletes with mixed goal orientations that were high in both task and ego motivation tended to generally display greater self-efficacy in both athletic and academic settings. This finding supports the possibility of social skills developed through athletics to be successfully translated to other components of life and highlights the potentially positive impact of ego goal orientations. The key then becomes striking a productive balance between task and ego orientations. It is reasonable to assume that the competitive nature of sports will, in large part, inherently support the development of ego orientations. This may be especially true in high-contact sports and sports performed at higher levels of competition. It is important, then, that the aspect of competition not be eliminated from sports, for competition is likely the component of athletics that develops ego motivation. It is when winning becomes the primary goal of competition that an unhealthy imbalance between task and ego orientation is allowed to occur. Competition is good, but a sole focus on winning at any cost is damning to moral development. By deemphasizing winning and focusing on healthy competition, prosocial behaviors, and skill attainment, task motivation is also allowed to develop to a level that balances out a high level of ego orientation.

If task and ego orientations are developed to equally high levels, it then stands to reason that athletes may be equally likely to drift toward prosocial or antisocial behaviors. This does not appear to be the case, however. Tod and Hodge (23) found that while task orientations were associated with greater moral maturity than ego orientations, those athletes who possessed both high task and high ego orientations were typically those who displayed the highest levels of overall moral maturity.

If both high task and high ego orientations can be effectively balanced by nurturing the competition that naturally enhances ego without allowing a winning-at-all-costs mentality to prevail and by focusing on the skill development and intrinsic motivators associated with task orientations, coaches and others affiliated with athletics programs can then focus on establishing environments that facilitate moral growth. As repeatedly noted by previously cited research, it is not only motivational orientation, but also the social environment that influences athlete moral development. Tod and Hodge (23) supported this notion by indicating that significant others, including coaches and teammates, do influence moral reasoning.

In order to effectively nurture task orientations, the findings of Hodge and Lonsdale (11) indicate that coaches should assume an autonomous-supportive coaching style, rather than a controlling coaching style. Controlling coaching styles were largely associated with antisocial athlete behaviors, and controlled motivational states were strongly connected to athlete moral disengagement. Autonomous-supportive coaching styles, on the other hand, were positively associated with the type of autonomous athlete motivations that support moral maturity.

Boardley and Kavussanu (1) supported the prudence of supporting task orientations by focusing on skill mastery, rather than simply winning contests, as mastery-oriented motivational climates were positively associated with prosocial behaviors. Furthermore, Boardley and Kavussanu support the critical influence of coaches on the social environment of sports programs; athlete perceptions of their coaches’ competencies were also found to be positively associated with prosocial behaviors. These findings further justify the assertion that coaches—and other influencing members of sports programs—should, in fact, de-emphasize winning as a goal, while modeling positive moral behaviors and supporting positive competition focused on task mastery.

Essentially, sports environments built to promote the moral development of athletes should be lead by coaches with autonomous-supportive coaching styles and should promote task orientations of motivation, while still encouraging healthy competition. This can be done most effectively by not discounting winning or the competitive nature of sports, but rather by shifting the locus of emphasis away from winning as a goal and toward winning as an outcome resulting from the effective execution of identified tasks.


By deemphasizing winning as an end goal, coaches and other influential members of athletics programs can effectively establish sports cultures that promote healthy moral development. The theories of influential and well-established philosophers, like William James and Jean Piaget, support the potential impact of sports on moral development. The previously identified research suggests that moral development must be rooted in an emotional context and then built toward an autonomous level of individual moral constructs. Furthermore, social recognition was also determined to play a premiere role in the establishment of an individual’s moral identity. As such, sports can serve as an ideal environment for moral development. Sports inherently possess emotional and social components; and skill development is often progressed from highly externalized to highly autonomous states via complete immersion.

Research into the specific components of sports that impact athlete moral development supports the strong influence of the social environment and the motivation orientations of the athletes. Essentially, individuals dedicated to supporting the moral development of athletes should work to establish social environments that model and promote prosocial behaviors and deemphasize external motivational cues, like winning.

It is clear that significant others, such as coaches and teammates, play a strong influential role in the moral development of athletes, as does the motivational orientation of the individual athletes. More specifically, coaches who model and support autonomous moral behaviors have the most positive influence on the healthy moral development of athletes. Furthermore, athletes who maintain high task-ego goal orientations tend to have the highest levels of moral functioning. Due to the inherently competitive nature of sports, it becomes apparent that task goal orientations must be supported in order to effectively balance high levels of task and ego motivations.

Over the last few decades, the sports universe as portrayed by numerous media outlets and research investigations has been defined by rapid commercialism (2, 10, 16, 17) and social deviance of athletes (6-8). While these assessments are warranted, at least to a degree, sports still serve as an ideal environment for moral development. Sports inherently provide the emotional connections, social interactions, immersive environment, and gradual transition from externalized mimicry to autonomous internalization of concepts and skills that are ideal for moral development. By employing coaches and other influential figures, who operate in autonomous-supportive fashions and continually encourage moral development in environments that deemphasize winning as an end goal, and rather, support task goal orientations and healthy competition, sports programs can effectively promote healthy moral development amongst athletes.


While sports can be, and in many cases are, commercial enterprises, most sports entities still maintain an inherent link to individual development. That is to say that for those athletics organizations existing not for revenue generation, the primary function of the organization—at least in theory—lies with the providing of opportunities for individual athlete growth, be it physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or otherwise. Furthermore, the most significant forms of personal growth are those that deal with moral development. As such, any coaches and athletics administrators entrusted with the personal development of athletes are obligated to understand and implement sound practices designed to encourage an environment of moral development.




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