Does Sportsmanship Affect Performance? 

Gregory Prudhomme, USPTA Elite Professional

Recognition, personal advancement, and the sheer thrill of victory are incentives for winning in sport. These incentives for winning, combined with outside pressures from parents, coaches, administrators and teammates can cause an athlete to adopt a win-at-all-costs mentality. This overemphasis on winning often leads to unethical behaviors such as committing intentional fouls, acting aggressively towards opponents or officials, using performance enhancing drugs and employing gamesmanship (which is an attempt to gain a physical or psychological advantage through behavior that might not be considered obvious cheating).

The occurrence of unethical conduct by athletes has impelled the sport psychology field to examine the behavior of athletes, which is known as sportsmanship. Much of the relevant literature has examined causes of poor sportsmanship and interventions in order to improve athlete behavior, but there is an important research question that had not been investigated until recently. In order to fill a gap in the sportsmanship literature, a recent dissertation attempted to answer the following question through empirical research: Is there a performance benefit for possessing high levels of sportsmanship?

The possibility of a performance benefit for possessing high levels of sportsmanship would provide extremely valuable implications for competitive sports. Most importantly, if a positive relationship were discovered between sportsmanship and performance, then athletes, coaches and parents would promote good behavior not only as the ethical thing to do, which is a worthy reason itself, but also as a means to improve performance. What is particularly interesting about this study, and could cause skeptics to question that such a relationship is an impossibility, is that previous research has shown that lower levels of sportsmanship are more common among elite athletes than non-elite athletes. Furthermore, there is a common belief among many people in sports that athletes must be intimidating or arrogant in order to compete and win at higher levels.

So why conduct this study? The sports world often seems to overlook the possibility of a connection between sportsmanship and performance. Consider Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios. It is clear to see that the sportsmanship-performance combination of Federer is very different from that of Kyrgios. In fact, Federer and Rafael Nadal are perhaps the two best male players in the history of tennis and it would be difficult to argue that they do not possess high levels of sportsmanship. Regarding the women’s tour, Bianca Andreescu, Naomi Osaka and Ash Barty have shown high levels of sportsmanship; at the moment, they comprise three of the top five female players in the world.

There is more to the sportsmanship-performance connection besides these examples. The instrument that was used to measure sportsmanship levels of participants for this study was the Compliant and Principled Sportspersonship Scale (CAPSS), designed by Dr. John Perry (2014) and his colleagues, who are Sport Psychology researchers. The CAPSS is a 24-question survey that includes items in five different subscales: compliance with officials, compliance with rules, attitude towards committing injurious acts, attitude towards opponents, and a principled game perspective, such as an individual’s attitude towards winning at all costs. In analyzing sportsmanship through this instrument, it seems that an athlete would require a certain amount of mental strength, emotional control, discipline and professionalism to score highly in these areas, especially while competing under pressure. It also seems that these same attributes could be of strong value towards performance.

In order to analyze the sportsmanship-performance correlation, this recent dissertation examined sportsmanship scores and winning percentages of 163 NCAA Division I tennis players in the western United States. The winning percentages were provided for the individual singles tennis matches from one college season. A Pearson’s correlation was used to analyze the data, which revealed no relationship between sportsmanship and winning percentage among males and females separately, and a very weak negative relationship among gender combined. While the study cannot suggest that higher levels of sportsmanship were related to higher winning percentages for these college tennis players, it suggests that high levels of sportsmanship and high winning percentages are not mutually exclusive; they can exist together. In other words, the results of the study suggest that athletes do not have to sacrifice good sportsmanship to win, which is an idea that many in the sports world do not know or believe.

Sports are celebrated as an environment in which an athlete’s character can be developed, but the influence of an overemphasis on winning in competitive sports often contradicts character development. Character development in sports must be a deliberate goal promoted by sport leaders. This dissertation has generated recommendations for future research in the area of sportsmanship and performance, but for now, the results of this seminal research suggest that coaches, parents and others involved in competitive sports should communicate to their athletes that competing with high levels of sportsmanship does not jeopardize chances of winning. 

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Naomi Osaka during the 2018 US Open semifinal. Osaka was lauded for her sportsmanship after defeating Serena Williams to win her first Grand Slam.