The True Importance of Good Sportsmanship

posted on: April 15, 2020
author: Anthony Pellegrino

Two athletes demonstrating sportsmanship by fist bumping

Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

In the philosophy of sport, the ethics of athletes’ behavior is a big focus. It should come as no surprise, then, that the idea of sportsmanship is a very popular subject for sports-minded thinkers.

There isn’t an athlete or player out there that hasn’t heard all about it.

But I don’t need to tell you that not every athlete out there is a good sport. Every player has probably experienced an opponent that’s demonstrated some poor sportsmanship.

Whether it be bad attitudes, disrespectful taunts, or even brazen cheating, most players have probably seen some nasty sportsmanship during their play.

There can be this attitude of “this-doesn’t-really-matter” that can be prevalent in the more casual athletic performances. We first mentioned this in our article on the pursuit of mastery.

“Oh, it’s just a weekend exhibition match. It doesn’t really matter if I act like a good sport or not.”

“Oh, it’s just a casual game with friends, I could cheat a little bit. No big deal.”

Not only that, but there is this notion that winning is everything, even in these casual situations.

The pursuit of winning is mistaken for the pursuit of mastery. Victory is prioritized above all else, above character, above integrity, above honor.

With these points of view, fair play and sportsmanship go right out the window.

But this victory-at-all-costs mindset can be really corrosive and maladaptive to your personal development and to your personal integrity.

Because being a good sport goes beyond the game. Your sportsmanship extends all the way into your personal system of ethics.

Every instance, big or small, in which you can practice and develop sportsmanship is an opportunity to become a more ethical person within your everyday life – to maintain and strengthen your ethical standards for yourself.

And on a day to day basis, there’s almost nothing more important than these norms. Our society as a whole is based upon it.

Now, is this to say that if you were to act in poor sportsmanship that human society would suddenly fall apart?

No, of course not. But it does illustrate just how important a strong system of ethics is to our collective self-interest.

Let me put it in another way.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

There’s a very famous example in game theory called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Game theory is, simply, the mathematics, especially the mathematical modeling, of strategic decisions by rational actors.

Prisoner looking out of a window. The prisoner's dilemma is a good example of the importance of sportsmanship

Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

The dilemma goes a little something like this:

Two suspects are arrested after committing a crime. They are brought down to the station and separated from one another.

Now, the police don’t have enough evidence to charge them with the main crime, but they have enough for some lesser crime. So, they try to strike a deal with the prisoners. Betray your partner and walk away clean while they take the fall.

Here are the possible outcomes:

  • Prisoner A betrays Prisoner B; A walks away while B serves three years.
  • They both betray each other and serve two years each.
  • Both stay silent and only serve one year each.

According to the logic of game theory, a ‘purely rational actor’ would always betray the other. As such, it should be the case that both prisoners would then betray each other. So, despite the betrayal being the apparently logical thing to do, it would result in a situation in which both prisoners are worse off.

This is exactly the same case for sportsmanship and ethical behavior more generally.

Let’s say we have two athletes competing against each other, and both played with integrity and honor. This would be identical to the case of the prisoners cooperating with one another by staying quiet. As we saw, this would result in the best outcome for everyone involved.

Similarly, a more cynical athlete could be a bad sport and cheat/betray the other to get ahead. If both athletes are cynical, then both will cheat, and everyone is worse off like in the case of both prisoners betraying each other.

Ultimately, it is in the best interest of every competitor to act with integrity and good sportsmanship because every competitor, including themselves, is better off as a result.

If every player was to just say, “to hell with playing fair, I’m going to win at all costs, even if I have to cheat,” this attitude would cascade on itself. More and more players would cheat, which can only result in everyone being worse off.

You should think of every opportunity to develop sportsmanship, no matter how small or casual, as something incredibly important to take advantage of.

For every good sport serves as an example that encourages others to do the same.

And this, as we’ve seen, is beneficial for everyone.

The opponent isn’t the enemy, after all. Opponents make us better, so they deserve our respect and our integrity.

Because in the end, there truly can’t be a better scenario for every competitor than that of mutual cooperation, respect, and great sportsmanship.

Looking to foster competitive mindsets to take your game to the next level? Enroll in our online course, The Great Competitor Formula, today!

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About the Author

Anthony Pellegrino is a freelance journalist, writer, and content marketing strategist. He is currently studying to get his B.A. in Philosophy at Fort Hays State University. He works as contributor to Pulse Magazine and as a freelance content creator for several marketing agencies and brands. His writing is focused on philosophy of mind, metaphysics, politics, everyday life, and content marketing.

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