By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
A year after the Sun Belt Conference launched a new sportsmanship education effort among member schools, initial data confirm what officials suspected: The coach is the most important figure in developing sportsmanship among student-athletes.
The “RealSportsmanship” study also revealed that student-athletes generally develop their own unique concepts and levels of awareness of sportsmanship before arriving on Sun Belt campuses. Kathy Keene, associate commissioner of the conference, said that result was something the conference will take advantage of in next year’s iteration of the survey.
Designed by Middle Tennessee State University Center for Sport Policy and Research with information and possible scenarios presented between pre- and post-tests, the survey asks participants about their value system and advises how to handle negative situations before they happen.
Keene said the data from the first year of the program will help the conference modify the survey to address both the internalization of sportsmanship and the role of the coach.
“We need to get the coaches to understand their role and the internalization of sportsmanship as well, and they may need to change what they are doing with their student-athletes,” Keene said. “We are still trying to learn more, and hopefully with additional data, we’ll get a greater understanding of how student-athletes feel and act.”
Keene said the program certainly has raised awareness, and the league’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee reacted favorably during its summer meeting. Commissioner Wright Waters said the feedback from the conference coaches wasn’t as universally positive, but he hopes to see that change.
“We need to remind them that athletics is still part of higher education, and it’s not just about winning but also about learning how to win and how to lose,” he said. “We shouldn’t be condoning behavior in athletics that we wouldn’t condone in an English classroom.”
Waters and Keene hope the program teaches student-athletes that sportsmanship is closely tied to values. Eventually, the conference could design conference-wide or institution-specific programming, based on future surveys and data. The demographic information collection is specific enough to identify possible problem areas (such as with a specific sport or gender) over time and eventually tailor programming to address those issues.
Keene hopes the program becomes part of Sun Belt Conference life.
“The more we do it, the more it just becomes something we do at the Sun Belt Conference. If you do this every year, I think we will eventually see some behavior change,” she said.
Waters hopes that behavior change will alter another interesting point the survey uncovered – that as student-athletes move from their freshman year through their final years of competition, the level of sportsmanship awareness drops. Wright called that finding “a little disappointing” and said the conference would continue to reach out to coaches, whom the student-athletes look to for sportsmanship cues.
The program began because Waters was tired of the “deterioration of civility” he saw in college athletics, and it will continue as long as it shows results – and identifies areas that need improvement.
“I’ve always thought that we had to do something, and another poster or motivational speaker or public service message was not going to get it done,” he said. “This is a step in the right direction. If we can continue the quantifying a positive change, that tells us we are making a difference.”