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Life Lessons

Do Sports Build Character?

Do sports build character or, as sports writer Heywood Broun said, simply reveal it?
Some information suggests that the answer may be neither, and that character may be much more difficult to nail down.

In his New York Times column today, David Brooks cites the book “Experiments in Ethics” by Anthony Appiah, which wonders if people have one thing called character. Instead, they have many characters, all competing with each other.

Broun, who died in 1939, might look be surprised to learn some psychologists’ view that character may not be one

In this view, Brooks writes, “Students who are routinely dishonest at home are not routinely dishonest at school. People who are courageous at work can be cowardly at church. People who behave kindly on a sunny day may behave callously the next day when it is cloudy and they are feeling glum. Behavior does not exhibit what the psychologists call “cross-situational stability.”

This article reminds me of the debate over athletic ability. Is it general, or is it specific to the sport? In other words, can you look at a fine basketball player, and expect them to fit in well on your volleyball team?

Does a person who wins the state championship in the javelin or discus have a future as a baseball or softball pitcher?

Evidence strongly suggests that motor programs are specific, and that a person’s ability in one sport tells you very little about their potential to excel in another.

So if the question of character is anything like the question of athletic ability, then we can be much less sure about the mental makeup of our players. Good character in one situation may not predict good character in another.

That would help explain why sometimes, to our dismay, a player or colleague can act in a way that seems completely out of, well, character.

It also might help explain why some players can be counted on to stand tall when the game is on the line, only to be accused of breaking and entering later that night.


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