Before getting to the crux of the matter, let me first provide an example from my own (early) coaching career that exemplifies the sort of speech-act that will be in question:

In the midst of a close game at the State Water Polo Championships against Miramonte High School, one of their players had the ball and committed an offensive foul. His head was underwater when the call was made and I realized that he didn’t hear the call and that he assumed it was still his ball. Standing on the pool deck immediately next to this player, I yelled at my own player with the sole intent of deceiving the opposition, “Alex, it’s his ball, leave it there.” The Miramonte player, having clearly heard me, picked the ball up and passed it. In water polo, this is considered interference and he was thus ejected from the game.

At the time, I thought this an exceptionally clever and strategic tactic on my part. But as I returned to our team’s bench, one of my players whispered to me, “Trevor and I think what you just did was unethical.” Because of the focus our team places on ethics, my players have their moral antenna up and, apparently, feel comfortable enough that they share their thoughts on this with me, at any time. We discussed the event on the bus ride home and decided that I had behaved in an unsportsmanlike manner and, thus, unethically.

The gaming and sporting arena provides one of those unique instances in which deceit is not only morally allowable, but something to be valued and even celebrated. The basketball player who feigns a shot only to dribble past his opponent who “believed” the player’s initial move has performed well in that instant; we rightly refrain from condemning the athlete for deceit.

For the youth sport athlete (and coach), participating in an event that encourages deception of one kind can understandably lead to the conclusion that deception is permissible carte blanche. The concept of deception quickly becomes muddy—and it provides a grey area where philosophers love to roam. Two types of situations occur in which “permissible deception” crosses over into unsportsmanlike and, thus, unethical grounds. (The second of which I will discuss in a subsequent article.)

The first type of unethical deception in youth sport I will term, “Opposing Coach Deception.” These are moments when a coach intentionally provides information to opposing players with the sole purpose of deceiving them as per my own water polo example.

Coaches of youth sports maintain a unique role: on the one hand, they are teaching youth how to best defeat their opponent. But, as opposed to the college-level or professional coach, youth coaches work with children—individuals who have still-forming frontal lobes where moral decisions are made, who are legal minors, and who maintain a different sort of power-relationship with an adult coach than a professional would maintain: they have been taught to trust and respect those in this position and we expect them to do so.

These sorts of opportunities present themselves in every sport. A football coach can stand on the sideline immediately adjacent to his receiver and their defender and say to the receiver—though directed at the defender—“Take him deep: all the way to the end zone!” knowing that the ensuing play calls for the receiver to sprint just 10 yards and then stop to receive the pass. Here, again, the coach has taken advantage of the young individual on defense.

The examples here differ from the same coach calling out a play with a code name to his team or even calling a completely different play by that same name later in the game where the opposition believes they know how the play will run: in these cases, the deception disguises what the coach’s team will do as a means of getting the team to work together, as opposed to taking advantage of a particular youth athlete on the opposing team. In addition, this sort of action aims to help the coach’s team succeed, not to make a particular player fail.

This can be parsed down into a nicely succinct guiding principle:1

The youth coach should act with the intent to make his players succeed, not to make the opposing players fail.

Here, it’s important to understand the semantic difference between the two approaches. In my water polo example, my intent was solely to make our opponent fail (by telling him a falsehood for which he was penalized).  Conversely, the ethical coach strives only to make his own players succeed; for example, by instructing them on how to shoot the ball more effectively. Clearly, sport is a zero-sum game: the goalie’s success causes the shooter’s failure. Here, it’s the intent of the youth sports coach that matters.

To make the matter more obvious: were an adult coach of a youth soccer team to provide false information to a 6-year old, we would certainly condemn the action morally, even if it somehow aided his own team in victory.2

Because adults—and especially coaches—maintain an imbalance of power in youth coaching, and work with adolescents still developing their moral reasoning skills, they have a moral responsibility to refrain from intentionally deceiving their opponents in a manner outside the realm of the skills the sport is designed to test. Teaching skills like faking a shot and then dribbling for a lay-up or devising deceptive plays in football are all within the agreed-upon bounds of sport. Using one’s position as an adult coach to convince an adolescent that it’s his ball when it’s not takes advantage of a relationship that should instead focus on playing the game the right way.


1Thanks to Colin Martin for his help in framing this principle.

2We might also wonder if experience-level factors into the discussion. It likewise seems unsportsmanlike for a novice-level adult-league water polo coach to intentionally deceive a 40-year old competitor playing water polo for the first time.

8 Comments » for Thou Shalt Not Lie, Except Sometimes: The Morality of Deception in Youth Sports
  1. Terry O'Donnell says:

    Thought provoking and enjoyable. Thanks Jack.

  2. Ninan Fox says:

    Jack, this is very valuable information. Thanks for sharing

  3. Mark W says:

    I consider myself an ethically minded coach, but your examples bring to light nuances that I too, have considered “clever” or “strategic”, but as your players pointed out, they’re watching closely for the consistency between what we say (“morality”) and what we do. Definitely worth passing along…

  4. Peter Brodie says:

    I agree with Jack’s Points. But underlying the whole article is the canard about the importance of winning—-an obsession that leads to win-at-any-cost and to all this widespread cheating. (Lombardi has much to answer for: his (if it is his) quote is as insidious as “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”—if not as cynical as “Arbeit Macht Frei.”)
    Stuff for another blog?

  5. Summer says:

    Thanks for roaming this grey area, coach! So necessary to ask/answer/explore these big questions when you are such a huge part of these kids lives.

  6. Josh says:

    I just love the fact that a high school student is coached in a way that makes him ask his own coach if what he just did was ethical. All of the background work that led to that moment is the real coaching that turns your athletes into thoughtful (and ethical) young men. Nice work!

  7. Buck Bannon says:

    It is refreshing to hear about a water polo coach that upholds ethical standards. Unfortunately, to many water polo coaches are themselves and what is best for the athletes. It is great that teammates can talk to the coach and a coach has a meaningful reflection on what is the right thing to do!!!!!!

    • Jack Bowen says:

      Thanks for your comment, Buck. I appreciate your viewpoint and I wonder this: Could it be that we only notice the coaches who behave unethically and in a purely self-interested manner because those are the ones who really stand out? For example, after a well-coached game, we rarely walk away reflecting on the coach for behaving ethically, likely because there’s nothing to talk about and, ideally, because that’s the standard. That is to say, we don’t comment, “Great to see Coach A refrain from cheating and behaving poorly today.” But when a coach does behave poorly, that’s an outlier that really stands out and we reflect on it, share it (“Can you believe that Coach X did that!!”), and it sticks with us.

      I’m not suggesting that your observation is wrong. Actually, this would be a fascinating sort of study for a sport sociologist to take on: looking to see how many coaches exhibit instances of unethical behavior. Clearly, this introduces a grey area of how to evaluate.

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