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.