Are You Really Trying to Win if You’re Not Trying to Cheat?
Former Major League Baseball star Mark Grace once said, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” a modern day mantra that truly opens Pandoras Box when it comes to the lengths some athletes, coaches, and teams will go to in order to win. Just last week Lance Armstrong essentially admitted to PED usage by putting up the white flag against his doping charges, and countless more athletes in recent years (including Marion Jones, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds) have been accused of or found to have used various illegal performance enhancing supplements. Should these athletes be admired for doing whatever necessary to reach their full athletic potential, or condemned for not playing by the rules?
Cheating in sports actually occurs through a variety of means and methods, with the most obvious being the use of steroids and performance enhancing supplements (AHPS). The general consensus from most sports fans is that players who use steroids are clearly cheating the game, but what about some of the less observable ways in which athletes and coaches break rules? I’m talking about the baseball player who corks his bat, the hockey player who uses an extra-long stick, or the college football coach who casually overlooks player indiscretions that would almost certainly have the player(s) banned from the team? These less dramatic examples of sports cheating might not seem like much on the surface, but they all provide an unfair advantage to the athlete, coach, or program that engages in these tactics.
Is a baseball pitcher who throws spitballs a cheater? What about a baseball team that builds up the infield dirt down the lines so that when their best bunters lay one down it almost certainly stays fair? Are you discouraged when college football coaches seemingly throw all their ethics and morals out the window when one of their star players commits a crime – yet is barely punished for his actions? Or are all of these examples just savvy tactics that help win games?
It would be easy to go on and on with examples of how athletes, coaches and sports programs cross the line with integrity and playing by the rules, but the real question I am posing has less to do with the ways in which athletes cheat, and more to do with the mindset and philosophy used by some in sports whereby “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Should athletes always be on the lookout for ways to maximize their game – regardless of how? And if an athlete, coach, or team “doesn’t get caught,” does that make it OK? While these might be difficult sport psychology questions for some people to answer, when you parlay this discussion into one of academics, the answers seem to become much more obvious and clear. In other words, would you find it OK for a medical student to cheat as long as he can get away with it? If so, would you want that to cheating student to one day be your surgeon? I didn’t think so. Are the stakes different in sports because they aren’t “life or death” decisions around cheating (compared to being an untrained surgeon)?
Sports, like life, often provide subtle and discrete ways to cheat the system, and often we are only held to our own moral code and personal integrity. For some, this discussion is very black and white — if the rules say you can’t do it, then it’s cheating and shouldn’t be done! But others camp out in the grey area and find ways to justify their actions — like an athlete who feels he has to use performance supplements to simply keep up with the rest of the players in the league who cheat.
If you are a coach, or a sports parent, be sure to talk about the importance of integrity in sports, and the consequences for direct (i.e. corking a baseball bat) and subtle cheating (looking the other way when you know something wrong is happening). One thing we do know – so long as there are sports, there will always be athletes, coaches, and programs looking to beat the system.
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Dr. Chris Stankovich is a Professional Athletic Counselor and Sport Performance Scientist and studies the psychosocial variables impacting human performance and success. He is the author of 5 books and has had his work featured in numerous national media outlets, including USA Today and ABC World News. Dr. Stankovich is known as "The Sports Doc" for his regular television feature on Ohio News Network and NBC 4 Columbus (OH). For more information on peak performance products, speaking engagements, training seminars, and free education downloads, please visit http://www.drstankovich.com.