Kids who cheat at sports likely have poor moral values, according to a recent study. Researchers looking at 341 young Italian tennis players found that those with antisocial moral attitudes were more likely to cheat on the court. The findings suggest that bad attitudes about how and why a person should win may correlate with good or bad behavior during a game.
“This research permitted us to broaden our knowledge on cheating and understand more thoroughly the process linking ideas and intentions to behavior,” study coauthor Fabio Lucidi of Sapienza University of Rome, told Fatherly. “Values emphasizing ‘winning at all costs’ or ‘being the best’ may push athletes towards cheating or immoral behavior in sport.”
The tennis study builds on previous research that has shown that people with moral values tend to conform to social norms and take part in other pro-social behaviors, while refusing to accept cheating. Similarly, studies have suggested that people who are focused on status rather than skill (or winning rather than becoming good at a sport) are more likely to cheat. But these preliminary findings had never been applied to actual behavior in a sporting context.
In order to test if moral values could predict actual cheating behavior, Lucidi and colleagues examined a sample of 341 youth athletes participating in an elite tennis tournament. Randomly selected youth athletes were given a voluntary questionnaire meant to suss out their moral values and their beliefs about whether skill or status was most important. They ten observed a subsample of 80 athletes as they played tennis, and tracked whether they were cheating or acting unsportsmanlike in real time.
Youth tennis is a good game to watch for cheating behaviors, according to researchers, because although the players are competing at high levels, they are also required to referee themselves to a certain degree—calling shots near the line as either “in” or “out” on the honor system. This leaves ample room for them to lie during close calls, a swing the game in their favor.
Lucidi and his team were surprised to find just how strongly a bad attitude could predict cheating behavior. In fact, lacking moral values and focusing on status over skill were such strong predictors of on-court cheating behavior that Lucidi says he has gone on to test the same hypothesis in other sports, such as soccer. The results are strikingly similar. “Decisively so,” says Lucidi ”We have recently gathered additional data in the context of soccer, and findings confirm what we had already found in tennis.”
So what is a parent worried about raising a cheater to do? For one thing, Lucidi suggests, maybe lay off winning as a measure of self-worth. “My suggestion is to motivate young athletes to focus on improving themselves in sport,” he says. “The final outcome is only a measure of this improvement and not the sole performance goal.” Moreover, “opponents should not be viewed as enemies,” he says. “Rather, they represent the standard against which we can measure our improvements.”
A father himself, Lucidi says the research has given him a new perspective on his own children when they take to the field. “Our research helped me to value my own children’s commitment and effort, and not only their ultimate performance.”