Unsportsmanlike Conduct

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck LLC

A friend of mine who plays women's league tennis shared an article on social media about cheating in the game. The topic was, “incorrect line calls made by opponents and how to deal with them”. It got me thinking about how we coach our kids.

In this article, the presumption was that in every game, you are going to be “cheated” out of multiple points. The author contended that some missed calls are accidents, because it is very difficult to make these line judgments, and others are straight lies. It struck me that this behavior would be so prevalent that it is apparently just part of the game.

I never played tennis in a tournament, only against friends. But I wanted to win and played all out in an effort to do so. And sure, every match there were dozens of close line calls I had to make. I can honestly (no pun intended) say that I never called a ball that was on the line “out”. And, in fact, I never ruled a borderline call in my favor. If I wasn't 100% sure, I gave the benefit of the doubt to my opponent.

This wasn't because I was some saint. It is because I would not have been able to enjoy a victory if I wasn't absolutely certain I'd earned it. If I had walked away from a win knowing I might have given myself a point I didn't deserve, the win would have been ruined. Today I read a quote from Sophocles that sums it up perfectly: “Rather fail with honor than succeed by fraud.”

So I began thinking about my youth coaching career and wasn't quite as proud of my record. While I would never have dreamed of doing something unsportsmanlike to win a competition I was playing in, for some reason I don't know if I had the same standards as a coach.

When my sons finally got into competitive baseball (where we were trying to win), I read a book about coaching. The author shared many great pieces of wisdom which I used for years. However, one tip was that since the consequence in Little League for leaving a base early was so lenient, players should be taught to get an early jump. I can remember teaching that to my team and having my nine-year old son ask, “But isn't that cheating?” I guess because I'd read it in a book written by an expert, that part didn't occur to me. But my son, who had been taught to never cheat in any game he ever played, picked it right up. So our team didn't leave early.

Stealing the other team's pitching signs is another example. I admit there were times I did this to give my hitters an advantage. Back then, there was no rule against it so I didn't view it as cheating. (Little League Baseball has recently made this a violation based on the umpire's discretion). Again, sign stealing wasn't illegal and though it ticked a lot of people off, my attitude was, “You're free to do it too. Or you can teach your kids to hide the signs like we do.” I justified it by saying it was part of the game at higher levels. But, later, I reconsidered and quit doing it. I began to believe that just because something isn't against the rules doesn't mean it is not unsportsmanlike to do it.

When my daughter was playing club soccer, she may have been 11 or 12, she had a chance to score in a very important game. A defender collided with her in the box and knocked her off the ball, but she stayed on her feet and tried to recover. She wasn't able to shoot and no foul was awarded. After the game her coach told me that if she had fallen down she would have gotten the call and we'd have received a penalty kick. I said, “Do you mean if she'd flopped?” He tried to explain how it wasn't really flopping. My response was that I'm going to teach her to keep fighting when this happens, not try to induce a call. He didn't say much else, but I know he didn't agree.

Now that she plays college soccer I see lots of girls who are experts at falling at the slightest provocation and who make it look very unscripted. Often, it results in a whistle being blown and penalty granted. It's not against the rules, so is what they're doing proper because it helps the team win? Should they continue because not diving actually puts them at a disadvantage since everyone else is doing it?

I don't intend to offer an answer to those questions. I'll leave them rhetorical. But I do believe that, when coaching young boys and girls who are going to grow up to be men and women conducting business, living in communities and raising their own children, that the Greek philosopher's message should be ours was well: “Rather fail with honor than succeed by fraud.”

Brian Gotta is a former youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found at He can be reached at


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