A Training Program for Coaches
on Ethics, Sportsmanship and
Character-Building in Sports
By Michael Josephson


Talk About It...
Click here to go to the FORUM discussion group at CHARACTER COUNTS! ... Enliven a discussion, or start a new one, about sportsmanship and coaching for character.



Coaches, whether paid professionals or volunteers, are central figures in a network of relationships with athletes, parents, institutions, opponents, officials, fans and the general public. Each of these relationships comes with a bundle of legal and ethical obligations arising from laws, written standards of conduct, and principles of ethics and sportsmanship.

Laws. Like all citizens, coaches are subject to criminal, contract and tort laws. For example, coaches are legally obligated to take reasonable steps to protect the health and safety of athletes and other participants by refraining from intentional harmful conduct (physical battery, sexual harassment, sexual or financial exploitation) and by avoiding any form of negligence that could result in harm. Breach of these duties could result in criminal prosecution or civil liability.

Standards of Conduct. In addition to laws, the professional responsibilities of coaches are set out in a network of formal written rules and policies promulgated by the various sports organizations they are affiliated with (e.g., USOC, NCAA, USA Hockey), the conferences and districts they compete in, and specific institutional standards and codes of conduct.

Principles of Ethics and Sportsmanship. Finally, coaches are expected to adhere to unwritten standards of sportsmanship and demonstrate integrity, respect and a commitment to fair play.


Coaches and athletes are subject to explicit mandates and restrictions by overlapping codes:

1.) USOC Coaching Ethics Code; 2.) Arizona Sports Summit Accord; 3.) National Governing Body (NGB) Sport Specific Codes; 4.) Conference/District Policies and Codes; and 5.) Institutional or Team Codes

USOC Coaching Ethics Code

Purpose. The primary goal of the USOC Coaching Ethics Code is "the welfare and protection of the individuals and groups with whom coaches work." The Code also provides a common set of values upon which coaches build their professional work.

History. Last modified in 1997, the USOC Code applies to all USOC directly supported functions (Olympic Games, World University Games, Pan American Games, etc.).

Applicability. All coaches participating in USOC events or who train at any U.S. Olympic Training Center must sign the Code. It has become the de facto national coaching ethics standard adopted by many of the National Governing Bodies of Olympic sports.

Enforcement. The USOC Code provides an enforcement procedure for the review of alleged violations and discipline for violators.

Structure. The USOC Code contains six general principles and seven categories of specific standards of conduct

Six General Principles: 1.) Competence; 2.) Integrity; 3.) Professional Responsibility; 4.) Respect; 5.) Concern for Others' Welfare; and 6.) Responsible Coaching

Seven Categories of 47 Specific Standards of Conduct: 1.) General (17 provisions); 2.) Advertising and Other Public Statements (six provisions); 3.) Training Athletes (10 provisions); 4.) Training Supervision (five provisions); 5.) Team Selection (one provision); 6.) Resolving Ethical Issues (seven provisions); 7.) Process for Dealing With Violations (one provision)

The Arizona Sports Summit Accord

The 16 principles of the Arizona Sports Summit Accord articulate additional ethical responsibilities of coaches and athletic administrators. Many institutions and conferences have formally adopted the Accord, making it applicable to members of those institutions. In addition, the Accord has a certain inherent credibility and authority due to the great prestige of the people and institutions represented by the charter signatories.

Other Codes

This program will occasionally refer to provisions of sport-specific codes and the codes of various intercollegiate or interscholastic organizations.


All coaches must be competent to perform the responsibilities assigned to them. This means that they must be adequately and sufficiently qualified to do their jobs. A coach who is not competent can do serious harm to athletes, the institutions represented and the sport itself. But competence is a bare minimum.

Standards of Competence. The standards of coaching competence directly relate to the context in which the coaching takes place. Thus, coaches of Olympic or other elite athletes as well as coaches of professional athletes should have a much higher level of expertise in matters of strategy, technique and motivation than volunteer coaches in a youth soccer league.

Coaches in Recreational and Educational Settings. The vast majority of sports coaching takes place in recreational and educational settings with young people who have largely undeveloped physical skills and whose character and values are not fully formed. In these settings the most important qualities of competent coaching include a high degree of concern for the personal safety and well-being of the athlete and the ability to develop good character and other important life habits and skills through athletic competition.

Standards of Minimal Competency. The drafters of the Arizona Sports Summit Accord established coaching competency as a central principle: Coaches at all levels of sports, whether paid or volunteers, are responsible to develop and maintain minimal competence including basic knowledge of and commitment to: 1.) the character-building aspects of sport and of techniques and methods of teaching and reinforcing the core values comprising sportsmanship and good character, 2.) what it requires to maintain a safe sports environment including knowledge of first aid principles and of the physical capacities and limitations of the age group coached, and 3.) of the rules and strategies of the sport and principles of effective coaching. (Arizona Sports Summit Accord 12)

Know Your Limits. A fundamental component of competence is knowing one's limits. Competent coaches stay within those boundaries while constantly seeking to extend them.

Coaches provide services only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education, training, supervised experience, or appropriate professional experience. (USOC 1.02)

Coaches provide services involving new techniques only after first undertaking appropriate study, training, supervision, and/or consultation from persons who are competent in those areas or techniques. (USOC 1.02)

In those emerging areas in which generally recognized standards for preparatory training do not yet exist, coaches nevertheless take reasonable steps to ensure the competence of their work and to protect athletes and other participants from harm. (USOC 1.02)

Building and Maintaining Expertise. While minimal competence is a requirement, the goal of any professional is to strive for excellence, to become proficient, that is, to develop and demonstrate a high level of competence and expertise.

Coaches maintain a reasonable level of awareness of current scientific and professional information in their fields of activity, and undertake ongoing efforts to maintain competence in the skills they use. (USOC 1.03)

Coaches rely on scientifically and professionally derived knowledge when making professional judgments or when engaging in professional endeavors. (USOC 1.04)

Delegation to and Supervision of Subordinates. Coaches delegate to their employees, supervisees, and assistants only those responsibilities that such persons can reasonably be expected to perform competently, on the basis of their education, training, or experience, either independently or with the level of supervision being provided. (USOC 1.16(a))

Coaches provide proper training and supervision to their employees or supervisees and take reasonable steps to see that such persons perform services responsibly, competently, and ethically. (USOC 1.16(b))


Competence Is Not Enough. Coaches must use their special role with athletes, parents and others responsibly. This means coaches should uphold the highest standards of coaching and abide by all applicable codes of conduct as well as general principles of ethics and sportsmanship. Among the core responsibilities of a coach are the obligations relating to:

  • Providing for the safety and welfare of athletes above all

  • Seeking a drug-free environment

  • Avoidance of economic or sexual exploitation

  • Maintaining the integrity of the sport

  • Demanding and modeling respectful conduct

  • Acting as a positive role-model on and off the field

Safety and Welfare of Athletes. One dimension of professionalism is the requirement that coaches always put the welfare of their athletes above any personal interests. Quite a few USOC Code provisions are designed to clarify this obligation. While skill development, performance and winning are important objectives, the responsible coach always considers the athlete as a whole person and, when necessary, subordinates athletic goals to advance broader issues of personal welfare and development.

Coaches take reasonable steps to avoid harming their athletes or other participants, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable. (USOC 1.11)

Coaches at all levels of sports, whether paid or volunteers, are responsible to develop and maintain minimal competence including basic knowledge of what it requires to maintain a safe sports environment including knowledge of first aid principles and of the physical capacities and limitations of the age group coached. (Arizona Sports Summit Accord 12)

The safety and welfare of his players should always be uppermost in his mind, and they must never be sacrificed for any personal prestige or selfish glory. (Article 1, Rule #2, AFCA Code of Ethics)

[Coaches should] stress good health habits and clean living; help all athletes gain confidence and develop self-esteem; give all players the opportunity to improve their skills; and encourage all athletes to be team players. (USA Hockey)

[Coaches should] place the emotional and physical well being of their athletes ahead of a personal desires to win. (National Youth Soccer Coaches Association, NYSCA)

Always keep the best interests of each student-athlete as their aim and never be guilty of enhancing their professional progress by the use of a student's skill for personal benefit. (NAIA)

[Coaches should] use every means at their command to protect the moral, mental and physical health of those under their guidance and never be party to the use of athletics for the financial or political gain of any office or group. (NAIA)

The coach should never place the value of a win above that of instilling the highest desirable ideals and character traits in his players. (Article 1, Rule #1, AFCA Code of Ethics)

Winning is a consideration, but not the only one, nor the most important one. Remember, players are involved in hockey for fun and enjoyment. (USA Hockey Code of Ethics)

Maintaining a Healthy Environment and Drug-Free Sport


Coaches do not tolerate the use of performance-enhancing drugs and support athletes' efforts to be drug-free. (USOC 3.07)

Under no circumstances should a coach authorize or tolerate the use of illegal or performance-enhancing drugs. (Article 1, Rule #4, AFCA Code of Ethics)

Alcohol and Tobacco.

Coaches discourage the use of alcohol and tobacco in conjunction with athletic events or victory celebrations at playing sites and forbid use of alcohol by minors. (USOC 3.08)

Coaches refrain from tobacco and alcohol use while they are coaching and make every effort to avoid their use while in the presence of their athletes.

Avoiding Economic or Sexual Exploitation. In many cases, a coach is an enormously powerful and influential figure in the life of athletes and their parents. This power can create opportunities to take undue, unfair or inappropriate advantage. Misuse of the coach's influence or position is unprofessional and unethical.

Conflicts of Interest. Occasionally, the best interests of an athlete conflict with the best interests of the coach. In such cases, the coaches should resolve conflicts in favor of the athlete or other person that has contracted for the coach's services. (USOC 1.12, 1.13)

Personal Problems. A coach should not accept a coaching role if there is a substantial likelihood that personal problems or other obligations may interfere with effectiveness or cause other harm. (USOC 1.10)

Seek Assistance. A coach should seek assistance at an early stage regarding personal problems that could significantly impair coaching performance (USOC 1.10)

Terminating or Interrupting Coaching Relationship

If a personal problem cannot be adequately handled without putting the athlete at risk, a coach should voluntarily suspend or terminate the coaching relationship. (USOC 3.02(b))

A coach should also voluntarily terminate coaching service when it becomes reasonably clear that the athlete no longer needs the service, is not benefiting or is being harmed by continued service. (USOC 3.10).

If coaching services are to be interrupted for any reason, a coach should take appropriate steps to protect the welfare of the athlete and assure that training may be continued. (CEC 3.09, 3.10(b))

Potential Conflicting Relationships. Coaches must always be sensitive to the potential harmful effects of contacts with other athletes, agents and others on their work and their pre-existing obligations. Thus, coaches should refrain from entering into a new relationships if it is reasonably likely that it might impair the coach's objectivity or otherwise interfere with the coach's effectively performing his or her functions as a coach. (USOC 1.13)

Solicitation of Athletes. A coach should not directly or indirectly, engage in uninvited in-person solicitation of athletes or other participants who because of their particular circumstances are vulnerable to undue influence. (USOC 2.06)

Athletes Coached by Others. A coach should not accept a coaching assignment for an athlete who is presently being competently coached unless it is clear that the change will be in the best interests of the athlete. (CEC 3.03)

Misuse of Influence. A coach's judgments and actions often have significant impact on the lives of athletes and others over whom the coach has supervisory, evaluative or other authority. Thus, coaches must be alert to guard against personal, financial, social, organizational, or political factors that might lead to misuse of their influence. (USOC 1.12, 1.14(a))

Sexual or Romantic Relationships. Coaches do not exploit athletes or other participants over whom they have supervisory, evaluative, or other authority. (USOC 1.14(a)). Any sexual contact between a coach and a present athlete or any person over whom the coach has evaluative or supervisory authority is considered exploitative.

Athletes or Subordinates. Coaches must not engage in sexual/romantic relationships with athletes or other participants over whom the coach has evaluative, direct, or indirect authority, because such relationships are likely to impair judgment or be exploitative. (USOC 1.14(b), 3.04)

Coaching Former Sexual Partners. Coaches must not coach athletes with whom they have engaged in sexual intimacies. (USOC 3.05)

Sexual Intimacies With Former Athletes. Coaches must not engage in sexual intimacies with a former athlete for at least two years after cessation or termination of professional services. (USOC 3.06(a))

After Two Years. Because sexual intimacies with a former athlete are so frequently harmful to the athlete, and because such intimacies undermine public confidence in the coaching profession and thereby deter the public's use of needed services, coaches do not engage in sexual intimacies with former athletes even after a two-year interval except in the most unusual circumstances. (USOC 3.06(b))

The coach who engages in such activity after the two years following cessation or termination of the coach-athlete relationship bears the burden of demonstrating that there has been no exploitation, in light of all relevant factors, including: (1) the amount of time that has passed since the coach-athlete relationship terminated, (2) the circumstances of termination, (3) the athlete's personal history, (4) the athlete's current mental status, (5) the likelihood of adverse impact on the athlete and others, and (6) any statements or actions made by the coach during the course of the athlete-coach relationship suggesting or inviting the possibility of a post-termination sexual or romantic relationship with the athlete or coach. (USOC 3.06(b))

Why Sexual Relations Are Such a Problem

  • The mismatch in power is so great that it is unprofessional regardless of the circumstances.

  • The mere appearance of impropriety undermines confidence in the motives and professionalism of the coach.

  • There is a great potential for publicized scandal and lawsuits against both the coach and the institution.

  • Any sort of improper relationship undermines team morale.

  • It subjects the coach to accusations even if a consensual adult relationship goes sour.

  • The relationship may look different to the athlete or subordinate with the passage of time. Accusations years later are just as damaging.

What Doesn't Matter

The Athlete or Subordinate Is a Consenting Adult. Obviously, it is worse if the sexual partner is a minor (it is probably criminal), but sexual relations of any sort is still improper even if it is with an adult and even if the relationship is clearly and purely consensual (something that is hard to know).

The Relationship Is Heterosexual. Both heterosexual and homosexual sexual relationships are improper.

The Athlete or Subordinate Is the Initiator. It doesn't matter who "started it." No matter how aggressive or seductive the sexual partner may have been, the coach must resist any advances and assure that the athlete or subordinate understands unequivocally that no improper romantic or sexual relationship may occur. In some cases, the coach may have to terminate the relationship if the athlete or subordinate has strong improper feelings toward the coach.

There Was No Intercourse. All forms of sexual or romantic contact are improper, including touching, phone sex and inappropriate nakedness.

The Relationship Is Sincere and Serious. It doesn't matter whether marriage is the intention or even the ultimate consequence of the relationship. If the romantic relationship is more important than the coaching one, the coach must completely terminate the coaching relationship.

Assuring the Integrity of the Sport

Coaches should promote integrity in the practice of coaching. (USOC Principle A)

Coaches must demonstrate and demand scrupulous integrity in all matters, observe and enforce the spirit as well as the letter of the rules and safeguard the integrity of the sport by complying with and demanding compliance with all laws and regulations including those relating to gambling and the use of drugs. (Arizona Sports Summit Accord 8,14).

The integrity of the game rests mainly on the shoulders of the coach; there can be no compromise. (Article 3, Rule #4, AFCA Code of Ethics)

Coaches who seek to gain any advantage by circumvention, disregard or unwillingness to learn the rules of the game, are unfit for this association. (Article 3, Rule #4, AFCA Code of Ethics)

Coaches should not engage in, encourage, or ever tolerate, any form of trickery or evasion of rules in order to gain an advantage over an opponent. (NAIA)

Gambling. Coaches should not be associated in any way with professional gamblers nor make any comments regarding point spreads. (Article 5, Rule #12, AFCA Code of Ethics). Coaches should discourage gambling by athletes. (USA Hockey 7c)

Respectful Conduct

Respecting Athletes and Others. When engaged in coaching, coaches must recognize the power they hold over athletes and therefore make reasonable efforts to avoid engaging in conduct that is personally demeaning to athletes and other participants. (USOC 4.03(b))

Respecting Players. Coaches should interact with their players in a respectful, non-degrading manner while encouraging them to perform at their highest level. (Article 8, Rule #3, AFCA Code of Ethics)

Respecting Beliefs of Others. Coaches must respect the rights of others to hold values, attitudes and opinions that differ from their own. (USOC 1.06)

Responsibility for Conduct of Athletes. Coaches should assure that those under their supervision treat the traditions of the sport and other participants with respect. (Arizona Sports Summit Accord 11)

Nondiscrimination. Coaches must not engage in discrimination based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, socioeconomic status or any basis proscribed by law. (USOC 1.07)

Sexual Harassment. Coaches must not engage in sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is sexual solicitation, physical advances, or verbal or nonverbal conduct that is sexual in nature, and that is either: (1) unwelcome, offensive, or creates a hostile environment, and the coach knows or is told this; (2) sufficiently severe or intense to be abusive to a reasonable person in the context. Sexual harassment can consist of a single intense or severe act or of multiple persistent or pervasive acts. (USOC 1.08(a))

Sexual Harassment Complaints. Coaches must accord sexual-harassment complainants and respondents dignity and respect. Coaches do not participate in denying an athlete the right to participate based upon their having made, or their being the subject of, sexual harassment charges. (USOC 1.08(b))

Other Harassment. Coaches do not engage in behavior that is harassing or demeaning to persons with whom they interact in their work based on factors such as those persons' age, gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language or socioeconomic status. (USOC 1.09)

Role Modeling.

While many aspects of personal behavior and private activities seem far removed from official duties of coaching, all coaches should be sensitive to their position as role models for their athletes. Private activities perceived as immoral or illegal can influence the coaching environment and coaches are encouraged to observe the standards of this Ethics Code consistently. (USOC 1.01)

Coaches must articulate and enforce policies that assure that athletes and others under their supervision exemplify good character and conduct themselves as positive role models on and off the field. (Arizona Sports Summit Accord 4)



Click here to return to CC! home page.2001 / Josephson Institute


Lost your way? Click here to find your way around the site.