Are You A Sportsman Or A Gamesman?

Dec 2, 2015 - 12:10 PM
Each rider has a decision to make about how they approach competition—as a sportsman or as a gamesman.

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” -Mahatma Gandhi

At the Fédération Equestre Internationale general assembly on Nov. 12, the FEI Eventing Committee proposed changes in order to create more exposure and visibility for the sport of eventing. The FEI and IOC believe change is needed: “We want to remain relevant in today’s ever changing sporting landscape and gain the exposure and visibility our sport deserves” said FEI president Ingmar De Vos. “We need to take advantage of the excitement and drama of our sport, make it easier to understand, attract young and larger audiences, be broadcast friendly, and see more nations represented in our sport.”

We must carefully consider how horse sports can continue to compete with other sports to attract new athletes in a modern world. It is up to all officials, athletes and leaders of the industry to constantly think of ways to remain viable in such a quickly changing and modernizing world. The changes that the FEI has proposed may help or may hurt, and we all need to continue the conversation in order to build a better sport.

While the specific ideas set forth in the FEI’s proposal warrant thorough consideration and discussion, that is not my aim today. Rather, I think we need to consider the larger issue of sportsmanship in sports, and in horse sports in particular. 

The three Olympic values laid out by the IOC are Excellence, Friendship, and Respect. Defined on the Olympic.org website:

“Excellence in the Olympic ideal refers to giving one’s best on the field of play or in life without measuring one’s self with others, but above all aiming at reaching one’s personal objectives with determination in the effort. It is not only about winning, but mainly about participating, making progress against personal goals, striving to be and to do our best in our daily lives and benefiting from the combination of a strong body, will and mind.”

Friendship “refers to building a peaceful and better world through solidarity, team spirit, joy and optimism in sport. The Olympic games inspire humanity to overcome political, economic, gender, racial or religious differences and forge friendships in spite of those differences.”

Respect “represents the ethical principle that should inspire all who participate in the Olympic programs. It includes respect for oneself and one’s body, respect for one another, for rules and for the environment. It thus refers to the fair play that each athlete has to display in sport, as well as avoiding doping.”

With those Olympic values in mind, horse sports should be able to serve the Olympic ideal well. The amazing thing is that even though our teammates are of a different species, or maybe exactly because our teammates are of a different species, horse sports can exemplify the Olympic values of Excellence, Friendship and Respect, as well as teamwork, honesty, and trust, in ways that even the most popular mainstream sports cannot.

To me, the most compelling aspect of horse sports is the ability to showcase such values, and if promoted in the right way could continue to attract new human athletes to our sport.

One of the struggles that I see in the modern age that affects all sports, but maybe uniquely horse sports, is the prevalence of gamesmanship.  Gamesmanship is an approach to sports that puts winning and individual glory over teamwork.  In sports, this can put players at risk of injury and creates an unsportsmanlike atmosphere.  In horse sports, it can put the horses’ well being at risk as well as create an unlevel playing field among competitors. 

I would argue that most people are first drawn to horses and horse sports because of a love for horses.  Spending time with or on the back of a horse seems to quench some thirst deep within most horse people. The competitive part comes later, is secondary to that primary urge to become involved with horses.

In an ideal world, competitions are about showcasing your relationship with your horse. The idea should be that the person with the most developed communication with their horse is the winner. But when gamesmanship, or the win at all costs side of us takes over, that relationship with the horse can suffer as we use artificial means to fill in the holes of our relationship with our horse.

It stands to reason that the majority of the horse world, and the public in general, will not tolerate an industry that allows the horse to be used in a way that appears to have lost it’s love for the horse, as the general horse person is still involved with horses because they love and cherish them, not to be competitive with them.

 Many sports psychology studies confirm the idea of two primary goal orientations within which athletes compete and which affect sport and society as a whole.

On the website TrueSport.org they define these two orientations:

“The ‘task-oriented’ athlete defines his or her success or failure on mastery and learning the game. Many children start out their sport career in this framework. That is, they play sport because it is fun— because it provides intrinsic rewards. Athletes who continue to embrace this orientation as they age are likely to believe that competition is a contest with themselves. Their greatest satisfaction comes from achieving a personal best. This is not to say that they do not enjoy winning. Rather it means that their reward is internal. Truly successful athletes have wedded competition with sportsmanship—witness the careers of Michael Jordan or Cal Ripken. 

In contrast, the ‘ego-oriented’ athlete defines success through wins and superiority— the extrinsic rewards of sport. Research has shown repeatedly that athletes with a strong ego-oriented perspective are more likely to engage in unsportsmanlike play and self-aggrandizing behaviors. Unfortunately, this orientation runs rampant in professional sports. Football players talk trash and dance in the end zone, soccer players head butt their opponents, and baseball players and any number of other athletes use steroids to enhance performance.”

We could identify these two athletes as sportsman and gamesman. 

The NCAA defines sportsmanship as exhibiting behaviors that are “based on such fundamental values as respect, fairness, civility, honesty, and responsibility.”

The goal in sportsmanship is not simply to win, but to pursue victory with honor by giving one’s best effort.  This approach contributes to a community of respect and trust between competitors and in society.

Gamesmanship on the other hand is built on the principle that winning is everything.  Gamesmen tend to bend the rules wherever possible in order to gain a competitive advantage over an opponent and pay less attention to the safety and welfare of the competition.  According to Kirk O. Hanson and Matt Savage in their article “What Role Does Ethics Play In Sports” some of the key tenets of gamesmanship are:

  • Winning is everything
  • It’s only cheating if you get caught
  • It’s the referee’s job to catch wrongdoing, and the athletes and coaches have no inherent responsibility to follow the rules
  • The ends always justify the means

You can find examples of gamesmanship in just about every sport in the world today, including the Deflategate football scandal, the hunter calming controversy, bat corking in baseball, doping scandals in sports such as cycling, baseball, track and field and others, and the various rule infractions in the sport of endurance.

As equine sports become more popular and attract more sponsors, money, and visibility, the pressure to “compete” and to “win” become much greater. That pressure to win only compounds as the sport becomes more demanding, with an increased need for a more focused, rideable and careful equine athlete, riders may find it harder to resist the temptation of gamesmanship to gain that competitive edge that only years of studying and training can produce naturally. 

So how do these two approaches to sports affect the equine disciplines?

Horse sports are unique for one obvious reason: the horse.  While being a supreme athlete the horse is completely dependent upon its rider and caretakers for its well-being, and as much as our horses love their jobs, which I truly believe they do, we ultimately make the decisions for them. 

While a gamesmanship approach to traditional sports can have a detrimental effect on the individual, the sport and the society as a whole by promoting an unpleasant environment plagued with disrespect, arrogance, and marked by an absence of fairness, in horse sports it can also be catastrophic. Horse sports are susceptible to scrutiny from the public due to ethics and animal welfare concerns that can surface given the inherent risks that the sport poses on the horse, which some people may believe are already too great. 

When you add gamesmanship into the mix it is a recipe for disaster not only for that individuals’ horse and the fairness of the sport, but for the continuation of the sport as a whole. 

On the other hand, when approached through the ideal of sportsmanship, the horse sports not only showcase the horse’s strength, courage, and remarkable ability to trust, but can also be a showcase of partnership, respect and communication between two utterly different animals. Practiced with a commitment to sportsmanship, horse sports can exemplify the Olympic virtues in a way that no other sport can. This is what makes our sport so special and why it is important to make sure that it continues well into the future.

I believe each athlete, coach, official, and owner in horse sports have to decide if they are going to be sportsman or gamesmen, and then accept all that that means. 

As athletes we have to decide what winning means to us. Is a win really a win if the methods used to get there are explicitly illegal or even go against the spirit of the rules? Is not winning still a loss if we have made improvements and given our all?

If we make the decision that this sport is about a commitment to never-ending learning and making improvements in ourselves while forging a deeper partnership with our horses and our fellow horsemen, as well as showcasing the values of sportsmanship, we should win enough to satiate the undeniably competitive parts of ourselves, without sacrificing our code of ethics, our horses, or the future of our sport, while we work to achieve greatness.

Will we make mistakes along the way? Will we give in to the pressure and the desire to win sometimes? Probably yes. We are human and that innately means being imperfect.

We are students and by definition we will learn from our mistakes and become more educated, more knowledgeable, slightly less imperfect. Mistakes are a part of the learning process. The only times mistakes are not worth making is when you don’t learn from them.

Throughout history horses have drawn and carried us to new heights.  Whether people are personally connected to horses or not, humankind seems to have a special connection to and fascination with these amazing animals.  Horses have the ability to connect people beyond borders and languages. 

Horse sports have the ability to bring people together to celebrate all that horses have done for us and all that they continue to offer us  By promoting and respecting the amazing nature of the horse and their special relationship with humankind, we can not only continue to build a healthy and growing sport, but we can also promote the values of sportsmanship, which, in my opinion, will place horse sports high atop the list of valuable, meaningful, and marketable sports. 

Matt Brown began riding at the age of 6 with BHS instructor Andrea Pfeiffer. As a young rider he competed through the advanced level with his horse Maximum Speed, and together they represented Area VI in the North American Young Riders Championships at the two-star level in 1993. As he built his career, Matt continued to gain education and experience under the expert coaching of trainers and clinicians including Denny Emerson, Pierre Cousyn, Beth Ball, Steffen Peters, Christine Traurig, Beth Clarke, Axel Steiner and Sue Blinks.

It was also during this time that Matt was greatly influenced by the horsemanship of George Kharl. Matt spent time on George’s Montana Ranch learning a new approach to horses from George, in which observation, patience, and clear communication became the foundation of his training and relationships with his equine partners. Matt and his wife, Cecily, started East West Training Stablestogether in 2004. Matt has been achieving consistent results at the three-star level this spring, including placing fifth and 10th at the Jersey Fresh CCI*** with Happenstance and BCF Belicoso and winning the Fair Hill CIC*** with Super Socks BCF. He was named an alternate to the U.S. team for the 2015 Pan American Games eventing with BCF Belicoso.

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