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Why do Sportsmen Cheat?: Psychology behind what just happened in Cricket

Reading the headlines of Australian Captain Steve Smith admitting to 'ball tampering' as a 'leadership team strategy' took me aback and made me question my own inclination towards being a fan of Australian Cricket team, their values and legacy towards the sport and even the sport of cricket, in a way. Idolising so many Australian cricketers, like Adam Gilchrist, Brett Lee and the great Steve Waugh, I could never believe that this could come from that part of the cricketing world.

Integrity, ethics and values are an important area of sports as well as a psychology. This is because the ethics and values are related to the motivation of any player in any sport, any person in a business organisation too!

Questioning Steve Smith and the Leadership Team's integrity in this episode, is according to me, questioning their motivation to play the game.


Why do people cheat?

Cheating and breaking ethical law is not an uncommon practice in large business organisations. According to research (e.g. Cizek, 1999; Jordan, 2001; McCabe, Trevino and Butterfield, 2001) people cheat for different reasons:

1. High perceived external pressure

2. Fear of failure (big one)

3. To make further advances in their careers

In his press conference, Steve Smith he said desperation drove the team to do what they did. The fact that it was a conscious, planned decision itself makes us doubt the 'motivations' behind them playing this test match or cricket.

"It's a big error in judgement but we'll learn from it and move past it. It's not what we're about, it's a poor reflection on everyone in that dressing room, particularly the leaders of the group. So absolutely if we weren't caught I'd still feel incredibly bad about it."- Steve Smith


Cheating and Motivation

According to scientific literature in business and sports, cheating is motivated behaviour because it entails the intentional violation of pre-set rules in order to attain an advantage or credit, or to increase the chance of success (Murdock, Hale and Weber, 2001; Nettler, 1988).

From the psychology perspective, the whole act can be linked a theory of achievement motivation. According to the theory, an athlete can either be ego oriented or mastery oriented in his/her motivation.

Task (mastery) goals reflect perceived competence in terms of absolute evaluative standards or task mastery. When someone is task-involved, her primary goal is learning and mastery of the task for its own sake.

Ego (performance) goals reflect competence perception relative to the performance of others. Therefore, ego oriented athletes define their competence in terms of interpersonal and normative comparisons.

(Adapted from

According to additional research in sports, if ego orientation prevails in an athlete, the need to show the superiority through winning prevails. That means if winning is at stake, an ego oriented athlete can even seek the help of immoral behaviour or give in to unethical values to grab/achieve the goal. But if task or mastery orientation prevails, then the focus of the athlete is excellence in the task and not on the self (i.e pride/ winning etc) (Kavussanu & Roberts, 2001).

Connecting this theory to this current incident, moral or immoral behaviour is definitely connected with the nature of motivation and motivational climate persisting within the team, especially the leadership.


The question arises, does accepting the immoral act helps the image of the player?

"I am not proud of what's happened. It's not within the spirit of the game. My integrity, the team's integrity and the leadership group's integrity has come into question. It wont happen again.

Acceptance and promising not to commit to stoop to that level could help Steve Smith & Co. gain some brownie points. But it definitely does not justify the conscious, informed choice the team gave into. There have been a lot of anecdotal as well as scientific research on ethical leadership and behaviour of followers which establish the connection between values of the leader and the influence of those values to the followers.

Cheating, Cricket and Mindset

Finally, how does this reflect on the gentlemen's game? Does the change and the inclusion of glamour in the gentlemen's game impact the motivation of players to an extent that they stoop to lower levels? Have most of the T20 era cricketers become ego oriented in their motivations?

These are the questions that are floating in my mind. And this incident also pushes me to advocate the fact that the power of mind, psychology and building of a particular mindset, value system and ethics are all a part of a sports environment. This environment is built due to the people around the player and ultimately how the player perceives success. And for a fact, this also proves the requirement of a psychologist to develop all these aspects within a player as well as a coach who trains the player.

To conclude, from the psychological perspective, the achievement motivation and the environment the leader builds in a team ultimately makes the team to stick to some moral values or stoop to a level below their values to just justify some point or simply, to win without focusing on their capabilities as a sports person.

I am saddened to admit that this incident is definitely going be a black hole in the game of cricket.


1. Murdock, T. B., N. M. Hale and M. J. Weber (2001). ‘Predictors of cheating among early adolescents: academic and social motivations’, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 26, pp. 96–115.

2. Nettler, G. (1988). Lying, Cheating, Stealing. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing.

3. Cizek, G. J. (1999). Cheating on Tests – How to Do It, Detect It, and Prevent It. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

4. Jordan, A. E. (2001). ‘College student cheating: the role of motivation, perceived norms, attitudes, and knowledge of institutional policy’, Ethics and Behavior, 11, pp. 233–247.

5. McCabe, D. L., K. D. Butterfield and L. K. Trevino (2006). ‘Academic dishonesty in graduate business programs: prevalence, causes, and proposed action’, Academy of Management Learning and Education, 5, pp. 294–305.

6. Kavussanu, M., & Roberts, G.C. (2001). Moral functioning in sport: An achievement goal perspective. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 23, 37–54.

(DISCLAIMER: This article is written as an outsider, a fan of the game and as a practicing sport psychologist. I have no rights to make judgments about anyone's character of those who are involved, but have every right to present an understanding of the situation from the sport psychology perspective as well as a fan)

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