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 https://academy.sportlyzer.com/wiki/motivation/achievement-goal-theory/)

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?