The line between gamesmanship and cheating

Blamed for poor sportsmanship, the above pairs were disqualified at the 2012 London Olympics. Spectators booed as they hit wide or into the net trying to deliberately lose the match

Competition in sports often involves deception, manoeuvring and exploiting an opponent’s weaknesses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the desire to win drives players to use whatever means possible. It’s perhaps understandable that pressure and a win-at-all-costs mentality motivates competitors to use gamesmanship tactics.  

What is gamesmanship?

Gamesmanship can be broadly defined as “the practice of winning games without actually violating rules“. Gamesmanship includes practices used in a game to distract opponents, to upset them and destroy their focus. In contrast to activities that are clearly illegal (like punching an opponent), gamesmanship is not clear cut and reflects one’s system of values. Examples of gamesmanship include undue delays during a match in order to disrupt an opponent’s play.

In comparison, cheating is generally defined as “the intentional breaking of rules in order to gain an advantage over another team or player”. For example, Lee Chong Wei received an 8 month ban after testing positive for the anti-inflammatory drug dexamethasone during the world championships in 2015. The panel ruled ‘it was not a case of doping with intent to cheat’ but found that he had been “negligent.” Intention is a key element. 

Another important element of cheating involves breaking the rules. So if it’s not against the rules or customs of the game, then arguably it isn’t cheating. It could be accused of being bad sportsmanship and lowering the integrity of competition though.

Many players can find gamesmanship tactics challenging to deal with. Some believe that it’s important to maintain integrity — even in situations where the game goes against their favour. Others, however, justify the use of such practices and consider it part of the game. 

How does gamesmanship affect the game?

There are some pretty shocking examples. At the 2012 London Olympics, four women’s doubles teams from China, Indonesia and South Korea threw their matches in order to obtain a more favourable draw. Eight offending players were disqualified, including top women’s pair Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli, and a few retired with a tarnished reputation as a result of these events.

More recently at the 2016 Rio Olympics finals, gold medallist Carolina Marin was disparaged for her behavior, which included shrieking and shouting when she won a point from her opponent’s mistake. She often stood squarely across the net looking directly at her opponent while clenching a fist. Her tactics were clearly calculated to affect and intimidate.

For spectators, it’s very emotive to attend matches like these. The enjoyment of watching Badminton gets diminished. Supporters become upset. It harms the reputation of the game and goes against the spirit of the Olympics. However, it’s not just the fault of these players who were trying to maximise their chances of winning the tournament. They were just using the rules to their advantage. The rules are also partly to blame.

How to deal with gamesmanship tactics as a player

“Restorative skills”  allow the strongest players to maintain focus despite the psychological intensity of the match. They get their game back on track despite temporary distractions. They use a number of techniques including:

  • Positive self-talk: Mental resilience and positive reinforcement to consciously monitor their thought patterns. For example, a positive phrase that Chinese player Fu Haifeng uses is “Jiāyóu” (= add oil).
  • Staying in the moment: when players make unforced errors and costly mistakes, they’re trained to refocus in the present and play one point at a time. The quality of their focus is evident from their facial expressions and body language.
  • Maintaining confident body language: Confidence is so, so important in competition. Any signs of negative body language – dropped shoulders, head shaking, and cursing – reveals to opponents, spectators and coaches that a player is mentally breaking down. Positive body language like smiling, shoulders up, head held high assures everyone of their fighting spirit.

The most important characteristic is perhaps that they never give up.  In his last Olympics match, Lee Chong Wei kept playing point by point, until the last point had been played. As an athlete he displayed tremendous mental resilience and never surrendered. In brief, the key take away message is never, ever give up.


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