Sport Psychology PLAYS Research Group

Sport Psychology

PLAYS Research Group

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The PLAYS blog is written by Veronica Allan, PhD Candidate. For general inquiries, ideas, comments, or suggestions, please contact Veronica at

The Problem with Nike’s “Play Less Nice” Campaign

What happens when inspiring ad campaigns send the wrong message to young athletes?

Coinciding with the World Junior Hockey Championships and the lead-up to the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Nike’s most recent ad campaign is designed to challenge Canada’s “nice guy” stereotype and create a rift in what it means to be Canadian as a person and as an athlete. The advertisements – which feature nine slightly different versions of a 90-second commercial – contrast acts of good Samaritanism with a win-at-all-costs approach to training and competition.

The opening scene, for example, depicts a fit young man (dressed in Nike athletic apparel, of course) exiting his home on a cold morning. He rubs his hands and jumps up and down, puffs of white breath rising from his mouth. From across the street an elderly woman calls out, “Hey, thanks for taking out my trash!” The man smiles and waves in a neighbourly manner, and the camera pans across a parked car sporting a bumper sticker that reads: “Be nice, you’re a Canuck.” As he sets his watch, the smile fades. He looks up, his expression a blend of focus and intensity, before taking off down the street. Trash cans fly into the air as he blows by at a near-sprint. The neighbour irritably looks on.

In the first 15 seconds, we are introduced to the protagonist: Friendly Canadian, but fierce competitor. For the remainder of the commercial, we follow the man as he runs through the city – one minute, he stops at a traffic light to offer his toque to a shivering dog; the next, he tears through a construction site, knocking down everything in his path. His journey ends at an arena, where he holds the door open for a fellow competitor. The next time we see the men, they’re dressed in hockey gear. Our protagonist skates aggressively through the players of the opposing team, shoots, and scores before smiling at the camera. His mouth guard displays the campaign’s tag line in blocked white letters: PLAY LESS NICE. Each slightly different variation of the commercial portrays the protagonist as less and less nice, designed so that the commercials would appear episodic and increase in intensity as they were revealed one-by-one over the course of the World Junior Hockey Championships.

For Canadians, commonly viewed as polite and peaceful, the campaign fuels national pride and passion for sport. And not just any sport, our nation’s great pastime: Ice hockey. The YouTube home page for Nike Canada states, “We’re Canadians. It doesn’t matter what sport, we come to play,” suggesting that the campaign is meant to target athletes and fans from across all sport backgrounds. The problem with this campaign is that it sends a negative message to young athletes about the kinds of attitudes and behaviours that are acceptable in sport. Moreover, it creates a dichotomy between ‘friendly Canadian’ and ‘fierce competitor’ that does not necessarily exist. In fact, a large body of research suggests the exact opposite: The behaviours, skills, and values learned through sport are often transferred, implicitly or explicitly, to the way we conduct ourselves in our everyday lives1. By encouraging an approach to sport that places value on brute physicality, aggression, and doing whatever it takes to win, we may see this “competitive edge” transferred into other domains of life. Just imagine: You walk into the grocery store, and there’s only one shopping cart left. As you’re about to grab the handle, someone rushes up from behind, checks you to the side, and takes off with the cart. Okay, maybe a tad over-dramatic…but if it’s not okay in other aspects of our lives, why is it okay in sport?

Obviously, winning is a key component of competitive sports. But is hostility – at the expense of enjoyment and fair play – an acceptable means to achieve such an end? In 1997, the International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) published a position stand on aggression and violence in sport2. The ISSP outlined nine recommendations for media, management, coaches, officials, and athletes aimed at reducing and controlling acts of hostility, and promoting prosocial behaviours (what might more commonly be thought of as sportspersonship). For example, the ISSP recommended that managers and coaches should ensure a fair play code-of-conduct among all participants, and that the media should avoid reporting on aggressive behaviours as “highlights” of games and competitions. The evidence base that informed this position stand dates back to the 1960s, and research published in recent years continues to support it3.

The dominant narrative among professionals and practitioners in the sport world is that aggression is necessary to win4. Opposing this view, the International Olympic Committee recently released an updated consensus statement on harassment and non-accidental violence in sport suggesting that negative consequences, including physical injuries, emotional distress, and monetary costs, largely outweigh the short-term gains of engaging in this behaviour5. Evidence also suggests that the effects of aggressive behaviours extend beyond the game: Spectators report higher levels of hostility after observing acts of aggression in contact sports such as hockey, football, and wrestling6. Anecdotally speaking, we can look to violent riots that have broken out among fans following championship games or large sport events as further evidence7.

Clearly, the “win-at-all-costs” mentality has been around for a while. And considering what we know about the potential for sport to promote positive development among children and youth, we may be doing a disservice to young athletes by encouraging this approach. Many parents enroll their children in sport with the aim of developing a variety of important values and skills that apply both in and out of sport. Examples of transferable skills that are supported by research include goal-setting, problem-solving, and positive thinking8. Nonetheless, sport participation does not automatically translate into positive outcomes for athletes. The climate fostered within the sport environment and the quality of sport-based relationships play an important role in the transfer of skills from sport to non-sport settings9. While a prosocial environment and supportive relationships may lead to the development of positive assets and skills, we also need to consider the potentially harmful impact of hostility, aggression, and doing “what it takes” in terms of how we are developing young athletes.

That being said, advertising campaigns that capitalize on winning and aggression in sport to entertain, inspire, and motivate are nothing new. As sport researchers, we can denounce the possible harmful effects of sport narratives that are circulated through commercial advertising. However, the fact of the matter is, that conglomerate sport brands such as Nike and Adidas are in the business of making money, not well-rounded young people. What we can do is bring attention to issues in the representation of sport and what it means to be an athlete in an effort to encourage more diverse (and positive) sport narratives. By offering an evidence-informed perspective, we hope to challenge the “win-at-all-costs” mentality and promote sport environments that foster positive developmental experiences for youth.

Footnotes and References

1For a review see: Turnnidge, J., Côté, J., & Hancock, D. J. (2014). Positive youth development from sport to life: explicit or implicit transfer? Quest, 66(2), 203-217.

2Tenenbaum, G., Stewart, E., Singer, R. N., & Duda, J. (1997). Aggression and violence in sport: an ISSP position stand. The Sport Psychologist, 11(1), 1-7.

3Sacks, D. N., Petscher, Y., Stanley, C. T., & Tenenbaum, G. (2003). Aggression and violence ins port: moving beyond the debate. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1(2), 167-179.

4For example: Widmeyer, W. N., & Birch, J. S. (1984). Aggression in professional ice hockey: a strategy for success or a reaction to failure. The Journal of Psychology, 117(1), 77-84.

5Mountjoy, M., Brackenridge, C., Arrington, M., Blauwet, C., Carska-Sheppard, A., Fasting, K., … Budgett, R. (2016). International Olympic Committee consensus statement: harassment and abuse (non-accidental violence) in sport. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50, 1019-1029.

6Examples include:

Arms, R. L., Russell, G. W., & Sandilands, M. L. (1979). Effects on the hostility of spectators     after viewing aggressive sports. Social Psychology Quarterly, 42, 275-279.

Goldstein, J. & Arms, R. (1971). Effects of observing athletic contexts on hostility. Sociometry,   34, 456-465.

Wann, D. L., & Branscombe, N. R. (1990). Person perception when aggressive or nonaggressive sports are primed. Aggressive Behavior, 16(1), 27-32.

7For a list of notable sports riots in recent history, see:

8Papachrisis, V., Goudas, M., Danish, S. J., & Theodorakis, Y. (2005). The effectiveness of teaching a life skills program in a sport context. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 17(3), 247-254.

9Weiss, M. R., Stuntz, C. P., Bhalla, J. A., Bolter, N. D., & Price, M. R. (2013). ‘More than a game’: impact of The First Tee life skills programme on positive youth development: project introduction and Year 1 findings. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise, and Health, 5(2), 214-244.