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The Key to Sportsmanship


Look in the Mirror.

“One man practicing sportsmanship is far better than a hundred teaching it.”- Knute Rockne

We know it when we see it, but how do we make sportsmanship an essential part of life for our kids? From the playground to the professional sports arena, there are literally hundreds of examples of good sportsmanship out there and we’ve all been witness to it. It’s the best feeling in the world to see your child display this coveted quality…and the worst feeling when he or she {or you for that matter} succumb to poor sportsmanship.

Sportsmanship has played a major role in my life. I grew up playing sports, decided to become an athletic trainer for college athletes, coached kindergarten through high school teams, taught physical education for ten years, and started an all-sports business for kids. Oh, and I also married a soccer coach. I should know everything there is to know about sportsmanship and they keys to achieving it. What I’ve realized is that I can’t expect my son, students, or players to demonstrate good sportsmanship unless I take a good look in the mirror and see what reflects back.

Sports and competition can bring about those priceless moments where qualities such as character, respect, and fairness prevail. The kind of moments we like to capture on our iPhones and quickly upload to Facebook with proud comments and thankfulness for all to see. For example, I was so proud of my son recently when our team lost a basketball game. Yes, we were both disappointed that we lost, {especially because I was coaching} but on the way home he talked about how well some of the kids on the other team played, and how he was proud that he and his teammates got the ball away from them a bunch of times. He appreciated their talents and was proud of how he played against them. That was golden. I was so happy he came away with something positive about the game. But of course this is not always the case, and our conversations in the car on the way home are not always so cheerful. What made that day different? I needed to think back to the way I approached the game and how I handled myself during the game.

“The answers to these questions will determine your success or failure.

1) Can people trust me to do what’s right?

2) Am I committed to doing my best?

3) Do I care about other people and show it? If the answers to these questions are yes, there is no way you can fail.”
– Lou Holtz

When I teach and coach {or parent} I have to remind myself to ‘look in the mirror’ and be a positive role model to the kids. Children feed off leadership and absorb everything. When I hear one of my students tell me that someone is really good at a something I ask them: “Did you tell them you think so?” They usually say no. It’s one thing to hear praise from a parent or coach. Kids are used to getting positive {and negative} feedback from adults. It’s a whole different ball game when they hear it from their peers…and their opponents! How great it would be if kids could learn to recognize their opponents’ strengths and tell them so…and mean it.

So what about the “not-so-priceless” and sometimes costly moments, when we have witnessed quitting, taunting, and arguing surrounding competition? How do we teach our kids {and remind ourselves} to win and lose with class? Well, I agree with Coach Rockne’s quote completely. As a coach and educator, I have to practice and demonstrate this as much as possible. Simply telling kids to “be a good sport” is not enough. I must show them how it’s done. Easier said than done, right?

When I taught middle school PE I had a reward system in place for good sportsmanship. At the end of every week, students had the chance to give a “ticket” to someone in class for something positive they did that week. They would have to tell the class who the ticket was for and why. Having a peer announce this to the class was very powerful. Tickets went into a bin and four tickets were drawn at the end of the quarter for prizes. It created a positive culture and soon, the tickets weren’t needed all the time. They just wanted to publicly appreciate each other. They loved our “ticket time” and so did I. It gave us a chance to celebrate each other as a group and acknowledge individual strengths, even if it was a rough week.

Let’s face it. It can be very difficult to practice sportsmanship 100% of the time. Sportsmanship and competition go hand in hand. No one wants to lose, and wanting to win is part of our nature. We all want our chance to shine. It’s how we handle winning and losing that defines us as having good sportsmanship.

“Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.”- John Wooden

Let’s be careful parents and coaches. Let’s do what’s right and for the right reasons. Instead of giving you a checklist for how to teach kids about sportsmanship, here are three tips I am going to practice and demonstrate for the children in my life. Maybe you can join me, take a peek in the mirror, and see what happens…because our kids are watching!

Tip 1: Look in the mirror and identify your motivation…before the game.

Try asking yourself a few questions to identify what motivates you before our child’s next game:

  • When you are in a competitive situation that requires good sportsmanship are you there for your ego? Or, are you there to handle the task at hand? Do you care about the experience for ALL the kids in the competition or just your child? {Be honest}
  • What do you want out of this game and why?
  • How could your motivations affect your child?

Psychologists have identified that there are two “orientations” that people have toward competition: ego orientation and task orientation (Jay D. Goldstein & Seppo E. Iso-Ahola 2006). Ego oriented people want to win to show they are superior and will do so with an “at all costs” attitude. Task oriented people see competition as an opportunity to hone their skills, improve their game, and reach long-term goals. They also want to win, but for themselves, not to punish the other team. They welcome competition and value their opponents. Where do your motivations fall between these two extremes?

Tip 2: Practice

Practice sportsmanship “in the moment”. This is where adults can shine, but many of us don’t. In any given game a referee could make a mistake, an opponent could foul your child, or a few precious seconds could be wasted away by the innocent scoreboard operator. How you respond to these situations will almost always dictate how your child or team responds. Discuss sportsmanship before or after the game. In the ‘heat of battle’ is not the time to lecture kids about sportsmanship when emotions are high. This is the time for you to put sportsmanship into practice for them to observe. Model it. They will follow your lead.

Tip 3: Preparation and Follow up

Discussion about sportsmanship with your child or team should be about preparation and follow-up. Prepare children for competition with questions similar to those in Tip 1. Decide as a team or family how you will handle the outcome of the game. Win or lose. Set up these goals and expectations “off the field” when emotions will not get in the way of decision-making. Play lots of games with your kids at home and don’t let them win all the time {I learned this one the hard way}. If they can’t handle losing at home, they may have a tough time losing come game time. Games played at home are an excellent time for adults to demonstrate how to win and lose with class.

Follow up after the game, {preferably not 5 minutes afterwards} at a time when you and the kids have had a chance to wind down. Discussion doesn’t mean lecture. Ask fun scenario questions, like “what would you do if…”, or “ if you could change one thing about the game today, what would it be?”, or “What was the high point and low point for you in today’s game and why?”, and see what they come up with. I’ve found it helpful to share my own answers to these questions and listen without judgment. Then think back to your preparation discussion and see if your reaction to the game matches up with your goals/motivation as a team or family. Finally and most of all,follow up with love and support.

[AUTHOR: Andra Wilson, SBFitKidz Director]

Jay D. Goldstein & Seppo E. Iso-Ahola (2006): Promoting Sportsmanship in Youth Sports, Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 77:7, 18-24

February 12, 2015

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