The Good Sport
Sportsmanship is a virtue, and like most virtues, it is learned from parents.
Win at all costs.
Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.
Second place is the first loser.
These are phrases we hear almost daily. They come directly from the mouths of our athletic heroes. They are slogans on our clothing. And they are hammered into our brains by sports marketing giants at a rate we can’t even realize. Sadly, these phrases are also scrawled across the walls of our children’s dressing rooms, preached by their coaches, and even enforced by their parents. Some of us are undoubtedly guilty of setting such standards ourselves. This “winning is everything” mentality seems to be the driving force behind the deterioration of sportsmanship in professional sports, and subsequently in the games of our children.
But surely this mindset is the key to bigger and better things: championships, scholarships, and contracts? Such dreams are what make the game so fun. They are what keep us playing, right? Wrong! As adults, rather than dreaming of future stardom, we reminisce about the past and realize it was the friendships that made the game so fun, not the triumphs. We don’t miss the knee-high trophies that collected dust on our shelves; we miss the teammates, the high fives, and the unshakeable bonds that were formed.
Sport is not just a vehicle to celebrity; its main purpose is to instill in kids the morals and values that shape us as human beings. Through sport we learn the importance of commitment, dedication, leadership, discipline, sacrifice and fair play – principles that affect our every decision in life. These can be summed up as sportsmanship, and it is one of the most important things we could ever teach our kids.
NFL Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi coined the phrase, “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” But years later he said, “I wish to hell I’d never said the damned thing. I meant the effort, I meant having a goal. I sure as hell didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.”
These human values are what champions are made of. National Football League MVP and Superbowl Champion Peyton Manning is a shining example. Considered one of the greatest quarterbacks in the game today, Manning is never anything short of a gentleman in his interviews and his demeanor on the field is exemplary. Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player to ever lace up a pair of skates, won the NHL’s Lady Byng award for sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct five times over his career.
Good sportsmanship is not restricted to male athletes. In April of this year in a women’s collegiate softball game, Sara Tucholsky of Western Oregon University hit the first home run of her career but collapsed at first base as her right knee gave out. League rules state that no player or coach can assist a player from their own team in rounding the bases.
Just when it seemed Sara would be replaced with a pinch runner and her homerun with a single, Central Washington’s champion slugger Mallory Holtman and a teammate scooped up the opposing player and carried her around the bases to home. They were met at the plate by a standing ovation as the fans and both teams were overcome with emotion at the display. “Those girls did something awesome to help me get my first home run. It makes you look at athletes in a different way. It is not always all about winning but rather helping someone in a situation like that,” Tucholsky said afterwards.
Unfortunately, acts like Holtman’s often don’t receive the media attention they deserve. Sportsmanship is the foundation of competition and we can find examples of it in every single sport, every single day. Yet, as is the case with any form of media, the ugly side of sport dominates headlines. Examples of good sportsmanship are often clouded by the selfish acts of so-called professionals who are supposed to represent their sports, simply because the general public is hungry to see its celebrities caught in dishonorable situations. These are the athletes that our children idolize, their posters blanketing bedroom walls and lockers.
Most sports fans would probably agree that there is an epidemic of poor sportsmanship in professional sports today. So do our kids even stand a chance when they are bombarded with media portrayals of their role models as violent, undisciplined, and even immoral?
It depends on you. Parents are the greatest influence in a kids’ life, for better or for worse. “The misbehavior of parents at games has a more detrimental effect on good sportsmanship than the misbehavior of athletes on television,” says Dan Doyle, author of The Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting.
Sportsmanship is a virtue, and like most virtues it is learned from parents. To understand how to teach our kids good sportsmanship, we must first define what being a good sport is, and know what to look for in a poor sport.
A good sport is an athlete whose attitude and demeanor remains respectful to his teammates, coaches, officials, opponents, and spectators before, during, and after competition. A good sport will do nothing to detract from victory, even if that victory is not his own. Actions associated with good sportsmanship include:
- shaking hands with the opponent and referee before and/or after competition
- accepting praise with humility
- avoiding opportunities to criticize
- offering support when a teammate makes a mistake
- listening and learning from coaches
- being gracious in defeat
A poor sport, on the other hand, is just the opposite. A poor sport is quick to look for excuses and will blame and berate others for negative outcomes. Actions associated with poor sportsmanship include:
- criticizing teammates, coaches and officials
- taunting opponents
- cheating and knowingly breaking the rules
- negative outbursts/tantrums associated with losing
Most parents enroll their kids in sports at a very young age, and it is imperative that they begin to learn the importance of sportsmanship immediately. That means first and foremost that we must be good sports ourselves – and good spectators. (See box.)
When coaching young children, it’s best to focus on developing values ahead of skills. Allow the child to make friends and enjoy the game, and he or she will be more eager to develop the skills as a result. Most children don’t have the coordination or motor skills necessary to be standouts at such a young age anyway, and no amount of pressure from parents or coaches is going to speed up the natural process.
Focusing on fun and friendship promotes sportsmanship. Listen to your kids before and after every game and discuss sportsmanship with them. Ask questions and be aware. Are they eager to go to games and practices? Do they like their coach? Do they enjoy the sport? Are they making friends? And most importantly, did they have fun?
Sometimes asking isn’t enough. Kids are smart, and they know what answers you want to hear. Be sure to watch their practices and games closely from start to finish. Are they smiling and laughing? How do they interact with their coach and with the other players?
Remember that kids learn from the actions of their parents. If you’re enjoying yourself, then chances are they will to. Try to be active in the practices; usually a volunteer coach will be ecstatic to have some help and your kids will be more enthusiastic as well. Cheer both teams, never question the referee and finally, never reward performance. Taking your kid out for ice cream after the game is great. It provides an excellent opportunity to ask the questions mentioned earlier. But doing it because they scored a goal is not the right reason. Instead, treat them when they’ve had fun, or listened well in practice.
Regardless of your efforts, those who stick with a sport and excel at it will become very competitive, and that’s okay. Competing is all part of the fun, and the best athletes always hate to lose. There’s nothing wrong with feeling disappointed after a loss. The key is that the feeling doesn’t linger. The best athletes learn from a loss, get over it, and improve as a result.
Discuss examples of this with your kids. Did Sidney Crosby throw a tantrum after losing the Stanley Cup recently? No. He shook his opponents’ hands and congratulated them on their victory, and never made excuses. He was clearly distraught, and who wouldn’t be? But he kept his emotions in check and you can bet that he’ll be a better player and better leader as a result.
As your kids get older and more competitive, the message should stay the same: have fun, work hard, and make the most of every single second you play. Most kids aren’t going to make a living playing sports in the future, and when that realization hits they will cherish the memories and friendships they made, and the values that you helped to instill.
Parents As Spectators
The key to promoting good sportsmanship as a parent is to be a good spectator.
Here are some tips:
- Keep the shouting to a minimum, and generalize it (ie. “Good work guys!”)
- Never make personal comments or single out a player
- Let the coaches coach and the players play
- Be supportive, not critical
- Cheer good plays from both teams
- Respond to weaker plays with words like “unlucky!” or “good idea!”