Article written by Rick Sitz
© The Winnetka Alliance for Early Childhood - Reprinted from Early Childhood Winter 1998
When I ask elementary school children what sportsmanship is, their responses usually include: "Donít cheat." "Donít get mad or cry when you lose." "Donít yell at your team mates when they make a mistake." "Donít rub it in when you win." "Donít be a quitter." Young children think in very concrete ways and all of these responses are acceptable interpretations of what sportsmanship means to a young child. But they fall short of the whole meaning.
Most adults understand that sportsmanship encompasses respect for the game, the players, the rules and the officials. Itís about being the best you can be and about knowing how to win or lose. While kids, teens and adults play sports, the play of preschoolers in the backyard or sandbox is not sports. In sports, there are more defined rules, and the play becomes a little more structured and serious. Some, like professional athletes or college scholarship recipients, play sports to make money. Others play for the sheer fun of it. In between are those who play to stay fit, relieve stress and/or socialize.
The key to me is having fun. When fun can be an integral part of any sporting experience, everything, including good sportsmanship, will fall into place. When the element of fun is lost and other distractions become the goal, such as winning or losing, titles and championships, sportsmanship can be diminished and devalued. Just think about the images, the sounds and the behaviors that our children are hearing and seeing as they view todayís sporting events. Weíve seen Roberto Alomar spitting into the face of a major league umpire; Coach Bobby Knight flinging a chair across the basketball court; NHL hockey players punching each other out; and Dennis Rodman head-butting a referee. Although not as graphic or extreme (but maybe even more powerful) are the images of adult spectators booing in the stands or throwing objects at players. Kids may also see parents openly criticize little league coaches and players and volunteer coaches of youth sports who have that "win at all costs" mentality. What do these images portray to our young children? Truly they are a sad commentary on todayís sports. As a physical education teacher, I have seen the profound influence that college and professional athletes have on our children as trash talking and "in your face" intimidation trickles down to the elementary level.
So what can parents and educators do to help children develop an awareness and understanding of sportsmanship? It is no easy task in todayís world, but the people who parent, coach and teach each child have a major impact on a childís development of this skill. One area which is difficult for most children to understand is competition and winning and losing. Many of todayís youth (and even some adult coaches) equate much of their self-worth with whether or not they are a winner or loser. For these people, the bottom line is the win/loss column. And why wouldnít it be? They see the winners of collegiate and professional athletics getting press coverage, special privileges and lucrative contract deals. When you hear about losers, the focus always seems to be on whatís wrong with them. The association, then, for many children is that you are valued if you are a winner. If youíre a loser, youíre a nobody! Coaches, parents and adult leaders who can make children feel respected and valued even when they lose are giving children a strong message about competition and about life.
We can also help children know that there can be value in losing. Kids need to be given permission to lose. Most talk around sports is of winning. "We have to do these things to win," "When we win...," and "You want to win, donít you?" are common phrases some coaches use. In class, when we do the 50 meter dash, I tell kids to run against somebody faster. They initially look at me as though Iím crazy and say, "I donít want to lose and get beat." Surely many are thinking to themselves that this will not look good in front of their peers and the pressure is on. Anxiety runs high. But once we talk about why it is O.K. to compete against someone better and that it is O.K. to lose, children are relieved and the pressure is off. Then they begin to understand that itís about doing your best and striving to improve oneself. We then will begin to hear kids talk not about winning the race and who they beat but rather if they beat their prescores, last yearís score or even if they achieved their personal best score.
In order to help our children develop positive attitudes towards sportsmanship, we, as parents, volunteer coaches and teachers need to clarify how we ourselves view sports. Once we understand what it is that sports represents to us, then we can begin to model the appropriate behaviors.
Parents can play simple games with their young children, whether in the backyard or board games in the family room, and nurture a sense of fair play, playing by the rules, taking turns and always having fun. Making sure there are consequences when your child displays poor sportsmanship is also important. When watching sporting events, talk with your child about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the athletesí and coachesí behavior. Help your child to talk about and process events that take place in his or her own sporting experiences.
Donít underestimate the power of what you model for your children. I have witnessed many children who, despite poor coaching experiences and the negative influence of some sporting figures, have displayed wonderful sportsmanship. As in all areas of young childrenís lives, parents are their first, best and most effective teachers.