Encouraging Good Sportsmanship in Children


By Ron Hindbaugh M.A.


As I watched the female figure skating performances taking place in Salt Lake City some years past, I was very impressed with the manner in which Michelle Kwan handled the results of her performance that night. She was naturally disappointed because of the vision she has had for many years of obtaining the gold medal. But a fall on the ice robbed her of this dream. She composed herself after the disappointment and, like a true champion, even guided the younger Sarah Hughes, to her proper place on the podium to receive the gold medal.

As we watch this display of true sportsmanship, a question that a parent may ask himself or herself is. “How did Michelle decide that she was going to behave in a manner that put competition in its proper perspective?” Good sportsmanship is not an easy thing to teach your child. It becomes even more difficult when winning becomes the objective and your child is guided by a coach or “significant other” who has gotten caught in the trap of reasoning and thinking that teaches "winning is the reason for playing."

Because of the "winning is the most important thing" thinking and the detrimental effect it can have on the child and his/her attitude toward sports and participation in sports, Stephen J. Bavolek, a noted expert in the field of parent education, feels that adults who guide children in the individual and team sports need to place more emphasizes on the importance of helping children develop their positive overall self-image through sports. He feels that adults should hold to a philosophy that emphasizes that winning is secondary to trying one's best.

Dr. Bavolek says that children should be involved in sports to have fun. He states that sports help the child to learn and improve skills. Through participation in sports children make new friends and learn to enjoy participating in a team process with people who the child enjoys and finds social gratification. Another reason Dr. Bavolek thinks that children benefit from sports is the exercise and fitness that are part of any active team sports.

Sports should also be a source of excitement. The thrill of hitting, kicking, or catching a ball is more important to children than winning the game. Dr. Bavolek states that, "Contrary to the perceptions of most adults, children say winning is relatively unimportant aspect of playing a game. The pressure put on children by some parents and coaches to win a game is simply out of touch with the views of children."

Dr. Bavolek feels that the philosophy of the wise coach or parent should include the following elements:

· An atmosphere that encourages children to play for the pure enjoyment of playing. He states this should be the primary goal of children who participate in sports.

· There needs to be an emphasis on sportsmanship type behavior. Trying hard to accomplish a task should receive as much attention as accomplishing the task.

· There needs to be support for comparable playing time. The coach should know each child personally and adhere to the philosophy of providing each child with playing time. Even though a child may not have refined his or her skills, opportunity to do so should be provided to each child.

· Respect for the child is practiced. The child should always be referred to by his or her first name. Negative labels that may communicate disrespect or belittlement are never used.

· Appropriate touch is used. Rituals such as tapping a child's buttocks or messing a child's hair must be eliminated. These are replaced by rituals such as "high fives," handshakes, and pats on the back.

· Adults who work to guide and coach children must be aware of the children’s feelings and intuitively know how to help a children through times of un sureness and/or discomfort that accompanies the learning of new skills. Adults will do this by helping the child view instances of success and failure with pride in the effort they have made.

· Parents are involved and support and participate the efforts of the team and the coach.

· The coaches and other guiding adults model good sportsmanship. Taunting, harassing, making fun, or calling names are not seen or tolerated.

· Safety is important and, as a result, commonly accepted rules or safety are followed. Helmets and protective gear are mandatory aspects for participation.

Research has shown that children who drop out of sports do so for the following reasons:

1.                  Lack of Playing Time.

2.                  Being Criticized.

3.                  When Size or Skills Don't Match.

4.                  Unnecessary Stress Regarding Their Performance.

5.                  Perceived Failure.

6.                  Poor Organization.

If parents and coaches will define success in sports as "doing your best” and more young people will grow up with the belief that success in life does not mean you have to “win”, success will mean that you have "done your best."