Most parents get their children involved in youth sports for a variety of reasons – perhaps because of the health benefits of being active, learning to socialize well, or learning to play as a member of a team.
But maybe as important is the opportunity to help their child learn to become a “good sport”.
Being a good sport does not mean that a young athlete doesn't try to win. There will always be so-called “winners” and “losers” whenever keeping score. It’s natural to want to win.
Sportsmanship, though, has to do with how one competes on the field of play, and how a young athlete—any athlete—handles winning and losing and the ups and downs of being involved in sport.
Youth sports can be highly competitive—some would argue far too competitive and not always healthy. Unfortunately, adults are often times the ones who behave as “poor sports” and as their children become accustomed to the sports world around them they may well take on those negative traits as well.
The “good sports” are those who compete hard, support their own teammates in good times and bad on the field and off, and show respect for the opposition. While the aim is generally is to “beat" the other person or the other team, the objective should not be to embarrass, harass or diminish.
Good Role Models Lead the Way
Parents are—or should be—the most important role model for youngsters in terms of day-to-day behaviour, and that can include on the field of play.
Youth coaches may not realize it, but their influence on those they coach is significant. A coach who yells at and berates players, screams at game officials and loses his or her cool when things don’t go their way sets a poor example for their impressionable young players.
On the other hand, coaches who demonstrate patience and don’t have an attitude of “blame” set a positive example for their young charges.
Professional athletes are part of the picture as well. For better or worse, youngsters still tend to look up to and emulate the behaviour that they see and read about.
Many modern-day, high-profile professional athletes have insisted that they aren’t—and do not wish to be—role models. On the one hand this is simply an acknowledgement that they should not be put up on a pedestal by young people, because those athletes are only human and prone to fail and disappoint those who look up to them.
At the same time, while professional athletes can’t (and shouldn’t) replace good parents as positive influences, some athletes can be a positive role model. In those instances, good role models typically are excellent teammates who genuinely support other players, have a positive attitude toward the media and the fans, are involved in their community, and are respected on the field of play because of their commitment to excellence and fair play.
How to Set the Example of Good Sportsmanship
Indeed, parents, youth coaches and professional athletes each has a role to play in setting an example of good sportsmanship for young people.
Parents should be vigilant in how they speak and act in front of their youngsters. Constant negative talk about their child’s teammates, coaches, the opposition or game officials can affect how their youngsters see the world and create in those young people some very harsh and negative attitudes towards others.
Youth coaches should regularly look in the mirror and self-reflect to ensure their behaviour is consistent with the positive values they are trying to instil. They should respect opponents both publicly and in private. They should teach skills, demonstrate patience and be consistent in how they administer discipline. They can be tough when it’s time to be tough, but should always be approachable and available when their players need to speak with them.
Professional athletes, if they care about being a constructive influence, should ask themselves how they want to be remembered by the youngsters who watch them play. Do they want to be remembered as a self-absorbed “prima donna” or as a well-rounded, thoughtful person with class?
Being a “good sport” can be awfully difficult for adults, let alone youngsters. But that shouldn’t stop us from at least trying to set a good example.