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Teach Sportsmanship Early

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It’s the championship game. The top-rated teams are pitted against each other. The spirit of excellence and competition highlight the appeal of the sport. Each team wants to be number one, and their actions reflect it. They pour their hearts and souls into the competition while their sense of sportsmanship reveals how they honor the other team down to the last second of the game. The evidence is clear: team members talk to the opposing team, hands go out to help others up from the ground, fans cheer for each other and the winners and their opponents congratulate each other at the conclusion of the game.

What does sportsmanship mean? Why is it important to teach it to our youth early in life?

It seems that over time, the meaning of sportsmanship has been watered down. Frequently thrown into mission statements and pre-season coach-speak, the spirit underlying sportsmanship is often lost in the rhetoric. The core values of fair play should guide each member of a team, among those values are respect, integrity, compassion, honor, and teamwork to name a few.

1. We want our children to show respect for coaches, teammates, referees, fans, opponents, themselves, and the sport. It makes such a difference when players shake hands after a tough game, say thank you to the ref or thank their families and friends for coming to the game.

2. We want our kids to play and practice with integrity in which they do the right things even when no one is looking. Maybe this means running their sprints all the way through the line when by themselves or picking up someone’s left- behind gloves long after everyone has left the field.

3. We want our kids to be competitive and yet also maintain a sense of compassion for others, even if they are on the other team. If an opposing player gets injured and play is stopped, one of our kids might make an effort to go over and say, “Hey, are you OK?” Or, when the injured player walks off the field, all fans clap in support.

4. We want our kids to honor the traditions of sports and those great players and coaches who played before them. Each player should recognize that he or she is a small part of a larger entity that brings all players, coaches, and fans together to benefit from exercise, camaraderie, tradition, and competition.

5. Lastly, we want our players to strive for individual excellence but also understand the value of working with others even in the face of hardship and adversity. Perhaps a more talented member of the team could take time from their practice to help mentor another team member who is struggling. He or she is concerned with the good of the team, rather than their success.

Why teaching sportsmanship is critical.

There are numerous reasons why teaching sportsmanship is essential. Teams guided by the values described above frequently have great chemistry and are most likely to make the most of their ability because they are impervious to distraction. Yes, they are more liable to win games. Because they play for each other and the team, they avoid the struggles of some teams that might be hampered by individual stats or focus purely on the game’s outcome. Of course, talent is always critical in whether a team wins or loses. But those teams that embrace the true spirit of sportsmanship in how they train and play are the ones that keep their focus on the task at hand, ones that stand strong and together in the face of adversity.

Teaching sportsmanship early

Teaching sportsmanship early does make a difference. We know from medical, educational and psychiatric research that early intervention for any challenge whether it is physical, academic or emotional is best. Poor conduct on and off the field, selfish play, inappropriate fan behavior represents some of the ills of today’s youth sports world. By reaching our young players early and teaching the values of fair play, we are building a more resilient group who will likely play the game the way it should be played, experience great enjoyment, and pass along the spirit of sports to their friends and future generations of players and fans.

Critical life lessons

And perhaps most important, sports are a vehicle for teaching young people critical life lessons that can be internalized and used for the rest of their lives. By teaching sportsmanship across all of the sports, we are preparing our youth for healthy and balanced adult lives. It is for these reasons that we celebrate teaching sportsmanship as one of the most critical aspects of playing sports at any level.

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Dr. Richard Ginsburg
Dr. Richard D. Ginsburg is a clinical psychologist and sport psychology consultant. He is co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital PACES Institute of Sport Psychology and is an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Ginsburg also serves as staff psychologist in the Newton Wellesley Hospital Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department and is the director of Behavioral Health for the Boston Red Sox. Dr. Ginsburg offers a broad range of clinical services to children, adolescents and adults and conducts youth and professional sport research. He is author of the book, Whose Game Is It, Anyway, A guide to helping your child get the most from sports, organized by age and stage and has served as a sport psychology consultant for a variety of professional and college-level sports teams, including lacrosse, soccer, water polo and ice hockey at Harvard University. He is a member of the US Lacrosse Safety and Science Committee and provides talks and consultations nationally to youth, high school, and collegiate athletic programs. Dr. Ginsburg played lacrosse and soccer at Kenyon College, where he won all-conference and all-Midwest honors. He is also a former independent school teacher and coach. He lives with his wife, Teri, and their two children in Newton, Massachusetts.