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Why Sportsmanship Does Matter

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One of my favorite things about watching professional playoff hockey, outside of the amazing athleticism and intensity, is the handshake at the end of a series. For the most part, huge men ferociously battle against each for days on end, but when the series ends, they line up and shake hands. And it looks genuine, respectful and authentic. I find that level of respect for their game and opponents inspirational.

What is sportsmanship and why it is important 

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 rhetoric. Sportsmanship is a state of being in which athletes of all ages are guided by core values of fair play. Respect, integrity, compassion, honor, and teamwork represent some of these core values.  We want our kids to show respect for coaches, teammates, referees, fans, opponents, themselves, and the game of lacrosse.

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. We want our kids to play and practice with integrity in which they do the right things even when no one is looking.

It’s the Small Things

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. 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 the effort to go over and say, “Hey, are you OK?” Or, when the injured player walks off the field, all fans clap in support. We want our kids to honor the traditions of sports and those great players and coaches who played before them.

This requires each player to 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. Lastly, we want our children to strive for individual excellence but also understand the value of working with others even in the face of hardship and adversity. This might mean that a talented athlete might have to play a different less familiar role on a team simply because it’s good for the team.

The Benefits

There are numerous reasons why teaching sportsmanship is critical. 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 likely to win games. Because they play for each other and for 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. I think we saw that both teams possessed these traits in last year’s championship game.

Sportsmanship From the Start

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 managed when treated early. Poor conduct on and off the field, selfish play, inappropriate fan behavior represents some of the ills of today’s youth sport world. Yet by reaching our young players early and teaching the values of fair play, we are building a more resilient group who will likely play their sport the way it is meant to be played and experience great enjoyment.

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 through 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 sports education and experience.

This article was adapted by Dr. Ginsburg’s original posting on the US Lacrosse website.

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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.

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