Sportsmanship is a lot like listening—we assume that everyone knows what it is and how to do it. Alas, this is not the case. Good sportsmanship allows us to enjoy the sports we play. When we coach kids and teenagers in sports, it becomes even more important that we promote good sportsmanship.

Kids play sports to have fun, but some parents and coaches promote a win-at-all-costs attitude. As parents and coaches, we play an important role in modeling the correct behaviors for our children. Children imitate what they see around them, especially when they observe a respected adult. Learning and adopting good sportsmanship will provide positive role modeling for children participating in sports.

A Good Coach

Pat Summit, the venerable women's basketball coach at the University of Tennessee, considers herself to be a role model in addition to her students and athletes. She tells her athletes, "You are a role model. The question to ask is: what kind of role model will you be?"

She emphasizes that you don't have to be an athlete to be a role model, citing her parents as great models for sportsmanship and professionalism. She also cites her older brother Tommy as being a great role model because he was not only a great athlete but a great student as well, graduating from college with honors.

Pat's tips for parents are these: "Kids need to understand that they can go out there and compete to win, while being respectful. A good competitive spirit doesn't require one to play dirty or nasty. It is important to say to children, 'do the best you can do.'"

She also adds that children learn valuable life skills through athletics, recognizing that competitors can still be your friends.

Here's What to Do

Below are some tips that parents can both demonstrate and teach to their children:

  • Maintain self-control at all times.
  • Show respect for officials and opposing team members.
  • Don't react to the win or loss alone. When your child comes home from a game ask: How did you play? Did you have fun? How did the team play? What did you do well? What could you do better next time?
  • Acknowledge superior skills in other players without comparing your child's skills to their skills.
  • Define success as trying your hardest.
  • Understand and appreciate the rules of the game.
  • Be sure your child accepts responsibility for errors and thinks about how he or she could avoid repeating the errors.
  • Remember that the officials are doing the best they can and miscalls will happen.
  • Discuss what you see when watching sporting events on TV; point out good behaviors and analyze poor behavior and how the situation could be handled in another manner.
  • Tell your child, "Regardless of how you play today, that doesn't change my love and respect for you as my son or daughter or as an athlete."
  • Remember that the true purpose of organized sports is fun, fun, fun!