We may not give much thought beyond enrolling our kids in various activities such as basketball, softball, gymnastics, and others. We feel like we are doing a good job as parents getting our kids into the activity and the rest should be taken care of by the coach or instructor.
But there is still a lot that parents should do to make sure that kids have the best experience possible in these activities. One of the things that parents should focus on when starting kids in sports is helping kids understand and know how to be a good sport.
What does it mean to be a good sport?
Generally, we think of a good sport as someone who in the activity behaves well. It doesn’t mean that a child can’t play hard or be competitive. It generally means that they are respectful to other players, spectators, umpires, and coaches.
A good sport as someone who is graceful and kind when they win, and manages to control themselves even when they lose or feel disappointment.
It doesn’t take much searching on the Google to come across athletes that we would want our kids to emulate, with their athletic ability, and their maturity and kindness. Think of high-performing football players who take the time to help up members of the other team after a particularly nasty tackle. Or competitive players who, when faced with having a really rough day or losing badly, keeps their cool and doesn’t do or say anything aggressive or defensive.
Compare that to well-known celebrity athletes like Andre Agassi, who was well known for his frustration when having a bad day, smarting off to officials, breaking equipment or slamming down his racket.
Golfers are also seem to suffer from bad sportsmanship. You don’t have to check out professional golfers on youtube. All you have to do is walk down to your local golf course and see the cussing or tossing of equipment into ponds. I myself at one point observed my father throw an iron down the fairway after slicing a shot far into the next fairway over.
How do you teach a child to be a good sport?
I think that the primary way and most effective way is to give your child an opportunity to see you model the behavior. This means that you need to place yourself in a position where there is some kind of competition.
This could be as extensive as signing up for a City league sports team. It could be as simple as setting up a family game of softball or kickball at local gatherings. It could be something even smaller, like playing cards or board games.
You can use these opportunities to show the child how to win gracefully and lose gracefully. Ultimately, how you act during competition in most cases is a good indicator of how the child will act. If you are kind and understanding even when you win, your child will see that. But on the other hand, if you get angry, if you struggle to handle losing, if you cheat or take advantage of people, your child will see that and emulate that behavior.
Another way to teach your child to be a good sport is to talk to him about it and what it means. You can talk to them about the competition and the importance of winning and losing, but also reinforce that the purpose of the game or match or activity is playing it it feels great to win, but it feels even better to have a great time playing the sport.
I can think of many instances where a close game that we ended up losing was more enjoyable then a game where are we completely destroyed the other team and won. And naturally best of all my favorite games were the ones where the competition was clean and close and fun, and then we ended up winning in the end.
Another really important way to help your child learn to be a good sport is to have them play or participate in activities where they have an opportunity to do it wrong.
Failing is a great learning experience.
Losing is a great learning experience.
We can’t expect children to become good sports if they don’t have an opportunity to win, or lose. In the best of worlds, your child should have the opportunity to lose badly. To have bad games. To have competitors work harder than them and beat them.
These are the types of character building activities that kids need these days desperately and are often being shielded from by overprotective parents. A child needs to have the experience of seeing what it feels like to be treated well during a sports event by other players, and frankly, what it feels like to be treated badly.
I hate to say this, but the difference between the two and actually experiencing both is fairly critical to the understanding of what it means to be a good sport. When another player is having a bad day, this is an opportunity for your child to respond in the right way. Or if they don’t, to talk about what the right way to respond in hindsight. If another athlete has the opportunity to treat your child fairly at the expense of winning outright, your child will NEVER forget the experience.
(I once saw a video where a marathon runner failed to realize that the finish line was about 5 feet in front of her. She stopped. The runner behind her came up, realized what she had done, and paused to point out the finish line so she could win, rather than steal the win from her. That marathoner will never forget that experience, and the rest of the world on youtube saw the grace of the runner who came up behind her).
In a lot of cases teaching a child to be a good sport is not much different than teaching them to be a good human. Most of the qualities of a good sport are also the same qualities of a good human being.
If you are raising a child with these tenets in mind, you won’t have to try too hard to help them become a good sport.
Special notes on disappointment and crying
I do want to comment briefly though on disappointment, especially in losing. It is fairly common for children who are new to sports to feel extreme disappointment when losing.
In many cases these children have never played sports before, or they were placed in situations where they played with people who let them win all the time. In many cases, these children feel extreme emotions when they do not succeed in the activity.
Frequently what I see is disappointment from adults in the child for feeling feelings about losing. I’ve seen coaches say sternly to children, don’t cry.
In the perfect world of good sports, kids who are good sports don’t cry when they lose. I think coaches mean well After all, we want to create people who are good sports, which translates to maintaining emotions during winning or losing.
But when you are dealing with young children, especially those who are only 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 years old, there needs to be a certain amount of understanding from the coach or parents. A four-year-old does not have the discipline and regulation skills to manage big feelings.
If we shame them for having big and understandable feelings about losing when they aren’t used to it, we may actually make it harder for them to ultimately process feelings of competition and how to act during winning or losing.
The point of sports for kids in almost every case should be about learning how to be good humans. Only a small percentage of children will utilize sports as a way to catapult them to million dollar careers. So the rest of us should really be focusing on using sports to help children gain skills for life.
I would say that coaches and parents shouldn’t sweat kids crying in sports. Period. If the kid needs to cry, he’ll cry. And once he’s cried, he’ll get over it and move on. Instead, we shame kids (especially teenage boys) for having feelings. Crying doesn’t mean someone is a bad sport. It just means that they wanted to win, and they are disappointed. Everyone wants to win, and disappointment is a natural consequence of losing.
If coaches and parents are kind to crying kids in sports, other kids will see that, and emulate that behavior.
What would we rather have in an adult? Someone who is kind to someone else who is struggling? Or yells at them to grow up?