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Teaching Good Sportsmanship to Kids

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Teaching Good Sportsmanship to Kids

Soccer coach and young playerMadison, Wisconsin - The decision to get children involved in sports starts almost before a baby is born.

Images of baseball gloves, footballs and soccer balls often adorn infant items. But, while parents are trying to encourage a solid pitching arm, another important skill to cultivate is good sportsmanship.

Being a part of a sports team will help kids develop skills and experience lessons that can help them throughout their lives.

"Being part of a team is important for kids because they learn valuable lessons," says UW Health Sports Medicine psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD. "There are many great life skills that come from being part of a team - it's really a learning platform for life."

Among the lessons kids can learn through participation include:

  • How to work collaboratively with others
  • How to set a goal and work toward it
  • How to persevere
  • How to lose but grow from it

According to Dr. Mirgain, research shows kids do better when they are involved in athletics. They tend to have higher self esteem, do better in academics, have better relationships with peers, and frequently, there's lower incidence of drug and alcohol abuse.

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While there are so many benefits to be gained from participating in athletics, the number one reason kids play is because it's fun. It is also the main reason kids stop playing, when it is no longer fun to participate.

So often playing a team sport becomes about the win. But when the focus is on winning, it is easy for kids to miss what sports is all about.

"It's more about the lessons along the way," says Dr. Mirgain. "When kids can take a loss and use it as a life lesson - use it as motivation to improve a free throw shot for example - then by the end of the season they realize they learned so much more from the loss than the win."

How Coaches and Parents Can Help

When it comes to helping kids learn from their participation, coaches and parents play an important part of the process. They are really the ones who help set the stage by modeling good behavior when it comes to the game.

Dr. Mirgain points to a few of the strategies parents and coaches can use to help kids keep it in perspective:

  1. Don't focus on the win or the loss, instead ask kids what was fun about the game
  2. Encourage them to think about what they did well and even the strengths of the other team
  3. Praise the kids' performance, effort, and attitude -- even when they made a mistake -- by saying something like, "When you missed the ball, you handled it really well."

There are a lot of "teachable moments" when playing sports. Parents can help kids get the most out of participation by helping to encourage using positive skills from the beginning. One way parents can do that is by setting some ground rules.

"Having ground rules for the family and explaining to children what they are can help them understand what is appropriate behavior," says Dr. Mirgain.

Those rules can include things like, it is not acceptable to cheat or to call anyone names or "bad mouth" them. It's not acceptable to push anyone. And, according to Dr. Mirgain, state the behaviors that are expected. For example, it is expected that we always show respect to others including our coaches, the referees and the other team. It is expected that we shake hands and say "good game" after the game.

And it's important for parents to recognize their own behaviors on the sidelines as well. Parents and coaches should think about whether they are demonstrating the positive behaviors they are hoping to encourage in their kids.

When a Child is Not a Good Sport

There are times though when a child may not be a good sport, and that's when it's important to help them understand there are consequences to their behavior.

"We often think kids know how to handle emotions," explains Dr. Mirgain. "But, it's actually a skill to learn how to manage emotions, especially the challenging ones like anger and sadness."

Catching the bad behavior early on is important, and when parents do, they can help kids learn from their actions. It can be useful to give kids some time to calm down and then discuss the topic neutrally, keeping the focus on understanding what happened. Coming up with acceptable strategies to use in the future can help turn these incidents into conversations about good sportsmanship.

Dr. Mirgain suggests asking kids questions like, "What did you learn from the situation?", "What could you have done differently?" or even "How do you think your behavior affected the team?"

And, in the process, parents can also help kids develop the strategies for dealing with strong emotions. When a child is angry, helping them learn to take a deep breath and step away, or if they're sad encourage them to seek comfort - help them find the tools that work best for them.

Kids aren't the only ones guilty of not being good sports. There are coaches and other parents that can make it challenging for everyone to enjoy the game. In that case, one strategy may be to have a preseason meeting between the coach and parents to talk about ground rules such as no yelling or making sure it's the coach who is actually coaching the team.

Coaches and parents need to work together to ensure playing sports is a positive experience for everyone.

"Parents need to remind themselves, the child is so much more than just the athlete," concludes Dr. Mirgain. "Very rarely will kids become pros, so it's critical to focus on the life lessons of playing a sport. Letting kids know they are valued and accepted no matter how they perform, will help them develop a sense of confidence and fun and do better in all aspects of learning their sport."


Date Published: 08/29/2011