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Children and Sports: Don’t Forget to Practice Sportsmanship!

by Dawn Ramsburg



NPIN Parent News


Benefits of Youth Sports Participation

What is Sportsmanship?

Ways to Promote Sportsmanship

Additional Resources



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As the weather grows warmer, memories of spending hours in my backyard with my parents and my sisters come flooding back. The game of choice for us was softball, although there were many games of kick soccer, croquet, badminton, tag, hopscotch, and catch as well. From the time we finished cleaning up after dinner until it was too dark to see the ball anymore, we took turns hitting, pitching, and fielding the softball. And over the course of several years, starting when I was 8 years old, our dad took turns coaching each of us on a local park district team until my youngest sister finished playing.

Through those hours of playing in the backyard, my sisters and I learned a variety of skills—how to throw a ball, how to hit, and how to catch. By having our dad as a coach, we also learned another important part of the game—how to be a good sport. Sitting around the kitchen table after a game, we learned about other aspects of the game such as fairness as he talked about making a lineup that included everyone, teamwork, respect for others regardless of their ability, and how important it was to have fun. My dad had a rule as a coach that everyone got to play in every game, regardless of skill level. This rule helped us learn that having an opportunity to play was more important than winning.

While it did take a few summers to eventually learn this lesson, it was sometimes evident that some of the adults in the stands and parents of teammates had never learned this lesson. Each summer my dad would receive at least one phone call from a parent questioning why his or her daughter did not get to start or was taken out at the end of the game. This parent would argue that the game was lost because his or her child was not in the game at a critical moment when perhaps a younger, less experienced player was on the field or up to bat. My dad would calmly and carefully explain his coaching philosophy to the parent—that this was a recreational league, a chance for everyone to learn and grow, it was a team game, and, to him, the most important outcome was for everyone to have fun and he did not think that would happen if some players had to sit on the bench the whole season. Sometimes, after those phone calls, the parents would understand what he was saying and then they would appear more supportive of the whole team at games. Sometimes, however, the player would stop coming to practices and games.

As I think back over those years, and even to a similar phone call I received when I coached a couple of years ago, I cannot help but remember all of the key plays that were made by those players regarded as "not as good." More vividly, I remember the screams of joy and the feelings of confidence that were bursting from those players in these moments and the pride that was beaming from their parents’ faces. It is these moments that reinforce to me how important it is not to forget to teach good sportsmanship when teaching the other basic skills of a game. This can sometimes be difficult to remember, however, when we see professional athletes fighting with each other, fans booing players at a stadium, and parents at little league games criticizing other players.

Benefits of Youth Sports Participation

It has been estimated that 22 million children and youth, ages 6 to 18, are involved in organized sports outside of school (Poinsett, 1996). Research indicates that participation in sports can promote healthy development.

According to the American Sport Education Program (1994), sports participation:

  • Builds an appreciation of personal health and fitness;

  • Develops a positive self-image;

  • Teaches how to work as part of a team;

  • Develops social skills with other children and adults (such as taking turns and sharing playing time);

  • Teaches both how to manage success and disappointment; and,

  • Teaches how to respect others.

In order to better understand these benefits, much of the research on youth sports has examined how sports enhance aspects of children’s social development. Specifically, studies have examined how sports contribute to the development of social competence—the ability to get along with and be accepted by peers, family members, teachers, and coaches; and, self-esteem—the extent to which an individual believes him/herself to be capable, significant, successful, and worthy (Ewing, 1997).

According to the findings, children learn to assess their social competence in sports through the feedback received from parents and coaches (Ewing, 1997). Self-esteem, on the other hand, is developed through both evaluation of one’s own abilities as well as evaluation of the responses received from others. Children actively observe parents’ and coaches’ responses to their performances by looking for signs (often nonverbal) of approval or disapproval of their behavior. Lack of feedback and criticism is often interpreted as a negative response to the behavior.

Because children often use social comparison as a way of determining their ability in sport, participation in youth sports activities provides children with many opportunities to determine their ability compared with others on their team (Ewing, 1997). Unfortunately, given the influence of other factors such as maturation and previous knowledge of a sport on one’s ability to perform a sport skill, children often reach incorrect conclusions about their abilities. Thus, the role of parents and coaches is significant in helping children interpret their strengths and weaknesses in a sport.

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What is Sportsmanship?

Most younger children do not understand fully what is meant by sportsmanship. When one physical education teacher asks his class to explain sportsmanship, he hears such replies as: "Don’t cheat," "Don’t get mad or cry when you lose," or "Don’t yell at your teammates when they make a mistake" (Sitz, 1997). Children often have a hard time understanding the concepts of competition, winning, and losing. This is understandable when you consider that children see all of the attention and rewards thrown toward winners while losers do not receive such focus. The message that kids are learning, then, is that people are valued only if they are a winner (Sitz, 1997).

On the other hand, most adults can explain sportsmanship by discussing the respect for the game, the players, the rules, and the officials (Sitz, 1997). Adults can understand that it is O.K. to lose and that what is important is to do your best and strive to improve your own abilities. Despite adults’ ability to understand the complexities of sportsmanship, some fail to display good sportsmanship for a variety of reasons. Some parents and adults get wrapped up in the competition because they are living vicariously through their children (Burnett, 1996). Others might have unrealistic expectations about their child, thinking she or he might be the next superstar. To ensure that children gain the benefits of sports participation, however, it is important for parents and coaches to evaluate and monitor their own attitudes and behaviors so that good sportsmanship is learned.

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Ways to Promote Sportsmanship

Coaches and parents can promote good sportsmanship by:

  • Maintaining a "Fun is Number 1" attitude. If everyone is having fun, it’ll make learning all aspects of the game more enjoyable and rewarding (Burnett, 1996).

  • Designing sport activities which facilitate cooperation rather than just competition so that youth learn about fair play (Ewing, 1997).

  • Teaching children the rules of the game and making sure that everyone (players, parents, fans) abides by those rules during competition (Ewing, 1997).

  • Encouraging and supporting all players on a team (American Sport Education Program, 1994).

  • Controlling emotions in frustrating situations (American Sport Education Program, 1994).

  • Treating officials, coaches, players, teammates, and opponents with respect and avoiding ridicule and sarcasm (Burnett, 1996).

  • Using moments from the game to teach about being a good sport ("I know it seemed like you got the runner at first out, but I was really proud of the way you didn’t argue with the umpire.") (American Sport Education Program, 1994).

  • Making sure there are consequences when poor sportsmanship is displayed (Sitz, 1998).

  • Providing examples of good sportsmanship such as shaking hands with the opponent at the end of the game (Ewing, 1997).

Participation in youth sports provides numerous opportunities for healthy development physically, socially, and morally. The key to children gaining these benefits comes from coaches, parents, and others adults not only teaching children how to play the sports, but also supporting and demonstrating how to be a good sport. This can be done not only during the game, but also when playing softball in the backyard.

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Additional Resources

10-item Checklist for Developing Good Sportsmanship by Dr. Darrell J. Burnett

Ohio State University Human Development and Family Life Team. (1997). Competition: The good, the bad, the ugly. Human Development and Family Life Bulletin, 3(1) [online]. Available:
http://www.hec.ohio-state.edu/famlife/bulletin/volume.3/bull25xx.htm [1998, May 5].

Teaching Youngsters How to Be Good Sports

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American Sport Education Program. (1994). SportParent. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.

Ewing, Marty. (1997). Promoting social and moral development through sports [Online]. Available: http://ed-web3.educ.msu.edu/ysi/Spotlight1997/social.html [1998, May 13].

Poinsett, Alex. (1996). The role of sports in youth development [Online]. Available: http://www.carnegie.org/reports/poinst1.htm [1998, May 13].

Sitz, Rick (1998). Sportsmanship: Encouraging our kids to be good sports. Winnetka Alliance for Early Childhood Newsletter, 9(1), 3-4.

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Published monthly by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Children's Research Center, 51 Gerty Drive, Champaign, IL 61820-7469. This publication was funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract no. DERR93002007. Opinions expressed in this magazine do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the Department of Education.

NPIN Coordinator and Parent News Editor: Anne Robertson
Production Editor: Emily S. Van Hyning

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