Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone (Colossians 4:6 TNIV).
It's that time of year again. Fall sports are in full swing and that can be a great thing. Through sports, kids can learn about fair play, respect, and determination. Teaching good sportsmanship to our children is one of the great responsibilities of parenthood. Unfortunately, "good" sportsmanship isn't the only thing they can learn from their coaches, teammates, and you. So, how do we go about teaching this valuable lesson to our kids in a culture that seems to value it less and less? Good question.
In my ten years of parenting thus far, I have had the honor and pleasure of coaching about 8 seasons of Little League, soccer, and softball. The vast majority of that experience has been both honorable and pleasurable.
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But there have been a few occasions when I have witnessed a lack of sportsmanship on the part of coaches; and for me, this is a zero tolerance issue. When my son was six, he went to a summer baseball camp. It ended up being run by college kids. My son came home in tears after the second day reporting that the coaches yelled at the players and called them names for not trying hard enough. I immediately went into full investigative mode by first contacting other parents to see if their sons reported the same thing. I then contacted the coaches and the camp administrators. It turns out my son was telling the truth; the college-aged coaches were practicing with six-year olds what they themselves were experiencing from their own coaches. The camp administrators were very grateful to hear from me and they admitted that they were suspicious of one coach in particular. He was immediately removed, but it took a while for my son to trust coaches again.
I want my kids to love sports, to love physical activity, to love teamwork and love structured competition. And bad examples from their coaches who care more about winning games than winning hearts for sports are simply not acceptable. Period. Address the situation, remove your child, do whatever it takes.
I believe there are three elements to sportsmanship: rules, etiquette, and culture. As a coach and as a parent, I try to pay attention to all three.
Rules are simply the structure of the game itself. Every sport has established rules that provide the freedom to play, much like railroad tracks give the train freedom to travel. The rules of the game are the non-negotiables and the best way to teach those rules is by obeying them ourselves. Cheating, in any way, is not just a bad example, it actually introduces the very chaos and instability of life that sports can help us conquer.
Think about it — life is very confusing and difficult. It is full of ever-changing people playing by ever-changing rules, Sports, at their best, invite us into a small world that can protect us from that chaos by providing a clearly agreed-upon structure that encourages freedom of expression and friendly, growth-inducing competition. When parents and coaches fail to teach the rules of the game, and fail to obey those rules themselves, sportsmanship is not the only casualty. Chaos triumphs over stability and security as well. Something for us all to think about when tempted to play our best little league player a few more innings than the time allows, or tempted to secretly send coaching signals to our budding tennis phenom.
Like rules, the practices of a sport's etiquette can differ greatly from sport to sport. But unlike rules, these practices are not enforceable by referees or umpires or league commissioners. The practices of etiquette are not agreed upon by rules committees; they have evolved as a way for sports to retain a spirit of courtesy and respect between combatants and for the game itself.
In tennis, for instance, you shake hands over the net after a match. In baseball, you line up on the baselines and congratulate the other team with your right hands at the end of the game. In boxing, you touch gloves at the beginning of the first and last rounds. In basketball, you volunteer your culpability, after a bad pass, a defensive lapse, or a hard foul. And perhaps no sport has more specific practices of etiquette than golf, from staying quiet during an opponent's swing to avoiding someone's putting line on the green.
These "rules" of etiquette are not published in bylaws somewhere, nor even discussed between opponents before a game, but violating them can arouse as much anger as cheating. Etiquette is what makes the game humane, what elevates the game above animalistic conflict.
Teaching etiquette is therefore extremely important, I believe. That necessarily means educating ourselves as parents and/or coaches about the particular etiquette practices of a particular sport. I have never played soccer, so I had to learn about both the rules and the etiquette of "the beautiful game" as I signed up my kids to play it. I wanted to take an active role in this education process, both for me and my kids, so I invited them to watch soccer matches with me, and I invited some admitted soccer freaks over for dinner to talk to our whole family about the game.
What is absolutely important is to focus on how you and yours adhere to these practices much more than on how anyone else does. It's easy, and important, to publicly call out rules infractions committed by anyone involved in the contest. It's equally important to quietly practice the etiquette yourself without telling anyone else they should as well. This is an area where examples speak loudest. So exhibit the best etiquette yourself, teach your child to do the same, and then both of you be quiet about anyone else. When it comes to etiquette, it is far better to be viewed as an example than ignored as a know-it-all.
This is the area of sportsmanship that is the least clear-cut, but can be the most influential. All sports have a unique culture surrounding them, a culture which silently governs attitudes, shapes coaching and playing styles, and can even influence personalities and relationships outside the playing field. And it is because of this powerful influence that I advise parents and coaches to pay very close attention to it.
Take football, for instance. Football creates and maintains a very unique culture, with both positive and negative applications. On the positive side, football creates a very team-oriented culture. It is perhaps the most team-oriented sport of all because of its relatively rigid position roles and requirements. There are offensive linemen body styles and temperaments that are decidedly different from, and yet completely dependent upon, wide receivers. And all have to play together in order to succeed, more than any other sport. It is far more difficult for one player to dominate in football than in say, baseball. This team emphasis in football is a remarkable metaphor for all the interdependencies that exist in life.
Another element of football culture that is not so positive, in my opinion, is the emphasis on toughness, or even meanness. Nevermind the celebration of Dick Butkus' refusal to help up an opponent, just go to a Pony League practice and watch the wannabe coaches running the elementary kids till they puke and then making them pick it up with their hands (I've seen it happen). No sport carries the "go to war" mentality like football, and that part of football culture is the reason behind the current concussions controversy in the NFL, as well as newly discovered dogfighting craze among NFL athletes. "Toughest is best" is football at its worst.
Thankfully, there are scores of examples of talented, successful football players who demonstrated incredible toughness while also exuding respect for their opponents, their own bodies, and the idea that it is still only a game. Walter Payton comes to mind as an example from my youth; Peyton Manning shines today. These men were able to follow the rules of football competition, practice exemplary etiquette toward other players and the game, and exist as "tough, but respectful" beacons within the football culture.
There are other players in other sports who are able to succeed in their sports without fully succumbing to the worst parts of the culture of those sports. Wayne Gretsky never fought in a hockey game. Jack Nicklaus never cursed on a golf course and never talked badly about another player. Tim Duncan never talks trash on the basketball court. Roger Federer never loses his cool on the tennis court, but he does host a pizza party for the ball boys and girls at every tournament. Talk about these players with your spouse in front of your kids; root for these type players on TV; invite your kids to admire them with you.
It is our job as parents and coaches to shape the culture of our families and our teams. Ask any business leader how difficult it is to shape the culture of a company — it ain't easy. But the truth is that shaping a culture happens anyway. Every second of every day we function as leaders. How we behave as leaders constantly shapes our surrounding culture, both positively and negatively. How we cheer for our teams, how we talk about other players and opponents, how we speak with the coaches and other parents, whether and how we volunteer for snack duty, how we confront rules violations — all of these are constantly shaping the cultures of our families and our teams. And the kids are not just watching us; they're inhaling the cultural air around them.