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Sportsmanship's Golden Rule: Know Your Role And Stay Within It

Teaching Sportsmanship to Youth Sports Parents is Critical

Know Your Role

Do you know the golden rule of good sportsmanship? It's very simple: Know your role and do not stray from it.

Everyone involved in youth sports has a role to play: players play; coaches coach; officials officiate; and spectators sit in the stands or stand on the sidelines and cheer positively.

A Parent's Role

As parents, your only role at a game is to be a positive supporter of your team.  A parent is not an assistant coach.  A parent is not an evaluator of officials.  A parent is not the judge of other parents.

Most parents know that the parent who screams at the official is wrong.  They know that yelling at players doesn't help them.  What most parents and spectators don't know is that even some very benign acts can cause problems - because players, coaches and officials can't easily tell which parents are ok and which ones are problematic.  Here are some examples:

  • Mom and dad stand right next to the official at the end of the first six games of the season.  They even have some friendly conversations with the official at the end of the games.  The seventh game is heated, and when the game ends mom and dad want to make a friendly suggestion to the official.  They're surprised when it doesn't go over to well.  They're even more surprised to find out that they really shouldn't be talking to officials at the end of games.
  • A parent runs up and down the sidelines telling his daughter to shoot during a game.  The parent is surprised to find out that this is frowned upon by other parents and by the coach.

In each case the parent strayed from their role.  The first set of parents ceased being positive supporters of their teams and entered the role of officiating supervisor.  It didn't matter six times, but it sure mattered the seventh time.  The second parent strayed into the coaches' role and interfered with other parents and spectators' ability to watch the game.  The scary thing is that these were well intentioned people.  It's hard to be a fan.  Nobody teaches us how to do it.

Education Is Key

One of the principal roles of administrators of youth sports programs is to be pro-active about sportsmanship and anticipate bad behavior before it occurs. The best way to do that is to actually teach sportsmanship.

To teach the golden rule of good sportsmanship, youth and high school sports program administrators should hold pre-season meetings with parents to:

  1. Prepare them for the emotions they are likely to experience during the heat of competition;
  2. Establish ground rules for their conduct;
  3. Let them know that coaches and officials have roles to play and that they are held accountable, but not by spectators at the game site.  Spectators often feel better once they know that other people are held accountable. 
  4. Enlist parent support in upholding a standard of conduct. 

Teaching help is available

Fortunately, youth and high school sports program administrators do not need to create sportsmanship programs from scratch. Numerous programs exist to help teach sportsmanship. Indeed, as the intensity of youth sports has increased over the past two decades and a winning-at-all-cost attitude has become more and more the norm, a virtual cottage industry has grown up to help administrators, coaches, and parents solve some of the worst problems of the youth and high school sports world. Excellent websites like MomsTeam.com and groups like the Positive Coaching Alliance, Coaching Boys into Men, Character Counts, the American Sports Institute, and the National Alliance for Youth Sports can help everybody from coaches to parents to game administrators make the world of youth sports a better place for everyone.

Even were there no such programs, here are some of the steps I believe youth sports programs can take to improve the level of sportsmanship on their own:

  • Teach parents to leave the coaching to the coaches; and that constant complaining to the coach about playing time, before, during or after games simply won't be tolerated.
  • Establish a procedure to give parents the opportunity on a periodic basis (whether it once a season, twice a season, or weekly) to ask the coach questions, provide feedback, and, in return, get feedback from the coach about their child's development. As in any educational environment (schools give grades and provide for teacher/parent conferences, after all), the teacher (in this case, the coach) should be expected to provide feedback. In return, parents should be expected to follow a code of conduct requiring good sportsmanship.

Good People, Bad Acts

Teaching sportsmanship can work wonders in keeping well-intentioned people from engaging in inappropriate conduct on the sports sidelines. Often, parents will act inappropriately without even realizing it.

Training program administrators so they, in turn, can educate parents on the line between acceptable sideline behavior and bad acts will go a long way to improving sportsmanship. It can be particularly effective if parents are reminded of the golden rule of sportsmanship: that it is not their role to evaluate how well the officials did their job, and that if they stray from their role as parents, they are asking for trouble.

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