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Five Ways To Model Good Sportsmanship For Your Child

Blame game

If you have spent a lot of timeon the sports sideline recently, you probablyfeel a bit battered and bruised right now. It seems that everyone isready to blame "out-of-control parents" for all the ills of youthsports. We are the crazy ones screaming on the sidelines, abusing thekids, yelling at the officials, and displaying poor sportsmanship.What's a parent to do?Dad watching baseball game

One piece of advice that ishanded out regularly to parents is to "set a good example" for ourchildren. And most parents I know DO try to be positive and toencourage to our children as they climb the competitive sports ladder.But I have discovered that in order to have a positive influence onthose around us, including children and other parents, we need to domore than just clap and cheer for our kids.

Teaching sportsmanship

Here are five things you can dothat will really show your children (and other parents) what being "agood sport" is really all about:

1. Cheer for all the children, even those on the other team.

Thismay seem a bit radical, but I have seen what a surprising difference itcan make on the sidelines and in the stands when parents make an effortto applaud a good effort or a fine play - no matter whom makes it. Ifyou focus obsessively on your own child at a sporting event, you aregiving a clear signal that you don't really care about the team or theevent - you just care about your son or daughter.

By contrast, parentswho shout and cheer for all the children set a great example for thekids, by sending the message that youth sports are about giving one'sbest effort and enjoying the game, not about winning and losing.

2. Thank the officials

Ifyou find a few moments to compliment the officials for their hard workafter a game (especially if your child's team loses) you will berewarded with the pleasure of seeing a surprised smile in return. Youthsport officials tell me that such positive feedback, rare as it oftenis, goes a long way in motivating them to stick with their volunteerwork and keeps them going through the bad times.

All too often the onlywords a volunteer official hears (and remember, they are often youngpeople themselves), are harsh words of criticism such as "you blew thecall," "get some glasses," or even "you're ruining the game ump." Makesure that the officials for your child's game always hear at least oneparent thanking them after every game: you! If you keep it up, yourexample is sure to spread to other parents on your team.

3. Talk to parents of the other team: they're not the enemy

I remember attending a state championship baseball playoff game for under-11boys. The winner would advance to the league's state final. Afterregulation play, the game was tied. The tension in the stands among theparents kept rising as each extra inning passed. Mothers would covertheir eyes as their sons came to the plate, or hold hands tightly withthe parents sitting next to them. Finally, in the bottom of the 10th,the home team broke through and scored the winning run.

There was more relief thanjubilation from the parents of the winning team. Naturally, the parentsof the other team sat in stunned silence. Then, one of the parents onthe winning side went over to the parents of the losing team and beganshaking hands with them, telling them what an exceptional andcompetitive game their sons had played. I watched closely and noticedsmiles break out on the faces of these parents, saw their shoulderslift and their energy return at this simple gesture from a member of"the enemy."

Sometimes we get so caughtup in an in-town rivalry, or a big match against another school, thatwe forget that the other team is really just like our kids. Theirparents care about their children just as much as we do. Showing ourchildren that we can interact with parents from the other team in afriendly manner sets a good example for them to congratulate orcommiserate with the other team after every match.

4. Be a parent, not a coach: resist the urge to critique

Someof the young athletes I work with tell me that they dread the ride homewith their parents after a game or match. That's because, win or lose,they know their parent will go over their performance in detail,pointing out all their mistakes. Typical is Susan, a 12-year-oldgymnast, who sat in my office with tears rolling down her faceas she recounted her father's reaction to her most recent competitiveperformance at a gymnastics meet in Pennsylvania. On the four-hourdrive home, her father, Dennis, went over her routine in excruciatingdetail, listing all the errors she made. He wasn't angry, he didn'tyell. In fact, I am sure he had the best of intentions: he just wantedher to know how she could improve.

The problem, of course,was that Susan already knew each and every error her father pointedout, and also recognized some additional missteps and faults that hehadn't listed. She didn't need him to remind her of the obvious. Dennismistook her quiet stoicism in the face of a poor performance for a lackof caring. The fact was that Susan cared a great deal about gymnasticsand hated to do poorly at important meets. The resulting resentment andmiscommunications lead to Susan quitting gymnastics, which wasunfortunate and unnecessary.

The urge to critique achild's performance is very natural for parents. Yet many of the mostsuccessful athletes I work with share something in common: their parents'lack of criticism of their sporting performance. "They just wanted meto play and have fun," is a typical comment from an Olympic basketballplayer. Another told me "Mom and Dad never had much say in how Iplayed. They left that to the coach. But I knew they were always therefor me, no matter how I did." Sometimes just being there shows yourchildren what being a good parent is all about.

5. Stay Physically Active

Youwill probably not be shocked to learn that your child learns more fromobserving you than anyone else. If you strongly encourage your child toparticipate in a sport, but aren't physically active yourself, you aresending a mixed message. How can we expect our children to grow up tobe active and healthy adults if we ourselves are couch potatoes?

The psychologicaladvantages for parents to remain actively involved in sports andphysical activities while their children participate in sports aremany. It promotes an outer-directedness that helps parents look beyondtheir child and see the big picture. Being emotionally involved in yourown sport helps avoid spoiling your child with attention. It isdifficult to be very critical of your child's progress in a sport ifyou are constantly being confronted by how difficult it is to moveforward in your own sport. I know that, since I have taken up golf, Ihave gained tremendous appreciation for how difficult it is for anychild to learn the complex motor and cognitive skills of a sport. Thisgives me more patience for helping my children learn their sports.

In fact, I think the bestsport programs of the future will be those that include the wholefamily. What better way for children to learn to have fun and enjoysports than by sharing activities with their parents, siblings andfriends?

Dr. Shane Murphy is a sports psychologist and the author of The Cheers and Tears: A Healthy Alternative to the Dark Side of Youth Sports Today. 

Updated April 21, 2011


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