Raising Good Sports in a World of Poor Sports: 6 Ways to Teach Children the Way to Play the Game


Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman

The weather’s getting awfully nice here in New England. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and the kids are outside playing sports. Which gets me thinking…

As adults, we often turn a blind eye to bad sportsmanship when it is glorified in the media. Heck, some adults join in on the banter. Quotes and questionable behavior from angry, volatile players and coaches is often excused in the heat of battle. We love our sports, we love our players, and secretly, we love a good rumble.

In 2004, around the time that Boston’s beloved Red Sox “reversed the curse” and won their first World Series in a long, long time, the fifth and six graders from Merriam Elementary School in Acton, Massachusetts took the spirit of the game into their own hands. They wrote to the owners of the Red Sox, the Yankees, and the Commissioner of Baseball himself to see if they could inspire a truce for the benefit of the children:

“We think sportsmanship is very important. We have observed in the past few years that the Red Sox – Yankees rivalry has gotten too extreme. Fans and players everywhere are getting too worked up about what’s just a game. Fights between two teams are not necessary because fans and players can get hurt. Our idea is that the Red Sox and Yankees should shake hands…If the players shake hands and don’t have violent fights, it will set a good example for kids of all ages who look up to them. All of us here play sports and at the end of each game we all shake hands. So we think that if younger kids show good sportsmanship, Major League players also should.”

And so the Merriam Handshake Project was born. It received national press and $10,000 in scholarship money to back outreach efforts to teach others about sportsmanship. Imagine that. Sometimes children need to remind us about what we are supposed to be teaching them.

Let’s get back to the basics and teach our kids to play fair. Huddle up; this is what we need to do:

Seize Teachable Moments: Whether you’re watching a game on TV or attending a school sporting event, you can always find “teachable moments” regarding sportsmanship. Ask your child her opinions of players who showboat and taunt their opponents, games that are riddled with technical fouls and penalties, and teams that argue and trash talk. What advise would your children give the players if they were in the position of coach? During these “teachable moments” ask open-ended questions and listen more than you talk.

Discuss it: If you see your child showing poor sportsmanship, make sure that you discuss his actions and address it accordingly. If your child is involved with an activity or team where poor sportsmanship is the norm, speak with the instructor or coach to make your concerns known. When poor sportsmanship is a constant part of the game, you may want to reevaluate your child’s participation in that particular activity or on that specific team.

Model Positive Sportsmanship: Remember, your child is watching you! Are you booing the other team? Yelling ugly things at the umpire or referee? On the flip side, are you offering complimentary words to the other team when they have a nice play? If you want your child to show good sportsmanship, take a look in the mirror, and make sure you are showing the behavior you want you child to emulate.

Be Their #1 Fan: When watching your children participate in a game or match, shout words of encouragement instead of directions or criticisms. Remember, your children look to you for praise—they have a coach that gives them directions and sometimes, unfortunately, dissatisfied teammates to provide criticisms!

Check your ego at the door: Many adults know that it is alright to lose if someone has tried their best. However, some still fail to display good sportsmanship. Researchers show that some parents are living vicariously through their children and therefore get wrapped up in winning the game or the competition. Along the same lines, some parents push their children into playing to win because they have unrealistic expectations of their child and feel that their child will be the next superstar. Challenge yourself to check your ego at the door—and remember that your child is in it for the fun and the positive experience!

And perhaps most importantly, if your child is frustrated by consistent poor displays of character among his athletic idols on TV or even among his own teammates while in competition, teach him to Take Action! This is when leaders are born. Upon reflection, you might wonder if the voice of a child could make any difference in sports world. But it can. Just ask the students of Merriam Elementary.

Webmaster’s Note: Portions of this article were originally printed in Bay State Parent Magazine, where Dr. Robyn is an expert parenting columnist.

Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman is a child and adolescent development specialist whose programs and services are used worldwide. Known as “The Character Queen,” she’s the creator of the Powerful Words Character Development program used by top-notch professional after-school programs around the world. Dr. Robyn is also a success coach for parents, adolescents, and educators, who are looking to achieve their goals, improve their lives or improve the lives of others. She is a writer and professional speaker who presents to schools, hospitals and organizations that focus on children or families. Interested in doing some coaching with Dr. Robyn or having Dr. Robyn present a seminar? Please get in touch at drrobynsblog (at symbol) gmail dot com

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3 Responses

  1. […] Raising Good Sports in a World of Poor Sports: 6 Ways to Teach Children the Way to Play the Gam… Categories […]

  2. I wrote about it a few weeks ago in my blog but I was an referee in a U14 boys soccer game. Highly competitive game but when it was all over I had a player refuse to shake my hand. I had some paperwork to give to the coach after the team line and hand shake was over. This player that refused to shake my hand was standing next to the coach when I got over there. I said to him…”Can we shake now.” and stuck my handout. He said no and refused to shake my hand. What surprised me most was not the 14 year old boys reaction or lack of sportsmanship but the fact that his coach said nothing to him. I was shocked. The coach had a great educational oppurtunity in front of him and he didn’t jump on it. When you sign up as a coach you sign up to teach the game, sportsmanship is part of the game….

  3. […] Olympians showing respect for themselves and their fellow athletes? How do they show respect and sportsmanship for the judges and their fans? How do you show respect to others each […]

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