Two teams of preteen female volleyball players shake hands at the net.

6 steps to teaching sportsmanship to kids

My soccer teams have always been known for good sportsmanship. Through the years, coaches and parents from other teams have often told me that they like to play my teams, even when we beat them in competition, because my kids are basically “nice.” That says something.

What makes my players nice? In a nutshell, I coach them to play to win, but always honestly and fairly. Compete as athletes. Train hard, and then win by using your superior skill, fitness, and intelligence. Don’t compete with personal insults, or dirty fouls, or vulgar chants. We’re not about winning at all costs.

It’s about honouring everyone and learning what respect really means. Most people will agree that good sportsmanship means honouring everyone on the field of competition, including opponents, officials, parents, spectators, ourselves. However, not all kids learn this.

How can we teach our kids sportsmanship?

It’s really pretty simple. We need to recognize that kids imitate the significant adults in their lives. In their preschool and early elementary years, they learn their behaviour in the same manner as dogs and ducklings. Observation and imitation. It’s basic developmental psychology.

Who are the most significant adults in the lives of our children?

First are parents and principal caregivers. Next are teachers and coaches. Somewhere in there, depending on how many movies our kids watch and how old they are, we might count the influence of a few media celebrities, but this is seldom a significant factor before kids enter their teens. Sportsmanship begins to develop at far younger ages, if it develops at all.

I’m a significant adult for the kids whom I coach. There’s no doubt about it. Especially with my youngest players, I hear about them badgering their parents to buy little gifts for me, and they draw pictures and write homemade cards to give to me. Each time they see me on the soccer field, they are eager to tell stories to me about their pets and their new toys and funny things that happened to them that week.

It’s clear that these kids look up to me. And I have seen them imitate me. So I have learned to reflect on what I am showing them.

What are my actions and words telling them about my attitude toward opponents? My regard for the laws of the game? My respect for the officials and spectators? My own integrity as a human being in the larger arena of life?

I’m not the Dalai Lama, but I might as well be when I’m coaching kids. There’s a huge responsibility on my shoulders to model positive values and respectful behaviour. And I believe this responsibility sits on the shoulders of every coach, parent, and adult in the sport environment.

With this in mind, I offer offer six tips for teaching sportsmanship to kids:

1. Decide what you value

Decide what sportsmanship means to you—as a sport parent, and as someone who understands that your child’s lessons in the sporting arena will transfer into their larger worldview.

2. Talk with your child

When issues arise in your child’s sport or activities, ask them how they feel about things. Be an active listener. Let your child explore their own thoughts and feelings about what’s fair and what’s “right.” Children tend to recognize poor behaviour and injustices. Most of the time, you simply have to give them a reassurance that they’re not crazy and their impressions are accurate.

3. Talk with your child’s coach or instructor

Ask your children’s coach or instructor if they have a formal code of conduct for the players, the parents, and themselves. You might also want to convene a team meeting with coaches and parents to discuss expectations around conduct.

4. Compare and reflect

Compare your values with the codes of conduct, and compare them with the reality of observed behaviour—your own, your child’s coach or instructor, and the other parents.

5. Walk the talk

Ensure your words and actions are consistent with your stated values. Make sure that you, the coaches, and the other parents aren’t just giving lip service to sportsmanship. Remember, the kids are watching you and they’re going to imitate you.

6. Evaluate and improve

In the evening, reflect on your behaviour and speech around your child that day. Were you criticizing the coach? Insulting opponents? Gossiping about players or other parents? Being loud and obnoxious? Forgive yourself. But commit to getting better.

There’s no great secret to teaching sportsmanship. We’re the adults and the kids are watching. Set the example and the ducklings will follow.

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