You’ve been on the sidelines of the netball court (or soccer pitch, etc) cheering and encouraging. You’ve avoided saying anything about the shoddy refereeing being done by the 15-year-old. You’ve ridden the emotions of your child’s game as they’ve had a go, become bored, let the ball go past, or maybe even scored for the team. And you’ve done it all because you believe organised sport is good for your kids. It teaches life lessons. It keeps them fit. It builds resilience.
Regardless of whether your child wins or loses, you’re winning right? They’re at sport… and you’re supporting them.
But even if we get it right there are times when the kids don’t. There are bad sports – on the sidelines and on the field or the court. How do we handle bad sportsmanship?
During the game, bad sportsmanship is ugly. It can lead to foul play, cheating, name-calling, and exclusion. But after the game it can feel even more personal. Refusal to shake hands, or even cheers of “we smashed you”, or “sucked in losers” feel low. Gloating is mean-spirited.
And then there’s the child who wins but sulks and complains that the other team didn’t offer much competition, or that she didn’t make a better time, rubbing it in the other kids’ faces. “Yeah I won, but I still sucked. It’s that the opposition was just super hopeless.” We know bad sportsmanship when we see it.
It’s not about winning or losing… it’s why you play
The way our children respond to the outcome of a game is less about the score and more about their reasons for playing in the first place.
Studies show that when kids participate in sport for intrinsic reasons, such as a desire to master the sport or to enjoy time with friends, they demonstrate better sportsmanship. Winning is a by-product of their increasing competence and they build stronger relationships. On the other hand, when kids participate in sports for extrinsic purposes, such as for social status or popularity, they tend to display poorer sportsmanship. Winning becomes the measure of success, and their accompanying sense of importance, status, and prestige.
This means that our job as parents is to change the conversation we have about their participation in sport. It’s an old line – but it’s not whether you win or lose. It’s how you play the game – and why you play the game.
Imagine this conversation:
Child: That team was full of cheats. They played so dirty. And the ref was the worst ever.
Parent: How did you feel about how you played? How did your team come together? What did you learn to help you be a better sport?
Our children will become better sports when we talk about what they’re learning and how they’re enjoying being with friends. And when the game is over, our job is not to coach. We should ask two questions after each game:
- Did you enjoy yourself?
- What do you want for a treat on the way home?
Use smaller moments as teaching tools.
Small moments give us regular opportunities to teach our kids. For example, when you’re playing a board game at home, or during a game of backyard cricket, your child might show poor sportsmanship. Maybe he’ll cheat or swear or become excessively angry. Perhaps there will be name-calling.
In those moments invite your child to take a break. You might say, ‘things are getting pretty intense’ or ‘it’s probably good if we all take a break’.
When things are calm we can ask, “What matters more? Winning? Or having a good relationship with the person you’re playing with?”
There’s loads of evidence that shows that an over-emphasis on performance and outcome is associated with lower resilience, more unethical behaviour, and lousy sportsmanship. But for children who aren’t about winning at all costs, but instead value relationships and skill development, sports can be truly character-building.
When you know you’re winning.
I recently saw a video of a high school basketball game. A boy with developmental difficulties, Mitchell, was assigned as “team manager” for the season. He loved basketball but due to his mental delays Mitchell had never put on the team singlet to play. Before the final game of the season, his coach decided that regardless of the score, Mitchell would play the last few minutes of the game. The coach wanted to give him the experience he longed for – to wear the team singlet and play with his team. With a few minutes to go, the coach put Mitchell into the game. They were only a few points ahead of their opponents.
Mitchell’s teammates knew the stakes. They had to win the game. Mitchell was lacking in skill. But they decided to help him get a basket. Three times they passed the ball to Mitchell so he could take a shot. Twice, he missed. The third time he fumbled the ball and it went out of bounds. There were only seconds until the final hooter.
At the throw in, opposition player Jonathan Montagnes, made a snap decision. Rather than passing to a teammate, Jonathan called out to his opposing player, Mitchell. Then, he threw the ball directly to him. Mitchell was stunned. He caught the ball, stared at it, and then turned and took a shot. He scored the basket. Mitchell’s team won by a wide margin. And the crowd went wild.
But the real winner that day was someone else. A young man who knew that relationships matter, kindness matters, character matters, and that it really is just a game. My guess is that for Jonathan Montagnes, losing a game has never felt so good