Sportsmanship: Let’s Lose Win-or-Else Attitude

by Susan Gower

Sports do not build character. They reveal it.
— Heywood Hale Broun
Every day, participants, fans and youth sports officials are verbally and sometimes even physically harassed, often by overwroought parents. The National Association of Sports Officials says it receives more than 100 reports annually of physical contact between coaches, players, fans and officials.

For instance, a western Pennsylvania parent body-slammed a high school referee after he ordered the man’s wife out of the gym for allegedly yelling obscenities during a basketball game. The referee suffered neck injuries and a concussion and couldn’t work for a year. The father was convicted of assault in 2005 and his wife received a $300 fine and court costs for her involvement in the incident.

How did matters get so out of control? About 30 million kids are involved in organized sports outside of school. Seventy percent of them will quit by age 13. Sometimes they quit because adults with a “winning is everything” attitude are taking the fun out of participation.

Learning Sportsmanship
Fred Engh, president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports and author of Why Johnny Hates Sports (Square One Publishers, $14.95), explains that it is important for parents, coaches and administrators to make sports safe, fun and positive. Even young children can learn to be good sports by learning life skills such as how to be unselfish, share, abide by rules and have fun playing games with others.

Engh observes that “we, as parents, become so engrossed in the winning, we forget that they simply want to play.”

In recent years, the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) has expanded from training coaches and league officials to training parents. The Parents’ Association for Youth Sports (PAYS) is a membership association for NAYS. It educates parents and youth leagues to promote good sportsmanship, by encouraging parents to take sportsmanship classes and sign an ethics code.

Karen Partlow, national director of the American Sport Education Program, tells parents to ask themselves “what’s your first question after a game? Is it ‘who won?’ or “did you score’?

“Kids catch on quickly that winning is important to you. Instead, emphasize the process of having fun and improving skills.” In other words, she says, parents need to model good sportsmanship. Win or lose, shake everybody’s hand. Find something good to say. Above all, make sure your young athlete knows you still support him, even if he did single-handedly blow the championship game. Especially then.

Local Observations
Is the foul play in youth sports really worse than it used to be? Kathy Shaw, vice president of Glendora (NJ) Girls Softball , has been involved in youth athletics for 20 years. She says she’s seen years of good parent behavior alternate with bouts of really bad years. “The past few years have been really good,” says Shaw of her softball team. “It depends on the league.”

Bob Robinson, president of the Upper Darby Youth Soccer Association, says he has yet to have a bad experience with parent conduct. “We have pretty good parents,” says Robinson, “They are aware that a fun environment can easily transform into something stressful.”

Shaw requires her parents to fill out a Parent Code of Conduct Form when they register their children, pledging that they won’t do anything disruptive. “We’re here for the kids,” says Shaw, “We don’t tolerate aggressive behavior from parents.”

In the past, Shaw has seen parents go so far as to persistently heckle her catcher. She told them they had five minutes to leave the field before she called the police.

“Any foul language, anything over the line and they’re out of there,” she says with conviction. Usually disruptive parents just yell or are generally loud. They get a warning.

However, Shaw says, if parents are at all abusive or doing something counterproductive to her athletes (a common insult being: “you suck”), they’re promptly asked to leave.

Although the past few seasons have been relatively calm, Shaw is resigned to the reality that it won’t always be that way. “You’re always going to have a problematic parent,” she says, “They get vocal.”

Caught Up in Emotion
Robinson has a different view of loud parent participation. “They get caught up in the emotion of the game,” he says of his soccer league. He admits that his older league does receive more parental pressure than his younger players because older kids are playing to win, not just learning the basics.

Shaw says that the intense competition for college athletic scholarships fuels a great deal of the urgency parents have when their children are on the field. A star youth league athlete could become a high school star, then soar into the college on scholarship. That won’t happen, of course, unless the child gets plenty of time on the field. Or if the referee didn’t blow that call. Pressure to succeed conveyed by shouts from the stands seldom helps, says Shaw.

“If anything, the children are embarrassed,” she says.

 Experts agree that participation in sports contributes to the development of social competence and self-esteem.

But author Fred Engh believes that we have lost perspective of what sportsmanship means. ”We must return the game to the children. We forget that these are our children at bat, not us, and that we all have our strengths and limitations. It’s getting ugly out there.”

Is good sportsmanship a lost art? Let’s hope not. Maybe, by focusing on our own attitudes, we can rebuild good sportsmanship, one game at a time.

Susan Gower is a freelance writer.