You know how they talk about Philly sports fans being super aggressive and yelling criticisms at their own teams and, um, throwing snowballs at Santa Claus that one time? Picture that, but instead of a bunch of grown men who get paid a zillion dollars a game, it’s a bunch of 8 year olds who go to school with your kid and whose parents you have to see in the pickup line on Monday morning. And some well-meaning parent is yelling at them. You know, to motivate them! ?
It’s not a great look. And no matter what you want to believe…kids are learning more from our behaviors than they’re ever going to learn from our parenting monologues. If I tell my kid to be a good sport and then my husband and I spend the ride home calling the ump an idiot, well…you get the picture.
Winning graciously is hard. Losing graciously is harder. As a fellow person who hates to lose, I presume the question you’re right now asking yourself is: how the heck do I teach my kid good sportsmanship?
I’m glad you asked. Here are some tips:
1. Lead by example. One of the best ways to teach kids how to lose at sports is by modeling good sportsmanship yourself. If parents or coaches are seen accepting defeats and managing their emotions positively, it will be easier for children to do the same. Children learn better by observation than by being told what to do. “Do as I say, not as I do” is, in reality, not really a thing.
Another important lesson for kids and parents alike: SPORTS ARE NOT LIFE. If the Eagles losing on Sunday (Monday? idk) ruins dad’s whole day, then we have a problem. We are leading by example, but in the opposite direction.
Sports are important. So are family, music, art, fun, food, relaxation, extracurricular clubs, volunteer work, faith, academics, friendship, health and fitness. Model a life of balance for your kids.
2. Praise effort, not outcome. This goes for more than sports, by the way. In academics as well, hearing “oh my goodness I can tell you worked so hard on this!” ultimately means a lot more than highlighting the letter grade at the top of the page…especially if the letter isn’t an A. A more consistent message would be to say that effort, hard work, perseverance, and commitment are what matters, and then acknowledge those factors in the face of their efforts.
Acknowledging their efforts and progress every time they participate in sports plays a crucial role in developing the child's self-esteem regardless of the outcome of the game. This approach creates a sense of accomplishment, leading to an increased motivation and drive to continue participating in sports. Parents and coaches must provide positive feedback rather than criticizing a child's performance or focusing on winning. Not only that — parents and coaches need to watch how they talk about other parents and even themselves in front of the kids. Saying it’s ok if your child is imperfect means little if you openly berate yourself or criticize others for flaws and failings.
3. Encourage sportsmanship and fair play. When I played softball (very unseriously), at the end of every game both teams would line up, stick out our hands, and then walk past each member of the opposite team high fiving each player while saying “good game” each time. The coaches would shake hands at the end. If a member of the opposite team got injured, both teams would kneel until the person stood up and was clearly ok. 30 years later, these are the things I remember about playing a sport, and they’re the things I want my kids to experience as well.
Parents and coaches must emphasize the importance of treating opponents, referees, and teammates with respect. Children must be taught to play by the rules and not resort to unsportsmanlike conduct, such as using foul language or cheating. We take accountability for our mistakes, we learn from them, and we move on. We are proud of our accomplishments, we internalize the feeling of pride from the hard work that went into the game, and we congratulate the other team on their efforts. We do not scream at the volunteer ref who we will probably see later at the Wawa with their kids. We are adults setting an example.
4. Progress, not perfection. Teach your kiddos to celebrate their improvement, rather than just focusing on winning. In my house, we try to talk about “YOUR best” rather than being “THE best.” Coaches and parents can help children by tracking their progress and milestones, and acknowledging them. This will reinforce the idea that the journey is just as valuable as the destination. If we wait to be the best to be proud, we may never get there. Celebrating all of your little wins is motivational and contributes to self esteem building.
My favorite workbook to teach growth mindset: a.co/d/5O7vNiz
(free kindle download available!)
5. Provide opportunities for growth. Parents and coaches can provide children with opportunities for growth and development, such as attending clinics or playing with more skilled opponents. This will expose children to new challenges and help them improve their skills. It will also teach them that learning and development are ongoing processes, and help them recognize that to be good at something you sometimes have to start at the bottom. Encouraging kids to try new positions on the team, new techniques, or even new sports/activities can help to highlight the benefits of not just doing the one thing that makes them feel confident or accomplished.
BONUS TIP: SUPPORT SUPPORT SUPPORT. Creating a positive and supportive environment is crucial in helping children lose, AND win, gracefully. Coaches and parents must work together to foster a safe and encouraging environment, where children feel valued and supported, regardless of the outcome. This will help children develop a positive self-image and feel motivated to keep working to improve, as well as helping kids to avoid internalizing external achievements as their only measure of self worth.
Thoughts? I’d love to hear them! Drop them in the comments, and thanks for reading! Take care of yourself ❤️