The Parent Coach: Coaching Sportsmanship

A parent writes, "I'm having a problem with my 9 year old son. He's doing fine in school except when it comes to recess. The daily football game, and other league competition, is too much for him. He argues, becomes defensive, and even screams at and kicks other players at times. What can I do to make him see that the more he argues with the other boys, the less they like him, the less they will throw to him, or even play with him?

There is nothing like competitive sports to unleash the "reacting side" living in all of us. This term refers to the strong feelings and pressures that fuel angry words and behaviors. It is contrasted with the "thinking side," characterized by a calm awareness of what's going on around us even when we don't like what we see. Unfortunately, the world of youth sports has seen a series of feverish reacting sides hijacking the sensibilities of parents and children. This appears to be due in part to the narrow focus placed upon winning and the ego-dominated interpretation of decisions made on the playing field.

Children and teens are told to show sportsmanship but need models to follow. If parents and coaches don't lead the way, and take the time to explain the thinking side skills involved, some kids will fall into the clutches of their reacting sides. Tolerance in the face of the other's errors, accepting decisions that one disagrees with, sharing responsibility for the wins and losses, and showing resilience when disappointed, are among the skills that all of us need to retrieve when the competitive fires are blazing. Here are some tips for coaching sportsmanship:

  Make the discussion of sportsmanship as essential to sports as the skills learned.
Coaching self-control during competition needs to take of a more primary role in youth sports. If your child's coach is not going to do it, parents must step up to the plate. While watching games with your child, use opportunities to point out how players succeeded or failed in the sportsmanship challenges they faced. Ask open-ended questions to see if your child can recognize his/her reacting side triggers when they are in the spectator role.

Explain how the ability to stay calm under pressure requires thinking side skills.
Many children don't take the time to ask themselves, "What do other kids have that allows them to stay in control when I freak out during games?" When the timing is right, pose this question but be sure to have quick answers. Explain how thoughts act as doorkeepers to managing feelings and actions. When a person is able to think about events in a more logical and proportional manner, using "big picture thinking," they are much better at keeping their cool when things don't go their way. Offer tangible tools to rehearse and retrieve during competition.
One way to strengthen the thinking side is to help your child examine the self-defeating thoughts that go through their mind during games. "That was so unfair!" and "I'll make him pay for that one!" fire up the reacting side. Explain how other thoughts such as "Not much I can do about it now," and "I've got to keep my cool," can stem the tide of a rising wave of anger. Emphasize the importance of monitoring one's thinking during games, and periodically telling themselves, "Keep it in perspective." Demonstrate what "perspective" is by drawing a " measurement line of terrible things" with notches from 1-10. Show how a #10 event might be the death of loved one, #9 might be a serious injury from a car accident, and a #3 might be losing a football game. Point out how they can learn not to let their reacting side experience a #3 event as if it's a #10 event. Refer to this measurement system when events take place at home to help with the "re-calibration" of their perspective.