Most parents would admit that they want their sons to be good sports. With a few notable exceptions (and we’ve all seen them at Little League games), parents are proud when their sons conduct themselves well on the sports field and are embarrassed when their sons are either sore losers or ungracious winners.
For some boys, coaches are the best teachers of good sportsmanship. For others, though, good sportsmanship is a lesson best learned at home. And if your son doesn’t play sports? Learning to be a good sport is still an essential life skill, one that will serve him in many different environments over the years.
Teaching your son good sportsmanship can actually start in playgroup when he is a toddler. While one typically thinks of good sports as those athletes who know how to accept defeat graciously, a good sport is also one who knows how to share. In sports, knowing how to share may take the form of not being a ball hog in basketball or not trying to snag someone else’s balls in the outfield in baseball. In playgroup, knowing how to share means not having a fit when another child takes your toy, or offering to let another child play with something you have.
Of course, to an extent toddlers are programmed not to share. It is developmentally appropriate that they guard their toys jealously. Teaching them good sportsmanship from this young age does not necessarily mean insisting that they never put up a fight if another child takes a toy away from them. Instead, it means beginning to teach them to have a gracious attitude regarding what they consider to be theirs. The beginning of good sportsmanship teaching may be as simple as validating their feelings, while letting them know that there is a better way of handling them. For example, “I know you love your Elmo toy, but try letting Evan play with it just for a couple of minutes; then you can have it back.”
Often, the root of poor sportsmanship on the field is the feeling that one has been robbed a victory that was rightly theirs. The same dialogue that was used when your child was a toddler is still appropriate. “I know you think your team should have won that game, but you can still congratulate the other team. It’s okay to talk about the reasons you think you should have won in the car in a few minutes.” That way, you’re letting your son know that while it is okay to have those feelings, there is a right and a wrong place to express them.
Of course, there are cases in which unsportsmanlike behavior is never acceptable. Such cases include sassing a referee, hitting someone, or ignoring the coach. Even more than bad sportsmanship, though, these infractions reflect, simply, bad behavior. Fortunately, in most cases, the rules of the game take care of disciplining such infractions.
There is no mystery to teaching your son good sportsmanship. Start when he is young. Be consistent. Model sportsmanlike behavior yourself. Teach him that while winning is important, and should be the end goal of the game, winning poorly is not really any kind of victory at all.