Team sports help children learn many important lessons, such as doing your best and being gracious about winning or losing. Or, at least, that is the way most parents hope it will be.
When our daughter Maya, 5, joined a soccer team for the first time this spring, my husband and I were hoping the coaches would spend as much time working on sportsmanship as they would on kicking the ball into the net. We felt that too much emphasis on scoring and winning would give our girl, who as the youngest of the family has already developed a strong desire to prove herself, the wrong message a about competition.
The first practice, Maya strode onto the field and, with all the accumulated confidence of her years, announced that her team was going to win.
While I appreciated her enthusiasm, I wanted her to see that winning wasn’t the main reason for playing soccer. I wanted to explain to her it was about teamwork, camaraderie and the pure joy of a game well played.
Thankfully, the coach started off by emphasizing how important it was to be on a team and play together. The girls were introduced to drills focusing on the fundamental skills of kicking the ball and passing. When they finally played a short game against their companion team of 4- and 5-year-old boys, most of the kids had no idea which net to aim for. It didn’t matter. Anyone who scored was applauded and all the kids shook hands and celebrated at the end of the “match.”
According to experienced baseball coach Alain Lefort, this is the way it should be. “You need to put the fun before the win,” he says, adding that teaching kids to play fair teaches them about “the way to live your life.”
“The guy who gets angry and shouts at his son’s coaches is the same guy who cuts into the line [of traffic] on the Mercier Bridge,” says Lefort, a coach for nine years with the Ligue de baseball Vallee de Richelieu and past president of the Association baseball de Candiac. “We are there to develop players who will also be good members of society.”
Lefort says coaches and parents need to believe in and repeat a consistent message about sportsmanship. Team sports, he says, “are about participation and not competition. If you play on our teams, it’s about a combined interest in sports, camaraderie and friendship.”
He suggests that, regardless of the sport parents chose, the youngest players should not focus on competition. “You just want to get them interested in the game through fun drills that teach them the basics and keep their interest,” he says.
“By the time they are 6 or 7, they want the challenge of trying to get the ball and you can move into different levels of play.”
No matter how old they are, it’s always important for the players to shake hands, congratulate each other on wins and stay focused on improving their own personal performance.
Lefort says that adults play a key role in helping young people to handle the strains and disappointments of competition.
Good parenting behaviour needs to be complemented by good coaching, according to Lefort. “In a recent game, one of my players gave the finger to some parents from the other team who were yelling at him. I got up and told the parents to control themselves, and then I benched the player who did this. They need to see it won’t be tolerated.”
Most of all, parents need to learn to relax so that there kids will too. “Some parents ask for their kids’ statistics but the kids never do,” Lefort says. “The kids want to know if I’m OK with their performance. They just want to know that I’m proud of them.”
How to promote sportsmanship
Get involved: Lefort says the best thing parents can do to emphasize good sportsmanship is to get involved in their kids’ sports. “Even if you have no athletic ability or interest in sports, you can still get involved. Get on the team administration. Bring Popsicles for the end of the game. Volunteer to help drive other players to games.”
Focus on individual improvement: If your child has outdone herself on the field, it doesn’t matter if the team lost. Maybe she scored more goals than she ever did before, or made a great save. These are reasons to celebrate.
Build team spirit: Whether they win or lose, a team that has good collective spirit learns a lot about working well with other people. The player who scores the winning goal still needs a teammate to pass him the ball at the critical moment.
Know your child’s strengths: Not all kids go for organized competitive sports, preferring individual activities such as karate, swimming, dance or skiing. “Parents think that just by putting their kid into organized sports, the kids will learn to love it,” says Lefort. Figuring out whether your child prefers to compete against himself, against one other player in a sport like tennis or squash or on a team may take some good-humoured experimentation.
Reward effort: “The result always comes second to me,” says Lefort, “as long as they do their best to get the ball, I don’t care if the player actually catches it or not. I don’t mind mistakes, but I won’t tolerate lack of effort.” Parents should make sure to encourage the kids who try their best whether or not they win the game.