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On the Sports Sidelines: Modeling Good Sportsmanship Is Key

Parents can set the right example for young athletes by demonstrating good sportsmanship on the sidelines. Here are some tried-and-true tips.

No play-by-play

No one likes to hear the "know-it-all" parent providing a play-by-play commentary on the game loud enough for everyone in the stands to hear. It's usually parents like these who, if they could hear themselves make remarks like, "The guard opened a huge hole for the running back. Why didn't he get the first down? We need to try someone else at halfback!" would ask, "Why the heck did I say that?" If your child has been the target of insensitive comments like these, you know how important it is to keep your criticisms to yourself.Parents watching sports contest

No pedestals

If your child overhears you putting her on a pedestal and singing her praises in front of others she may become afraid to let you down. It's easier for your child not to have you see her do poorly in a game than to be embarrassed in front of all the people that you brag to. 

Even if she does well, she is being put under undue - and unnecessary - pressure to perform. When that happens, she isn't having fun. When she isn't having fun, she is more likely to quit.

Besides, children develop at different rates. One day, the shoe might soon be on the other foot. Your child might reach a plateau in his athletic development and see other players catch up or even surpass him in ability.  Kids need to support each other and play as a team. Parents need to do the same.

Look in the mirror

How do you think your sideline behavior is perceived by other parents, coaches and players? Imagine what a video playback of your behavior would look like. Would you see yourself helping to clean the sidelines after a game or tossing a coffee cup on the ground in disgust after the opposing team has just scored its seventh goal? Would you hear yourself leading a positive cheer, hands clapping with a smile, or see yourself booing and making an obscene gesture at the referee? Would you see yourself smoking near the player's bench or handing out oranges to players at halftime?

Your child - and all the other players, for that matter - will have the best experience if she knows that you are on the sidelines supporting her and her team and that you have put the interests of the kids first and left your ego and personal agenda at home.

Children learn self-control by watching adults display self-control. Like a coach who remains calm and under control in tough situations, exhibiting good sideline behavior provides young athletes with an appropriate role model for handling the emotional ups and downs of competition.

Actions speak louder than words. Your efforts to teach self-control will be undermined if your child sees you losing your cool on the sideline and yelling at the officials.

Have fun

Nearly seven in ten 9- to 15-year olds in a recent study said they had seen a fan angrily yell at an official. Three quarters of the parents and coaches questioned in the same survey said they had witnessed such unacceptable and verbally abusive behavior as well.

Such behavior can negatively affect all the players. If you are supportive and positive in everything you say and do, it will spill over to all the kids, on both sides of the field.

  • Don't view the other team as the enemy.  Talk to parents in the stands from the other team.  If children see their parents in friendly conversation with parents from the visiting team, they will be getting a very important message: that the game isn't such a life or death, kill-or-be-killed affair that parents can't exhibit good sportsmanship.
  • Congratulate any player who makes a good play.  A good, clean slide tackle by the fullback on your team's star forward deserves a shout out just as much as a goal by your son or daughter's team.
  • Have fun.  If kids see you having fun on the sideline, instead of grimly pacing up and down like an NFL coach in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, they will keep the game in perspective and realize that they can be good sports and have fun too!
  • Don't condone poor sportsmanship. If a coach goes nuts over a referee's call and is ejected, whatever you do, don't cheer him when he goes into a rage, kicks an equipment bag and, instead of turning the coaching reins over to his assistant coach, leads the entire team off the field or court, forfeiting the game. If we as parents lose our perspective, we can't expect anyone else - least of all our children - to keep theirs. As parents we are our children's last line of defense when it comes to teaching them proper sportsmanship.

Give thanks

Most youth sports officials regard parent abuse as the most stressful and negative aspect of officiating, one that is driving many to quit officiating. Resist the urge to criticize the officials. Instead, take time at the end of the contest to thank them and compliment them for their hard work.

If you thank the officials, you will, as I often was, be rewarded with a surprised smile and some interesting observations about your child's team. Such expressions of gratitude go a long way to motivating officials to continue officiating and handle the inevitable criticisms by coaches, parents and players. Remember, most are volunteers and, often, young people themselves.

Adapted from the book, Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins 2006) by Brooke de Lench, founder and Editor-in-Chief of MomsTeam.com.