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Published 2003, Christian Home and School

Ten Tips for Raising A Good Sport

by Patricia Fry

"Strike three!"

Eleven-year-old Brandon couldn't believe his ears. He threw down his bat, turned and screamed at the umpire, "That was no strike!"

The umpire confirmed his call, "You're outa here!" And the team's star player stormed into the dugout, plopped himself down on the bench and sullenly stared at his feet.

His teammate, Douglas, walked by on his way to bat and said, "Good try, Brandon. You'll knock that ball over the fence next time."

And then Douglas struck out. "That guy pitches them really fast," he said with a smile as he jogged into the dugout to retrieve his glove for right field duty.

How can two youngsters have such different attitudes about the same sports experience? Dr. Darrell J. Burnett, clinical and sports psychologist, explains in his article, Attitude in Youth Sports: Parents Set the Tone. "If a child sees the game as a game, with an opportunity to learn skills, compete, increase confidence and have fun, they're able to go with the flow and have fun and relax. Overall, they show a sense of humor and a sense of good sportsmanship. If they see the game as a pressure-filled event, with winning as the only acceptable outcome, most of their energies will be spent trying not to make mistakes. If they make mistakes, they'll use a lot of energy making excuses, blaming others, complaining about officials and etc."

Most parents sign their children up for organized sports activities hoping that they will become more physically fit and coordinated and that they'll learn self-discipline, teamwork and a sense of responsibility. Parents also expect their children to learn good sportsmanship.

What many parents forget, however, is that they are their children's most predominant teachers. While children will pick up some of their ideas about the world from others, parents have the greatest influence. And this is true whether you're talking about Christian values or sportsmanship.

According to Jack Hutslar, founder and CEO of the North American Youth Sport Institute, "Sportsmanship is like manners in sport." But says, "It's very difficult to implement with the social influences that push kids toward the idea that you do anything possible to win."

Social influences include the media, youth sports coaches, other players, but most of all, parents. Following are tips for helping your children enjoy the sport and to grow within the sport without the handicap of poor sportsmanship:

1: Encourage a program that's appropriate for your child. God has designed children with different fitness levels, skills and interests. A robust boy with lots of energy might enjoy youth football or soccer. An active, well-coordinated youngster might prefer basketball or tennis. A reserved, shy kid might be more comfortable competing in tennis, swimming or track. If you're not sure what sport best suits your child, pray for guidance.

2: Keep the emphasis on learning and fun rather than winning. Dr. Burnett advises parents and coaches to focus on the process not the end result. He says, "Adults are usually preoccupied with end products: wins and losses, points, touchdowns, hits, etc. If this is conveyed to kids, they become preoccupied with winning at all costs and then sportsmanship is hard to develop." Ask for God's wisdom in helping your child keep a healthy attitude about his/her sport.

3: Focus on building your child's self esteem, not a trophy collection. Remind her that her strengths and abilities are gifts from God. And then encourage her to use her God-given talents to set goals she can easily reach. Rather than coaching her to score every time, help her with batting practice and base running techniques. Instead of criticizing him for his bad throws to second, work with him on making accurate throws at a closer range. If the child feels successful at something, he will become more motivated.

Dr. Burnett adds, "It's important early on to teach a kid that it's okay to make a mistake. Many kids are so afraid to make a mistake that they stop trying or they overreact to a mistake because they see it as a tragedy. The sooner a kid accepts mistakes as stepping stones for learning, the sooner he/she will start enjoying the game—any game." Remind your child that when he disrespects himself, he disrespects the Lord.

4: Highlight your child's individual progress. There's always something worthy of a compliment even after a bad game. Say, for example, "You made a really good block on number 7 in the 3rd quarter." Or "You sure played hard out there." Or "I noticed how well you backed up third base today." Give him the message that doing his best is more important than getting that hit, basket, goal or touchdown.

5: Help your child to have reasonable expectations. Sometimes kids get really down when their team loses a game. That sense of despair often comes from disappointment. Help your child to put things in perspective. Remind him that sometimes his team will score higher and sometimes the other team will get the most points. Some experts suggest teaching kids that one team may win, but no one loses, especially if everyone played his/her best and had fun doing it. Ask your child how he thinks Jesus would react after losing a game.

6: Avoid living through your child. Be sure that you've encouraged your child in this sport for all of the right reasons. And then allow him to develop personal skills at his own rate. We've all seen a father who considers his child an extension of himself, when it comes to sports. He is proud when his child does well and embarrassed when he does poorly. Of course, a parent feels a sense of pride when their child excels. This is natural and it's okay to show it. But balance this with a show of support and understanding when the child has an off day. Your son or daughter needs to know that you're proud of him/her as an individual, not only as a star player.

7: Turn a bad game into something positive for the child. When your child is upset because she feels that she had a bad game, focus on what went right. Ask your daughter what she would have done differently and offer to help her work to improve a skill. Hutslar offers this, "Youngsters who play sports learn rather early on that they receive rewards when they win and nothing or even abusive punishment, both verbal and physical, when they lose. Parents and coaches can help youngsters lighten their load so that winning and losing does not dominate their lives."

Some experts suggest that if there are awards for athletic achievement, kids should also be rewarded for sportsmanlike conduct. And what is sportsmanship, but Christian-like behavior.

8: Model good sportsmanship. "As parents, if we're looking to develop a positive attitude in our kids, we would do well to watch our own behavior at athletic events," says Dr. Burnett. "Do we give positive encouragement or make critical, judgmental remarks? Do we show a calm demeanor or heated overreactions to mistakes? Do we praise participation or game statistics? Next time you go to a game remember your attitude is showing and your kids are watching."

9: Point out examples of good sportsmanship every chance you get. Your children are well aware of your value system. They are exposed to it every day in every way. They see you return to a store after someone gives you too much change. They hear you speaking kindly of friends and neighbors. They notice when you open the door for an elderly gentleman even when you're in hurry.

Make sure your good example spills over into the realm of sports. I overheard a parent the other day say to her daughter, "Did you see that player on the other team help your friend, Brenna, up when she fell after making that shot? That was a nice thing to do." This type of comment will impact a 9-year-old girl.

10: Make sure the child is involved in a well-rounded array of activities. A child tends to become more intense about his sport if that's his only focus. Hutlsar suggests, "Balance is a vital concept. Operationally, it means play a variety of sports, learn to play several positions in each sport and do well in school. Developmentally, we should seek to foster lifetime participation by children (and then adults). There should be neither dumb jocks nor bookworms when the final verse is written. Both winning and losing can be tempered with other activities. However, if sport is the only thing in their life with meaning, it will be hard to change their way of thinking."

So go ahead and sign your kids up for sports. And then make it a positive learning experience by exemplifying good sportsmanship and Godliness.

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