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How Do We Teach Sportsmanship to Young Children?

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I have become one of those grandparents that I used to watch with disdain. I go to my grandchildren's basketball games and scream and shout and cheer with pleasure! If I yell too loudly, I am admonished by them that I was too loud because they could hear me, but if they don't hear me cheering for them, I am admonished that I was obviously not paying enough attention! It's all very confusing, but one thing I know is true: It can take only a minute to model poor sportsmanship by a parent who goes over the top and does the unthinkable... yells directly at one of the players!

This was the case last week when I heard our very calm and soft-spoken assistant coach yelling at a parent to "Leave this gym!" This mother went directly up to a little boy who was playing successfully on her child's opposing team and yelled "You are disgraceful! You are disgraceful! Your family needs to go to anger management!" This poor little 10-year-old boy began to shake as the coach ordered his mother to leave the gym. All of the parents at the sidelines gasped for the sake of the children.

I immediately wondered what kind of affect this would have on the teams as they both stood there, wondering what was happening. What did happen was sheer beauty... Our head coach went up to the other coach and asked him if he would participate in bringing both teams together in the middle of the gym so they could shout a cheer for basketball! It was not about who was winning or loosing, It was simply an exercise in coming together for the sake of the game with their backs turned away from the badly behaving mother. The boys all put their hands together and shouted "Have fun!" and then "Sportsmanship!" I was deeply moved by the spontaneity of the moment and the modeling of the coaches for the sake of the children.

The mother approached the coach after the game to apologize for her behavior, but it fell on deaf ears. The game was over, and the boys had been saved from her explosive outburst.

Too often, it is the parents who are so vested in their children's accomplishments that they forget that it is a game and a learning tool as well. These will be the children that burn out quickly as they go through school, because they are trying so hard to please their parents instead of learning sportsmanship and true enjoyment of the game.

Has having fun become so old-fashioned that they forget their children are there to build confidence, not just skills? They are there to learn sportsmanship, not just the thrill of winning. Most importantly, the children are there to share their enthusiasm for the game with their parents and teammates. These are the years that mold them into interesting and motivated adults, not just all-stars and athletes.

I urge you as parents to enjoy the fleeting years of childhood. Perhaps it is cliché to say that we will never get the years back, but it is so true. Support your child by being interested and even by cheering loudly (sometimes), whether it is basketball or piano or science projects. That is what they will remember, not the score or the grade. They will remember that you were there, and they had your support along the way!