Teaching good sportsmanship to our children is one of the great responsibilities of parenthood.
Unfortunately, “good” sportsmanship isn’t the only thing they can learn from their coaches,
teammates, and you. So, how do we go about teaching this valuable lesson to our kids in a culture
that seems to value it less and less? Good question.
I believe there are three elements to sportsmanship: rules, etiquette, and culture. As a coach and
as a parent, I try to pay attention to all three.
Rules. Rules are simply the structure of the game itself. Every sport has established rules that
provide the freedom to play, much like railroad tracks give the train freedom to travel. The rules of the game are the non-negotiables and the best way to teach those rules is by obeying them
ourselves. Cheating, in any way, is not just a bad example, it actually introduces the very chaos and
instability of life that sports can help us conquer.
Think about it– life is very confusing and difficult. It is full of ever-changing people playing by ever-
changing rules. Sports, at their best, invite us into a small world that can protect us from that chaos
by providing a clearly agreed-upon structure that encourages freedom of expression and friendly,
growth-inducing competition. When parents and coaches fail to teach the rules of the game, and fail
to obey those rules themselves, sportsmanship is not the only casualty. Chaos triumphs over
stability and security as well. Something for us all to think about when tempted to play our best
little league player a few more innings than the time allows, or tempted to secretly send coaching
signals to our budding tennis phenom.
Etiquette. Like rules, the practices of a sports’ etiquette can differ greatly from sport to sport. But
unlike rules, these practices are not enforceable by referees or umpires or league commissioners.
The practices of etiquette are not agreed upon by rules committees; they have evolved as a way for
sports to retain a spirit of courtesy and respect between combatants and for the game itself.
In tennis, for instance, you shake hands over the net after a match. In baseball, you line up on the
baselines and congratulate the other team with your right hands at the end of the game. In boxing,
you touch gloves at the beginning of the first and last rounds. In basketball, you volunteer your
culpability, after a bad pass, a defensive lapse, or a hard foul. And perhaps no sport has more
specific practices of etiquette than golf, from staying quiet during an opponent’s swing to avoiding
someone’s putting line on the green.
These “rules” of etiquette are not published in bylaws somewhere, nor even discussed between
opponents before a game, but violating them can arouse as much anger as cheating. Etiquette is
what makes the game humane, what elevates the game above animalistic conflict.
What is absolutely important is to focus on how you and yours adhere to these practices much more
than on how anyone else does. It’s easy, and important, to publicly call out rules infractions
committed by anyone involved in the contest. It’s equally important to quietly practice the etiquette
yourself without telling anyone else they should as well. This is an area where examples speak
loudest. So exhibit the best etiquette yourself, teach your child to do the same, and then both of
you be quiet about anyone else. When it comes to etiquette, it is far better to be viewed as an
example than ignored as a know-it-all.
Culture. This is the area of sportsmanship that is the least clear-cut, but can be the most
influential. All sports have a unique culture surrounding them, a culture which silently governs
attitudes, shapes coaching and playing styles, and can even influence personalities and relationships
outside the playing field. And it is because of this powerful influence that I advise parents and
coaches to pay very close attention to it.
Take football, for instance. Football creates and maintains a very unique culture, with both positive
and negative applications. On the positive side, football creates a very team-oriented culture. It is
perhaps the most team-oriented sport of all because of its relatively rigid position roles and
requirements. This team emphasis in football is a remarkable metaphor for all the
interdependencies that exist in life.
Another element of football culture that is not so positive, in my opinion, is the emphasis on
toughness, or even meanness. Just go to a Pony League practice and watch the wannabe coaches
running the elementary kids till they puke and then making them pick it up with their hands (I’ve
seen it happen). No sport carries the “go to war” mentality like football, and that part of football
culture is the reason behind the current concussions controversy in the NFL, as well as newly
discovered dogfighting craze among NFL athletes. “Toughest is best” is football at its worst.
Thankfully, there are scores of examples of talented, successful football players who demonstrated
incredible toughness while also exuding respect for their opponents, their own bodies, and the idea
that it is still only a game. Walter Payton comes to mind as an example from my youth; Peyton
Manning shines today. These men were able to follow the rules of football competition, practice
exemplary etiquette toward other players and the game, and exist as “tough, but respectful”
beacons within the football culture.
There are other players in other sports who are able to succeed in their sports without fully
succumbing to the worst parts of the culture of those sports. Wayne Gretsky never fought in a
hockey game. Jack Nicklaus never cursed on a golf course, and never talked badly about another
player. Tim Duncan never talks trash on the basketball court. Roger Federer never loses his cool on
the tennis court (but he does host a pizza party for the ball boys & girls at every tournament). Talk
about these players with your spouse in front of your kids; root for these type players on TV; invite
your kids to admire them with you.
It is our job as parents and coaches to shape the culture of our families and our teams. Ask any
business leader how difficult it is to shape the culture of a company–it ain’t easy. But the truth is
that shaping a culture happens anyway. Every second of every day we function as leaders. How we
behave as leaders constantly shapes our surrounding culture, both positively and negatively. How
we cheer for our teams, how we talk about other players and opponents, how we speak with the
coaches and other parents, whether and how we volunteer for snack duty, how we confront rules
violations — all of these are constantly shaping the cultures of our families and our teams. And the
kids are not just watching us, they’re inhaling the cultural air around them.
There is no magic recipe to follow to make our kids into respectful competitors. I can only offer a
viewpoint that helps us remember that how we participate in sports is a character issue, one that
can extend far beyond the boundaries of the court. And since, according to our ScreamFree
Parenting philosophy, the greatest thing we can do for our kids is focus on ourselves, this is
character issue first and foremost about ourselves.
Hal Edward Runkel, MS, MMFT, LMFT, is one of America’s leading experts on family relationships.
A therapist, relationship coach, seminar speaker, and organizational consultant, Hal is the founder and president of
Scream Free Living, Inc., and the author of Scream Free Parenting. Visit: www.screamfree.com