A Win-Win Situation: How to Teach Sportsmanship

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

How to Teach SportsmanshipBoard games, sports, and other competitive activities can bring families closer together as well as teach children important lessons about character. A friend of mine has a nephew who is so unpleasant when he loses, that she refuses to play board games with him anymore. He pounds on the table, calling the other players cheaters or making excuses that it wasn’t his fault he lost the game.

It’s naturally for children and teens to feel disappointment when they lose a game — especially in a society where winning gets attention and attention boosts self-esteem.

The Dangers of Poor Sportsmanship Go Beyond the Game

Without a parent to teach the child how to handle wins and losses gracefully, as well as healthy ways to boost self-esteem, competitive children can turn to winning to feel good about themselves. And it’s not just winning by skills alone on the volleyball team, but winning at all costs in other areas of life where they may be tempted to turn to stealing clothes to win peer acceptance, cheating on a test to get parental approval, or badmouthing a teammate to win attention from the coach.

Teaching Sportsmanship Begins at Home

Teaching good sportsmanship is like teaching anything else. Children learn primarily from what their parents model in their behavior. In her Life.FamilyEducation.com article, “When Good Kids are Bad Sports,” Susan Linn lists these questions for parents to ask themselves when they notice poor sportsmanship in their child’s behavior:

  • How do I behave when I’m playing games with my child? How do I react when my child makes a mistake, when he wins, when she loses?
  • How do I behave at my child’s sports games? Do I ever get visibly angry at the coach or the referee?

What to Do When It Happens

In the moment when your child is displaying poor sportsmanship, it’s important to react with calm empathy and to focus on teaching the behaviors you wish to see, just as you would when your child is having a tantrum or upset with something else. Here is an example of how to do this:

  1. Observe without judgment – “You look upset.”
  2. Open the lines of communication – “I’m here if you want to talk about it.”
  3. When your child does describe the situation, empathize – “Gosh, that would be frustrating.”
  4. Problem-solve with your child, letting him take the lead but clarifying any family values – “Let’s come up with some ideas about what to do if this would happen again.”
  5. Take the pressure off your child – “I know you really wanted to win, but it’s more important that you have fun.”
  6. Share examples from your life of feelings after you won or lost, and the choices you made in displaying those feelings – “I remember playing soccer when I was younger, and we lost our last game of the season. I was so disappointed, I even cried! So I decided to practice more, and when the next year came, our team played a lot better.”

How do you resolve feelings of disappointment in your child when he loses a competition or game?

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