Call To Arms : Teaching Sportsmanship

Since Nick was about 18 months old, we’ve I’ve dreamed about what sports he would play when he grew up. At 3 months old I inquired about swimming lessons. “Not until he’s 6 months old” I was told. Nippers? 5 years old, same as soccer, little athletics, and any sport really! At 3 I inquired about tennis lessons. “About 6-7 is when they really start to get their strength” the pro said.

I grew up playing golf, tennis and volleyball as my main sports, but would give anything a go, given the chance. My mum didn’t particularly care what we did, but we had to do something. We weren’t the kids who hung out at the cinemas and shopping centers on weekends with friends, we were always off to some event or another.

So now that he’s finally in prep, and swimming is over for the winter, he’s enrolled in tennis and soccer, both of which he loves and has a ball at (sorry, no pun intended!). The problem comes when he doesn’t score a goal OR when the other team (in soccer) scores a goal. There are tears, sometimes there is stomping off the field. He even cried when someone on his team scored a goal, because it wasn’t him. And this past Saturday he told me one of the kids on his team punched him. I didn’t see it, but he was really upset and he wouldn’t have been that upset over nothing.


Here I am, finding myself at the doorstep to every future sporting experience my son has. I think it’s important to make these experiences good from the start, or they won’t want to come back. I want to find that delicate balance that lies between coddling him and pushing him back out there with a “Suck it up son!”

But where do I start? How do I start? The word “loser” has come out of Nick’s mouth on several occasions. I know it is because he’s heard it at school, but I’m unsure of the context. I want to nip this in the bud before it gets any bigger.

The problem is….I haven’t exactly always ever been the best sportsmanship award candidate. I may or may not have (ok I definitely have) uttered phrases like “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the ONLY thing” or “2nd place is 1st loser” in the past. I am competitive. I don’t like to lose. Before I had kids, I thought “participation awards” were dumb. First, second, third if you must, but nothing for coming last! Now that I have a kid, who will be going through the heartache of losing, the trials and tribulations of sportsmanship, honesty, doing the right thing, dealing with cheating/cheaters, I am terrified.

How can I preach something I haven’t practiced? How can I support and encourage him without making him feel pressure to win or be the best? I have to admit, this is why I struggle with running…If I can’t be really good at something, then I don’t want to do it. I don’t want him to fall into the same mind frame.

So, parents, I’m calling on you all to point me in the right direction – books, blogs, resources, personal experience….now that we are venturing into the wide world of children’s sports, what pointers do you have for ensuring it’s a positive experience? For us both!?

Linking up with Jess for IBOT, because it’s Tuesday and that’s what we do. Won’t you join us?


40 thoughts on “Call To Arms : Teaching Sportsmanship

  1. Oh, Aroha! That’s a tough one! I’m competitive too (Just ask Mr Surfer and our games of Scrabble that have turned into full on battles!). But I guess for me, I remember the disappointment (and the anxiety) that came with losing and I definitely don’t want my boys to experience the same.
    Criticism was big in my family as I grew up and I’ve sworn never to be the same to my children.
    I hope that I’ll be the kind of parent that tells them that effort is far more important than winning. xx

    • I really want Nick to ENJOY it. I don’t want him to think winning is everything, like I did (and still do – I hate losing when I play tennis!). Am going to have to focus really hard on the FUN.

  2. All you can really do is keep on telling them that winning isn’t everything, it really is all about trying your best. Miss 12 has been on some shocking basketball teams, they would get bounced around the court and faced all kinds of terrible losses. I was always so proud of the the way the the girls handled it. Taking it all in their stride, knowing they had tried their best just beaten by a bigger team. When they did win the wins were even sweeter.
    Maybe spend some time with him watching sport and talking about the losers and how they did such a good job and tried their best, the recent US golf thing with all those close putts would have been a great example. As long as you keep reminding him his best is all he needs to do, eventually it will sink in.

    • We have been trying to watch some soccer on youtube, and I think we may take him to see a friend’s sons play a gam, so he gets the idea. Will just have to keep telling him! Watching and explaining is a great idea!

  3. Oh A – I will mail you over the next few days so that I don’t highjack your post. It’s so hard.
    Sending heaps of love, hugs and positive energy !

  4. We’re having the same problem on the footy field. Easy Peasy Kids had a good post about building resilience recently. Accepting defeat is a hard one, especially when we invest so much in winning. Good luck with this. I’m interested in how you get on.

  5. Aroha, it’s a tricky one isn’t it? You don’t want to push them too hard, but you don’t want them to feel bad if they don’t win every single time!
    Bell’s not a huge sports fan, but we made her choose a sport to participate in, even though she would rather be painting or playing her guitar. She started tennis this year, and even though I’m pretty sure we won’t see her at Wimbledon, she absolutely loves it!
    I think as long as Nick is enjoying himself at the moment, that’s the main thing. xx

    • He really DOES enjoy it, but just doesn’t handle “losing” (technically it doesn’t even count! it’s supposed to be fun!) well at all. I’m sure the more it happens the more he’ll get used to it (I hope!)

  6. I am probably the opposite. I may not put enough emphasis on winning which may make for a world of mediocre for my kids. My philosophy as a cheerleading coach has always been to place the emphasis on fun, spirit, commitment and belief. If you work with those things then I can safely say “we’re already winners, anything else is a bonus”.
    Anyway, that’s just my philosophy. May not be the right one … but it’s the one I use for building confidence and resilience in kids.

    • I think there’s a delicate balance. My parents never got upset at me for not winning, yet there was still that desire to, yet I didn’t really work hard enough to. I think you need to encourage without pushing, but it’s tricky getting the balance right.

  7. We actually have a little boy on our team that gets very deflated if he doesn’t score at least one goal each game. My 6 year old doesn’t care luckily, because he usually doesn’t get the chance to score a goal (there are a few quick little players that are all over the place).
    You could encourage him to cheer on his team when he is on the sidelines, and to even appreciate when the other team gets a good goal or makes a good save. So perhaps he can learn it’s about the skill and team spirit rather then the outcome.
    Would he be different if you weren’t there watching? I know someone has to be there, but if you say you are just going to go to the toilet or get a coffee and watch from another spot for awhile.
    That’s a tough one!
    #teamIBOT 😉

    • We’re trying to get him to high-5 his team when anyone scores. He just doesn’t really get it yet. He still tries to take the ball off the kids on his team! I am sure he would be a bit different if I wasn’t there watching. I think we’re just going to have to be consistent in our message until he gets it. I might talk to the 2 coaches about it a bit too.

  8. I’m not much help – when Mr almost 19 was playing soccer, they lost pretty much every game so he learnt fast! I think he was more interested in kicking the ball and then sliding on the grass afterwards – he could never kick it without performing this maneovure – hilarious!

    Visiting from #teamIBOT

  9. Yep I’m competitive too! I hate to lose.
    I always tell my kids that losers are the ones who haven’t given their best. If you didn’t do what you know you can, and you didn’t win, that’s a reminder you need to try harder next time. Learning to be a part of a team is a hard thing, but he will get there. Emphasise that your family is a team, and when one person does well, you all win. Also you can try preparing him for some loss at home playing board games and the like. Or even doing races. Don’t let him win every time, but encourage him to lose graciously and congratulate the winner.
    My only other advice would be, if he can’t get it, and accept losing, he might not be mature enough to play. I would consider using that as a consequence. “If you can’t be happy for the other team, or your own team, then you will have to miss out.” It’s harsh, but it’s unfortunately a harsh lesson to learn too.
    Good luck xx

    • I remember the first time he didn’t beat me up the stairs to the front door, oh my gosh, the drama! We’ve been playing snakes and ladders with him and we don’t always let him win. I got stroppy one day about something, cant’ even remember what now, and he says, “Mummy, you can’t ALWAYS win!” So maybe he DOES get it a bit, just needs reminding?

  10. To be able to lose is something parents of today are trying to make sure our children never expereince. It is good for them to learn how to and that just turning up makes you a winner. Can I recommend as a teacher that you change your language with him. Start small and play board games at home – don’t always let him win. Play soccor in the backyard and again let him score goals and you also score goals. He is still so small so he is still maturing and may not be quite up to this stage of competition yet maybe.

    • I should clarify, that whole “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” and “2nd place is 1st loser” were all pre-baby terms. I’ve never spoken like that to Nick, and it’s certainly not the emphasis I want put on sports at the age of 4! We have played snakes and ladders with him and he’s not always won, so he DOES get that to an extent. Perhaps he just needs to be reminded more often. The funny thing is, it’s not even a competition, it’s a 15 minute pretend game at the end of the lesson, so there is absolutely ZERO pressure to win! We will just keep telling him the same thing – FUN is what matters!

  11. I’m insanely competitive but I think it’s okay for adults to be because we can understand consequences, rationalise things and not get upset when we lose. However, for kids I think it is a fine line between pushing them to win win win or say that everyone is a winner. I just tell my mine it’s about doing the best they can, and trying their hardest, putting everything they’ve got into it, because we can’t all be winners and if kids don’t learn this life is going to be super tough as they grow and lose a lot more. xxx

    • You’re right. We can’t all be winners! Maybe I’ll make him watch Cars over and over again (again) now that he’s older so he can see that Lighting McQueen didn’t win the race, but was still a winner! Even more important than winning the race!

  12. I’m not very competitive but my youngest struggled heavily with being both a good loser and a good winner. We play lots of board games and take any opportunities to work with her on focusing of the fun (focusing on who is winning detracts from staying in the moment if actually playing), never giving up (games turn around completely sometimes – so also don’t be arrogant when doing well) and celebrating other people’s successes. Good luck xx

    • We were watching the triathlon in Auckland this morning and he kept wanting to know “who won?” so I took that opportunity to try and explain it didn’t matter who won, they were all incredible athletes! Will just keep battling away!

  13. I don’t know really, I reckon there is too much emphasis on fairness these days. I like to give kids credit that they can learn from winning and from losing.

    My son who is 7 struggles a lot with losing, but he’s getting there bit by bit. Each time he has a tantrum it gets lessened, I think it’s getting through to him.

    • Thanks Josefa, I hope we find the balance soon too! I’m sure we will get there, but it’s a tad embarrassing when he has these melt downs over other kids scoring goals on the soccer field!

  14. Gawd. It’s so hard. The thing is though that life is so much easier in hindsight. He doesn’t need to know (and hoping he doesn’t read this post!) that you had the same struggle. I think it’s about tapping into what’s driving him (like I know what I’m talking about in this age group! but this is what I would do), and enticing him to be the best him without putting others down – not necessarily telling him this will mean he won’t put himself into the firing line, but just knowing he will appreciate everyone’s strengths – and have compassion for the weaker moments. Not easy. So not easy. X

    • Thanks Pip! I think putting him in soccer was the best thing we could have done! I had no idea he was like this, really, so hopefully being in the situation several times will help us guide him and help him figure it out.

  15. I like Jess’s option! But, It is such a hard lesson to learn to be happy when others succeed and you don’t, I think we all struggle with that sometimes. You sound like your on the right track to figuring it out!! I hope he can learn to enjoy sports and have fun! x Karen

    • Great point Karen, it’s probably a little bit human nature to an extent to be disappointed when someone else does well and you don’t. That’s all I want, for him to have fun! We can focus on winning when he’s older (geez, see, there it is again! I can’t help myself!)

  16. I have no suggestions, but I hear you. When D Man hated swimming, we stopped, but he loves ball sports. I was born to be a soccer mum, yelling from the sidelines every week. As he gets older and it turns into actual games, I have no idea how it’ll be. I’d like a follow up post to this in a few years please!!

    • Yes, I found myself perhaps being too enthusiastic about their little scrimmage at the end of class last week. I need to keep myself in check! At least until he’s older and “real” competition starts! HA!

  17. I can’t help here Aroha because I’m not a parent and I was always terrible at sports. I was reading you and I was thinking what does your husband say about this situation? It’s a difficult one… But I think it’s important to teach from now that in life there are wining and losing, it’s all part of life. He can’t win all the time and more important, he has to learn to move on.

    • I think we’re both a bit baffled as to how to guide him to a more sportsman/gentleman-like conduct. And a bit curious as to why he feels upset when someone (especially on his own team!) scores a goal!

  18. My Mr 18 is now playing cricket at a senior level where it is pretty much all about winning or losing and we went through a similar situation to yours when he was younger. The important thing is to make the game about MORE than winning or losing. Talk about skills to him, (his and his teammates and even opposition), talk about the rules. Point out to him good things he and his teammates have done, or improved on. Also, if you see another kid with bad sportsmanship – talk to your child and use it as an example – sometimes it can be like holding up a mirror to them and they figure out very quickly that the people they like playing with and for, or even against, are the ones who have good sportsmanship. Concentrate more on the technical aspects of the games and the learning of skills and mention all the time about the improvements he is making. Kids sport is not about winning or losing – it’s simply about learning. Shaking hands with your team mates, opposition, referees and coaches is as much a part of the game as playing – teach him to give compliments to everyone, even if it is only a little one and to look them in the eye when they shake hands (even if the other person doesn’t). Like most parenting – hype up the good, play down the bad! There is alot more to enjoy about all sports, besides the end result of a game or a season. Good luck x

    • Great advice here Ash, thank you heaps! I think since hubby and I were both competitive and successful in our respective sports, we only think about that level of it, and are struggling to go back to the beginning, to the learning, the learning to LOVE it and have fun, learning the rules, how to be a gracious winner AND loser…just need to take that big step back and make it all about him and the level he is at, not the level we got to in our fields! Thanks!

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