Posted: Sep 17, 2014 5:00 AM
 
A new school year means a new team sport for many kids, and competition on the field can affect how kids relate in the classroom. When parents focus on kindness and sportsmanship, kids learn to work together. When parents focus on competition and winning, poor social skills can emerge.
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Kids love to win. Even if you have a fairly mellow, not-so-competitive kid on your hands, chances are winning becomes an issue at some point. As kids grow, they begin to evaluate themselves in relation to others. Somewhere between the ages of 7 and 8, children begin to compare themselves to other children. In doing this, they learn from other children and begin to consider their strengths and weaknesses. What might sound to a parent like a child complaining about not being good enough, is actually a child attempting to figure out what he does well and where he might need help. In the process of self-discovery, a competitive spirit can emerge.

Spend any amount of time on a playground and you will see kids of various ages negotiating rules as they start a game of tag or hide and go seek. Often, they debate the "best” version of the game before initiating play. As the play begins, there is always at least one child who bends the rules to avoid being tagged or found. “Time out” is a favorite among young children when the going gets tough and some will even describe complicated rules to prove that being tagged “didn't count.” It's hard to lose when you're young, and it is perfectly normal for kids to find workarounds to avoid losing. The problem, of course, is that losing is part of life and kids need to learn how to lose with grace and dignity.

High level competition and specializing at a young age appears to lead to more time spent on technique and less time addressing the social/emotional part of the game.

Youth sports were once a place to work on life skills such as teamwork and sportsmanship while playing a favorite sport, but with the professionalization of youth sports came a shift in how kids experience team sports. High level competition and specializing at a young age appears to lead to more time spent on technique and less time addressing the social/emotional part of the game. With more than 20 million kids playing youth sports in America, that's a lot of missed opportunity.

As it turns out, those playground games and pickup games at the park provide essential learning opportunities for kids of all ages. Free from coaches, parents coaching from the sidelines and the pressure to succeed, kids can actually get down the business of getting along and supporting one another through group play.

Sportsmanship defined

While a handshake at the end of the game is considered a symbol of good sportsmanship, there is more to being a good sport than offering a high-five to an opponent. To be a good sport is to engage in ethical, appropriate and fair behavior while playing the game. To be a good sport is to be gracious in winning and losing, and to respect the game during play. Sportsmanship involves playing fair, following the rules of the game, respecting the judgment of referees and officials and treating opponents with respect.

To be a good sport is to be gracious in winning and losing, and to respect the game during play.

Sounds simple, right? The only problem is that the win-at-all-costs mentality that dominates youth sports today leaves little room for things like respect and playing fair. In fact, the behavior of parents and coaches has a profound effect on sportsmanship. When parents blame others for losses and lose control on the sidelines, they set their kids up for a lifetime of poor sportsmanship.

Most kids don't go on to play professional sports and those college scholarships are hard to earn, but kids can learn to love the game of their choice and learn some valuable life lessons while engaged in team play.

Teamwork helps to build skills

Learning to work in groups is an important life skill. From group projects in school to navigating office politics in the future, kids need to learn how to work together. When kids are taught to find the positive and build each other up, they learn to compromise, work as a cohesive group and rely on one another's strengths.

Teaching kindness and compassion on the field leads to a more positive attitude off the field, as well.

Teaching kindness and compassion on the field leads to a more positive attitude off the field, as well. Learning to navigate the ups and downs of winning and losing, understanding and respecting rules and working through peer relationships within the context of the team helps kids relate to others in a positive manner and teaches them to manage frustration and other emotions within groups. These are essential life skills that will help kids as they grow, but only if we take the time to teach them. We have to put sportsmanship on a pedestal (instead of trophies and wins) if we want kids to internalize one very important message:  Everyone matters, and everyone has something to offer.

Friendships thrive

Poor sports love to blame others for losses and missed plays. Poor sports look for a cause for the loss. More often than not, they blame their teammates. You can only play the blame game for so long before people start to walk away. Teaching good sportsmanship during team play leads to improved friendship skills on and off the field.

When kids learn to look for strengths in others, they engage in positive interactions with peers. While parents can be hypercritical of other kids, most kids are hardwired to see the good in their peers. Kids want to make new friends, play together and have fun. Promoting sportsmanship instead of winning helps kids focus on working as a group while improving interpersonal skills. And that's better than scoring the game-winning goal every Saturday, if you ask me.

Tell us!^ How have you encouraged your child to practice good sportsmanship? Can your child improve upon his or her sportsmanship?

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