Sportsmanship starts at home

Sportsmanship has no synonym in my desktop computer thesaurus.

The only words that come close are "sports person," "sporty" and "sports education." I suppose that’s an indication of our times since I have Microsoft Word 2000. And I read sports pages.

The kind of sportsmanship most commonly seen in the news is bad sportsmanship. Athletes behaving unbelievably lousy!

Parents physically fighting each other after a U-10 soccer game? A father and uncle punch out a coach and his assistant because a relative did not carry the ball enough? A middle school official is hospitalized as a result of being attacked by fans after a game? A youth coach dies from injuries inflicted while being attacked by a parent? What will it be next month?

And who are the attackers? Ninety-six of 100 are adults. First- and second-year coaches expelled from games outnumber the experienced coaches eight to one. And where did all this start? It built up from supporting our teams and players with verbal (and even silent) name-calling to self-induced anger to physical action.

You know, some people only win when they beat up on someone.

But that’s not you and me, right? No, but we may cheer when Roger Clemens brushes back a batter and boo when he throws a bat in the direction of Mike Piazza. All three high school pitchers I asked had the same opinion, "That’s part of baseball."

And four middle school basketball players agreed, "You have to protect your teammates and take no crap."

A cross country team agreed that, "Sportsmanship is before and after the race." Yet one of their runners stopped during a race to ask a fallen opponent if she was O.K. That runner finished fourth and might have been first. She’s the kind of champion sports ought to teach kids to be. Still, if she were your daughter, should she stop during the state meet?

Dr. Glen Galligan, a powerful mentor of physical educators and master teacher at Washington State University, emphasized that each member of any group (team) must be aware of the effect of his or her remarks.

I understood his message: "To coach groups toward a common good, everyone must understand the issues."

During the 1950’s, maybe because bad sportsmanship hadn’t become an epidemic, sportsmanship was not a grave issue in youth sports. Maybe too many of us participating in a game or on the sidelines did not understand the issue. Or maybe we understood, but disagreed that it was an issue.

Some of my fellow coaches, I am sure, considered sportsmanship irrelevant. We can’t be proud of what we have allowed sportsmanship to become.

Kids on teams are taught, like any group of adults, to feel responsibility for what they do. And maybe we forget we are coaching individuals attached to a group to think and work as one. It’s called togetherness and loyalty and dedication and spirit … and with kids, it’s learning to be what they see and hear.

We can’t be proud of what they are seeing and hearing. We can be aware of what sportsmanship is doing in every situation, especially the outward signs of the good, bad and ugly. For, as a parent, there goes my daughter or son.

Consider sportsmanship as the result of decisions — think-first decisions. A part of youth sports education is that no team can avoid making decisions. The team and individuals will face an issue and a decision must be made whether they want to or not. And others are watching.

The team, plus you and I, may agree to react, act or not act. Whether that spur-of-the-moment decision is made openly or by forfeiture of reason, the group doesn’t choose whether to decide, but rather how to decide. An effective group makes decisions openly. Poor leadership forfeits reason and responsibility for what is being done.

Decisions on sportsmanship are made before and after they occur. Both should prevent poor and encourage good. Both should clarify that the responsibility for decisions lies with the team, the family and the school community … individually and collectively.

Coaches know kids don’t always understand when the same points are made over and over. It’s not just the kids, WE don’t understand sportsmanship is education. Maybe it should be called "Character Education" and then some federal subsidy might solve OUR problem.

With open discussions about the realities of team-accepted behavior and an understanding of fair play, school sports become far more rewarding and productive for OUR kids.

Start with the home team since sportsmanship is a home-team advantage. Practice each day for one week, without pads or scrimmages. Have the team meeting during dinner and decide on a sportsmanship game plan using the daily answers from these questions:

1. Which poor sportsmanship behaviors did you observe today? Each family member reports a "finding" each day for a week. Include "team family" sportsmanship.

2. For what reasons do you think acts of poor sportsmanship are allowed to go unchecked?

3. Why do members of a team blame the coach (leader) for things that go wrong?

4. Give one responsible act of playing fair you observed (or gave) today.

Sportsmanship assignments are never over. They are observable on the courts, heard in the stands, predictable in words and language. And they are obvious enough while traveling on highways.

I — and any others who will listen — would like to understand your team family sportsmanship plan. To your children, it is what they see and hear.

Sportsmanship starts at home. Maybe after the elections we adults can rediscover the relevance of sportsmanship.

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