Use playing fields to teach life skills

Those of us who've made a few trips around the sun know that in life, you win some and you lose some. The sooner kids understand this reality and learn how to handle failure, the better off they'll be. Competing in sports is a great way to teach this important life lesson.

"Winning is exciting. Losing is disappointing. The key to coping with either is to understand that these are temporary states," says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, author and clinical psychologist.

Sporting good behavior

Rather than condoning rude, self-centered behavior from athletes as "just part of the game," like throwing tantrums when an official calls a foul on your team or throwing a cheap shot at an opponent, coaches and parents should use competition to teach lessons in how to be a good sport, which basically boils down to being kind.

"Team sports provide great lessons in sportsmanship," Kennedy-Moore says. 

The Institute for the Study of Youth Sports (YSI) defines sportsmanship as "…a striving for success, while maintaining a commitment to being fair, honest, and respectful [and] to following the rules—all of which is synonymous with being ethical or moral."

YSI also says research concludes that, "Athletes who focus on self-mastery and personal improvement…are more likely to perceive the purpose of sport as teaching values such as working hard, cooperating with others, and becoming good citizens…Individuals who focused on beating others more often viewed intentional, injurious acts as legitimate and were more tempted to violate sportsmanship attitudes and behaviors."

What does sportsmanship look like in action? Kennedy-Moore suggests, "A caring coach and post-game rituals like giving the other team high-fives and going out for ice cream together can help your child learn to take competition in stride. Team sports are also an opportunity to focus on improving skills. Even when your child’s team loses, there can be small victories in making a good shot or playing good defense."

Beyond sportsmanship

While playing games and participating in competitions offer kids many lessons in what it means to be a good sport, they also can offer lessons in and help build character in young athletes. And just like all other behaviors children learn, acting with good sportsmanship and with character are best taught when adults—namely parents and coaches, model them.

That's what CHAMP (Character in Athletics—Make it a Priority), a Fort Collins-based organization, works to help parents and coaches understand. CHAMP's mission is "…to help the community deliver a character-focused athletic experience and reinforce a positive character foundation in our student-athletes."

Jason Barrett, CHAMP board president, explains, "For us, character goes beyond what you do on the sports field. It can last well beyond a game, season or career. Sportsmanship is what you do on the field. Character is not only displayed during sporting events, but it's a lifelong trait. It's how you act when no one's looking."

What can parents do?

"Parents can be a huge part in using the outcome of sports to teach character lessons," says Burkett. In the parent training's CHAMP offers, parents are told, "Don't be a win-at-all-costs parent. Games aren't just about winning and losing."

The group also recommends parents do they following:

Before the Game

  • Speak greatness into your child.
  • Tell your child you are proud of him/her regardless of how well they play.
  • Focus on their attitude and effort.
  • Remind your child to play hard and enjoy the competition, and that it is “ok” to be nervous; it is normal.
  • Make a commitment to yourself to act appropriately no matter what others may do.

During the Game

  • Understand your role; you are a fan… not the coach or an official.
  • Let the coaches coach. Avoid giving your child or other players advice during the game.
  • Pick the “right” seat or surroundings for growth.
  • Cheer good plays and good efforts by both teams.
  • Mention good calls by officials to others.

After the Game

  • Stick around for post-game with the team.
  • Thank the officials for doing a difficult job.
  • Thank the coaches for their effort.
  • Let your child tell you about the game, avoid giving your post game analysis unless asked.
  • Tell your child again that you are proud of them, especially if the game did not go well.
  • Take your child out for a treat regardless of their performance. Ice cream is always great!