Easy Ways to Teach Children About Good Sportsmanship

My son’s youth soccer coach has five simple team rules:


  1. Respect the game.
  2. Respect the coaches.
  3. Respect your teammates.
  4. Respect the refs.
  5. HAVE FUN.

That’s 80 percent sportsmanship, 20 percent fun and 0 percent mention of winning.

Most teams don’t put that much emphasis on good sportsmanship, but I think they should, especially at a young age. The simplicity of the message is spot on.

If you are lucky, your child’s coach will also give everyone a clear message of expected behavior. But why count on the coach? Doesn’t good sportsmanship begin at home?

You’ve probably kicked a soccer ball or tossed a football or baseball with your child, but have you taken the time to talk to him, or to her, about what good sportsmanship means to your family?

Defining sportsmanship is not easy, especially to a child. My son’s coach did a great job starting with the concept of respect. That’s something young children can understand.

Having a conversation about good sportsmanship will likely include concepts such as fairness and integrity. Respect and self-control are not too far behind.

Get Specific to Explain Good Sportsmanship
Kids respond to specific examples. It may be hard to teach a child about integrity. But it’s much easier to give them examples of right and wrong. I played on a golf team during my childhood and often was in a group with a player who liked to bend the rules.

Sometimes he would do it when he thought others weren’t looking. In other cases, he would suggest to the foursome, “Let’s all take a stroke off of our score on this hole.” There were no officials monitoring each group. Players were left to the honor system. This is a great example of lack of integrity.

When I coach youth basketball, I sometimes let the players call their own fouls during scrimmages. Talk about a lesson in integrity and fairness! It’s interesting to see each child’s different perception of fairness. But I think it’s a good lesson for them to figure things out on their own without parental or coach involvement.

Tip: Children aren’t the only ones who need to be good sports when participating in team events! Keep these sportsmanlike tips for parents in mind when watching your child play sports.

Now back to your own family—a great way to teach your children is to start a list of specific good and bad behaviors in youth sports. Here are some ideas to help jumpstart your list:

  • Good sportsmanship is shaking your opponents hand after a game.
  • Poor sportsmanship is blaming others for your team’s defeat.
  • Good sportsmanship is acknowledging a good pass or play from your teammate.
  • Poor sportsmanship is being emotional after a call by the official that you don’t like.
  • Good sportsmanship is approaching a game with the thought, “I won’t cheat or complain.”
  • Poor sportsmanship is throwing a helmet or bat down on the ground after striking out.

You get the point. Now, after you are done with your list, ask your children for their examples of good and poor sportsmanship. I’m sure they will be willing to share what they have observed. Combine your thoughts with your child’s. Your family’s “code of good sportsmanship” can be a living, breathing list that evolves over time. Keep it on the fridge so everyone can remember the importance of good sportsmanship.

Working together, I’ll bet you will come up with quite a productive list, and you will have some great conversations along the way. Visit our Youth Sports Program page for more information about how to keep children involved in positive character-building activities.

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