Sportsmanship 101: Let them play

One man practicing sportsmanship is far better than a hundred teaching it. ~Knute Rockne

It was the summer of 81’. The game was coming to a close, and the sun was starting to set over Mallory Park while that brilliant afternoon heat baked our dugout. To a certain degree, the game paralleled that famous scene in, "Casey At The Bat." Like the team in Mudville, we were losing (we were always losing.) The only time we won that whole season was against the second to last place team, and we celebrated like we had won the Little League World Series. And yet, we had a ringer. Like Casey, his arms were like tree trunks, his shoulders were powerful and broad, and in the setting sun, I believed I could make out a 5 o’clock shadow, which is pretty impressive for an 11-year-old. In my memories of our teammate striding up to bat, Ernest Thayer’s epic poem resonated in the moment . . . "The rest clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast; they thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that—." Once our young version of Casey got set in the box, another sort of drama began to unfold. A wiry lady with a cigarette dangling from her lips took up residence at the backstop fence. She was pacing back and forth like a caged tiger while shouting supportive remarks to her son. "Let’s go! Give mama a home run! You got it right here, baby." STRIKE ONE! Then the lady turned into a spider monkey. Truly, it is an image I cannot forget to this day. She had scaled the backstop fence and was starting to hurl remarks at the umpire. "There’s no way you can call that a strike. My boy is not going to swing at something in the dirt!" STRIKE TWO! Our boy was angry now, thinking the ump had a personal vendetta against him. His Mama further transformed into a rabid spider monkey - she had climbed about three feet up the fence, cigarette still in her mouth, launching epithets like napalm on everyone she thought was against her boy. She was blistering the coach, the umpires, the opposing parents and even the poor kid controlling the scoreboard. WHACK! He let it fly. The ball soared out of the infield with a perfect arc right into the center fielder’s glove. Like the defeated Mudville gang, our game was over.

Sports fans spectating

As an adult, I remember the end of that game with such clarity because even as a kid I think I knew it represented terrible sportsmanship. This blog isn’t long enough to discuss the vast compendium on sportsmanship, so I’m just going to hit the high notes and hopefully lead those of you who are interested to peruse other resources. My disclaimer is that everything that I will discuss on the good, the bad and the ugly of sportsmanship I have also demonstrated on the field, the sideline or in the stands. I have stamped my feet, gnashed my teeth, doubted coaches, seethed at refs, rallied other dads with my battle cry and glared at opposing parents with vitriolic disdain. I have four boys; athletics is part of our daily routine, and I am not immune to the passions generated by seeing my child struggle on a field. In fact, I have imagined myself standing at a podium, looking out at other bleary-eyed parents and sheepishly muttering, "Hi, my name is Beau Sasser. I used to be a bad sport, but I have been a good sport now for one month . . ."

First, let’s define sportsmanship. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA 2003) defines the concept as, "the set of behaviors to be exhibited by athletes, coaches, officials, administrators, and fans (read: PARENTS!) in athletic competition. These behaviors are based on such fundamental values as respect, fairness, civility, honesty and responsibility." This is an excellent definition of how we should act on and off the field. In Mike Matheny’s illustrious book, "The Matheny Manifesto," he wrote a long letter to the parents of his Little Leaguers, stating that if they wanted their kids on his team, then they had to follow his rules.

He had three goals:

  1. Teach these boys how to play baseball the right way.
  2. Make a positive impact on them as young men.
  3. Do all this with class.

I find that these three points summarize true sportsmanship. For me, the basis of athletics is to get kids out and let them play. They can acquire not only a game to love and a skill set to hone for the rest of their lives but also quality life skills such as teamwork, character building, work ethic and respect for opponents. Cal Ripken is often cited as an athlete who symbolizes true sportsmanship because he focused on mastering basic skills and achieving personal goals. The focus is on the process instead of the outcome, so the pressure to be the best is alleviated.

In my opinion, the main obstacles to this approach are often a child’s parents. This thought is two fold : firstly, I think that due to the current helicopter-parent phenomenon, every parent is on hand to constantly monitor practices, games and every player substitution to make sure little Johnny gets a fair shake. They are hyper present in their children’s daily activities. Secondly, as referenced by Goldstein in his article, "Promoting Sportsmanship in Youth Sports," he states, "Many parents fail to acknowledge that youth sports are not adult’s recreation. Many parents want their kids to win badly because their own ego is overly identified with their children’s performances and because they envision future college scholarships and professional sport riches."

Baseball coach talking to player

I believe that every kid should have a dream and reach for the stars, but the chances of being the next Adam Wainwright or Morgan Brian are slim. A marginal 0.5% of high school seniors are drafted by MLB and only .09% of high school seniors are drafted by the NFL. It is wonderful to dream and strive for excellence everyday but just as important to be realistic about what it takes to reach that next level. Unfortunately, parents get so carried away that they take their frustration out on the coaches, refs and opposing parents. The rub is that the athletes model this behavior and wander down the path of bad sportsmanship by also bantering at refs, exhibiting bad behavior on the field of play or by taunting and fouling opposing players.

Not only do young athletes model their parents’ bad behavior, but they also model the behavior of college and professional athletes. This is problematic and leads to poor sportsmanship when they witness a yahoo like Duke basketball player Grayson Allen intentionally trip an opposing player during a game. Or even worse, when Maradona, a highly skilled Argentinian soccer player, scored a goal in the 1986 World Cup using his clenched fist (soccer = NO HANDS). although his whole country knew what had happened, the goal became better known as the "Hand of God goal," and he became a national hero. These demonstrations of winning at all costs become the norm for your impressionable youth when they are celebrated and replayed over social media in perpetuity.

To change some of the flawed ideals in youth sports such as "my child first" and "win at all costs," the University of Maine created a "Sports Done Right" initiative to recognize core principles for healthy athletic development. Some of these principles are:

  • Sports is a means to teach and learn sportsmanship and essential core values such as discipline, respect, responsibility, fairness and teamwork.
  • Parents and the surrounding community are essential in creating and supporting the environment that can promote positive athletic experiences.
  • Coaches are the key to making the youth sport experience positive and educational.
  • All students below the level of Varsity deserve the right to participate and learn through sport.
  • The goal of sports should be to build self-confidence and teach a lifelong skill for good health and fitness.

From my own personal experience, I came to a point where I didn’t really enjoy watching my kids play. I was so wrapped up in the winning and losing, I forgot about why they were playing. I think it finally clicked for me and I had an epiphany of sorts while reading Matheny’s letter to the parents where he says, "Really, I’m doing you a favor you probably don’t realize at this point. I have eliminated a lot of work for you. All you have to do is get your son there on time, and enjoy. And all they need to hear from you is that you enjoyed watching them and that you hope they had fun." These days, I don’t worry about bad calls because bad calls happen. I just try to stay in my lane and let the coaches coach, the refs ref and the players play.

Soccer high fives

When I watch my sons compete now, I usually remove myself from the overzealous parents who are screaming, find a sunny spot, put on my ear buds and let the game begin. Once or twice my sons picked at me because they knew that I dozed off. When I asked if it bothered them that they didn’t hear me cheer from the sideline, my middle son responded, "We know what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. We don’t need to hear it from you." So I just get to enjoy watching my kids play. Sometimes they win, sometimes they don’t. When they get in the car, I don’t debrief them about the game. If they want to talk about it that’s fine, but it’s also fine if they don’t. My job is to be encouraging and supportive. I would never treat my own children if they broke a bone – that’s not my job. In the same respect, it’s not my job to coach them. It’s only my job to be their dad, so my first question is usually, "Where do you want to go eat?" If they learned something about the game or about themselves through the sport, then we are all winners no matter the score.