How to raise a good sport

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Teaching kids the skill of sportsmanship is getting harder in an increasingly competitive world.

Although we encourage our children to reach for the stars and work toward their dream of becoming professional athletes, the overwhelming majority of parents will not be raising the next Abby Wambach or Mookie Betts. And even if they happen to be one of the statistically few to "go all the way," we have a responsibility to teach them how to be good sports, lest we wish to end up seeing our child's photo splashed across the internet for bad behavior on or off the field. But in an extremely competitive world, how do we avoid being caught up in a culture that values winning above all else?

1. At home, focus on progress, not perfection. As parents, we are understandably proud of our child's accomplishments. But when we fawn over them for winning and only offer consolations after a game loss, we are reinforcing the message that winning is the ultimate goal. Take care to offer praise after a loss for the manner in which your children conducted themselves. Did she pass the ball to a teammate? Tell her you are proud. Did he graciously shake the hands of the opposing team at the end of the game? Congratulate him on good sportsmanship. Our children take their cues from us, and if we reinforce these good behaviors with the same enthusiasm that we exhibit when they win the game, we remind them of the bigger picture.

Conor Porter, a former Villanova soccer player who now coaches youth, offers this advice to parents: "Winning shouldn't even be part of the conversation at an early age. Development is the only yardstick that we should be using," he says. We should be teaching our children to ask themselves how they have improved. "Kids in the 9-12 age groups may be physically ready to compete," he says, "but may not be mentally or emotionally ready to meet the expectations that are placed on them from parents and coaches." Instead of pressuring our children to win, we should be working with them to recognize their own growth versus merely winning. 

2. Support your child's coach on the field. When we are on the field watching our children play, it is essential to avoid sideline coaching. Defer to the coach. Instead of interjecting your own instructions in games or training, if you have questions or concerns, bring them to the coach outside of the game or training. "Hearing a parent scream, 'Kick it!' when you as a coach have asked your players not to kick it but to be brave on the ball is very frustrating," Porter says.

3. Support your child's coach off the field. If parents provide a conflicting message at home, your child will become confused and conflicted about which message to accept. "Encouraging your child to have fun, work hard and be respectful their coach and teammates demonstrates incredible support for the coach," Porter says. Even if you happen to have some coaching expertise or knowledge of the sport, showing a united front to your child is essential.

4. Encourage your child to speak up. As our children grow, we need to encourage them to handle their own issues apart from us whenever possible. Instead of immediately intervening, encourage your child to approach their coach with any concerns they may have. This will help them become better communicators as well as more confident in their own ability to solve problems. While there may be occasions where parental involvement is warranted, allowing them to address the conflict first reminds them of their own abilities. 

5. Know the coaching red flags. There are many different styles of coaching, and not everyone will mesh well with each coach, which is why it is important to find a coach with whom you and your child can work well. There are, however, a number of red flags when it comes to coaching, and should you find yourself in a situation where your child's coach displays any of these, it may be time to find another team. An outstanding coach, according to Porter, "is someone who conducts themselves as a teacher first and a coach second. Nothing positive will come from all the coaching efforts to produce great players if they do not understand how to conduct themselves as successful human beings."

Parents are humans and will inevitably make mistakes, but if we strive to raise good humans first and good players second, our children will benefit from their time in organized sports by more than just athletic prowess.

Jenn Morson (on Twitter @jennmorson) is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work appears in The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, Cosmopolitan, among others.

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