This is the fourth in a series of six articles about raising boys to be good sports.


Here’s the bad news: Bad sportsmanship isn’t “just a phase” and it’s not something a kid is going to magically grow out of.

Here’s the good news: There are things you can do to encourage better sportsmanship among kids, especially your own.

Here’s more bad news: You’re most likely going to have to step into situations in ways that could feel awkward, and say things you could make you or your son uncomfortable. 

But if not you, then who?

Using smaller sports moments as teaching tools

Most parents are prompted to do a little sportsmanship “touch up” on the heels of those bigger sport moments in their kids’ lives, you know—your child’s team lost the championship game and he or she has been sulking around the house for hours. But I think smaller moments offer better opportunities for influencing kids. They’re simpler, with fewer confounding variables, and often less controversial. In addition, they help kids realize that the approach they take toward winning and losing isn’t something that only affects them on the playing field but in fact affects other things, too, for example, relationships with friends and family members.

So let’s say you see your ten-year-old son getting too aggressive while playing video games with his friend (cursing at his friend, cheating, shoving). Rather than just letting it go because you’re afraid of embarrassing him, ask him and his friend to take a ten or twenty minute breather. You can frame it in terms of things having gotten “pretty intense” and “it’s probably a good time for a break.” There’s no need to call your son out as the aggressor in front of his friend, but if he resists, then pull him aside and let him know that until you feel he has better control over his playing behavior, you’re going to take charge of situations you feel are not appropriate or that aren’t fun for his friends. 

Gaining credibility. Showing respect.

“Dad, you’re freaking out.” 

If your son tells you you’re overreacting, respond by saying maybe you are, and that you’ll think about it and discuss it with him later, but for now you’re going to insist on the short break. And then follow that up by going back to him later that day or the next and (without lecturing, and before you start defending your actions) asking him what there was about your handling of the situation with his friend that made him think you were “freaking out.” 

This is so important to do even if you are confident that your actions were appropriate. If you don’t go back to it, your child will likely end up thinking that you said you’d discuss it later only to get him to cooperate or, worse, hoping he’d forget. Parents gain tremendous credibility when they let their kids know that when they say they’re going to do something, they do it, even if that something is not as favorable to them as it is to their child. Going back to your son’s comment also holds him a little more accountable for what he says when he’s angry, because he learns that you’re going to ask him to actually support his comment at a later time. And finally, it’s a wonderful gesture of respect toward your child and his opinion about things. I believe that the more seriously we take our kids’ opinions, the more judicious they become about expressing them.

Using bigger sports moments

Let’s say you do want to address your son’s behavior during some of those bigger sports moments, such as when he plays team sports. After the game and away from the field and his team mates, instead of delivering a canned lecture about sportsmanship tell your son that you felt uncomfortable watching him play. This will have greater meaning for him because it’s a more personal expression of the impact of his behavior on other people. And while you’re at it, let him know that if his poor sportsmanship continues, there will be consequences. 

Consequences of “inconvenience”

What kind of consequence? Something private (i.e., nothing having to do with the coach or his teammates) and non-punitive. Remember, its purpose is to act as a disincentive for your son to behave poorly in the future, not to “punish” him for past behavior. Examples of effective consequences include helping you for an hour at your workplace (filing papers), helping with some extra chores around the house, joining you for an hour at the site where you volunteer, mowing the lawn for an elderly neighbor—anything that makes your son think before he spouts off again or sulks in the corner of the dugout, even if it’s only because he doesn’t want to have to spend his Saturday afternoon cleaning out the garage. Does it have to be related to sports exactly? No. It just has to be inconvenient enough that, in the future, he chooses to respond to disappointment in a more appropriate way.

Defining your son’s actions as choices

The key word here is chooses; don’t for a moment think your son can’t help it! He can control his behavior, even if it does become harder to check it when he’s angry or frustrated. Unfortunately, the casual responding of many adults to kids’ actions has taught a lot of them that they “can’t” control themselves. Teens especially are great at exploiting our wishes (as parents, coaches, etc.) to be seen as fair and reasonable, and one of the best ways to do this is to intimate that our expectations of them (yeah like controlling their behavior when they’re upset) are simply preposterous. If you can resist the buy-in, you’ll be helping kids to mature and accept the mantle of accountability in relationships. Isn’t that what good sportsmanship is really about?

— Janet Sasson Edgette