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Is your child a bad sport?

4 coaches share the importance of good sportsmanship

To develop good sportsmanship in kids involved in youth athletics, you have to start with how parents and coaches behave.

Lose graciously, win graciously
Scott Fiedler is owner of Sports Academy at Brookwood in Glen Spey, a summer camp for kids ages 6 to 17-years-old. He's also a former college Division I basketball coach who knows a lot about teaching good sportsmanship. But as the father of seven-year-old twins who play lacrosse - a sport he only knows from the parenting end of it - he also has some advice for parents.

"I'm there to watch and encourage them," he says of how he approaches his children's matches. While some parents just cheer for their own son or daughter, Fiedler emphasizes that it's important to support any kid on the team, not just your own.

As a coach, he says, "The biggest thing is parents gone crazy - you have to bring them back and help them realize your kids can get better at sports but they can also have fun." Yelling at your young athlete or pushing them to get a sports scholarship is counterproductive, he says. "You have to let them be a kid and do other things. If the kid's good enough, scouts will find them."
"Play hard but at the end, it's only a game," Fiedler says. He teaches his players to win graciously and don't be a sore loser - shake hands win or lose. While it's natural to get excited, save that for the sidelines and keep it a little low key, he advises.  

Is it the coach’s fault?
As sports and teen coordinator at the YMCA of Middletown, Shawn Thomas works with kids from preschool through senior high and oversees athletics programs for fun, training and development as well as competitive sports.

Prior to tryouts, Thomas meets with parents to discuss their roles and how they can best serve their children and to understand the distinction between what a parent's involvement should be and what the coach needs to do.

"You teach from the top down and the player will follow," Thomas says, adding "It's easy to spot a team with a coach who doesn't keep high standards in sportsmanship."

It’s not about winning
"Winning is not the most important thing, developing the character of the player is," Thomas says, and that's what he strives to explain to parents and instill in the kids. "I try to establish a culture and an understanding that kids follow what they are taught."

He urges parents to not compare talents between kids - each athlete has a role to fulfill and by doing her best in that role it will lead to the team functioning best. "If that isn't for you, then it might be best for your child to be in a training program, not every kid may be ready for competitive sports," Thomas explains.

Respect the game, the opponent and the program
Good communication all around will lead to success and it's the biggest issue Thomas says, giving an example of one of the sticking points coaches frequently encounter. "The parent is focused on his or her child and that's natural and understandable. But sometimes their child isn't going to play or get as many minutes and the parent has to understand that participation and progress on the team has to be earned."   

Thomas has a code of conduct he expects his players, parents and coaches to follow. "Be respectful of the game, be respectful to your opponent and to our program."He recalls a situation at a volleyball competition against Penn State. No one saw which player had touched the ball before it went out of bounds. "The ref couldn't give a call on the play, having not seen it clearly. Then the player came forward and said she'd touched it last. She went and told the ref. She didn't have to do it, she did it because it was the right thing to do."

The opposing coach gave him a nod in recognition of the girl's good sportsmanship. "Winning is not everything, being a good person will take you further in life than anything on the court," Thomas says.

Kevin Byrket, director of operations, Orange County Sports Club in Florida, oversees youth athletic programs that range from training to competitive levels. Over 600 kids participate in the club's activities such as fencing, gymnastics and martial arts.

"The most important aspects - more important than performance - is to build character, to respect each other, to communicate with each other, and to have pride and passion in what you do and proceed with trust and integrity," Byrket says.

He spends extra time with his young athletes, talking about how to properly compete. "It's important to have interaction with their coaches and also cheer each other on."

READ MORE: When is quitting the right choice

A positive experience
"The all-around emphasis is on creating a positive energy with constant reinforcement, to help the athlete engage in the activity and be in the moment," Byrket says, adding that it's important to give praise for participation as well as any successes.

For parents, he advises, "Consider, is my child happy from the experience and does he or she
want to come back?"

"Participation in sports should be an energizing experience and one that leaves kids feeling good about themselves, empowered and that builds confidence," Byrket says. "Pay attention to the little things that happen. What they have conquered is a huge boost to that athlete."

The physical aspect of a child's development is an important part of his or her education, Byrket says, and something that will give value to the rest of their lives.

Formalize your goals
Kate Nematollahi, former director of education programs at the National Alliance for Youth Sports recently issued a challenge to parents and youth sports organizations to formalize their sportsmanship goals.

"Sportsmanship is one of those terms that we all know but probably would explain differently if asked. I like this definition: Sportsmanship is the behaviors and attitudes in sport that show fairness, respect for one's opponent and grace in winning or losing."

"I feel sportsmanship is the key to unlocking the many benefits of sports. With coaches, parents, and athletes demonstrating good sportsmanship, we lose the overzealous behavior and we
make a more welcome environment for children to practice and master a sport they love."

Olivia L. Lawrence is an editor for a news organization and spends her free time outdoors