Getting Along: Encouraging Sportsmanship in Youth Programs

This article is made possible by a partnership with the Marion County Commission on Youth. Indy with Kids is proud to support the work of MCCOY and help communicate information that is important for the youth of our community.

Written by Jacie Farris

Have you ever attended a youth sporting event and been upset because of the negative behavior of the players, parents or coaches? At the Marion County Commission on Youth, Inc., we have heard these stories and have seen these behaviors ourselves, which prompted us to take a look at the value of sportsmanship in youth athletic programs.

Mike Sipe, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Indianapolis, said “I think I learned to win with dignity as well as lose with that same dignity. I love sports and the values I have learned from my participation in high school, college and semi-pro activities. I do not feel I would be where I am today without sports and lessons that were learned.”

Sipe, who has more than 37 years of experience as a teacher, athletic director, principal and personnel director in public schools, has coached Amateur Athletic Union basketball and baseball teams and served as an Indiana High School Athletic Association licensed official for baseball and track.

According to Sipe, young athletes need to learn about “self-discipline, teamwork, sportsmanship, character, integrity, [and] work ethic.”

“I think that you can give small learning lessons,” said Sipe. “Stop the action of a game to emphasize a lesson. Praise an athlete for positive sportsmanship. Stop the game if there is bad sportsmanship and use it as a teaching lesson. We put too much emphasis on winning [and] losing in the younger ages, not teaching!”

Monica Bopp, the youth development coordinator for the National Institute for Fitness and Sport, works with youth and youth professionals as part of NIFS’ field trip program. Bopp agreed that “non-competitive play, teamwork, positive attitudes, [and] doing one’s personal best” can help young athletes in the long run.

“Playing on a team tends to focus more on a teamwork aspect,” said Bopp, “which may benefit one more so in the real world in a career working with customers, coworkers, friends and family.”

Bopp recalled one story in which a young boy attending NIFS on a field trip had atrophied muscles that made some of the activities difficult for him to complete. Nevertheless, his positivity made the experience great for him and others.

“He had every intention of doing every single activity on his own. And he did!” said Bopp. “He even challenged several NIFS members to an arm wrestling contest. It made everyone’s day. Those are my favorite types of days.”

For determined athletes, it is also important to encourage well-rounded activities, whether they plan to play professionally as adults or not.

“Education, education, education!” stressed Bopp. “Learning about new topics and the great big world around us has never been more important. Encourage children to vary their interests, get involved in diverse activities where they may meet new people or discover an unknown talent.”

Sipe encourages his athletes to branch out into multiple sports, a practice he learned from his father that helped him condition different areas of his body without causing undue harm on any specific body part.

“We have more and more athletes with permanent injuries well before high school by not being involved in sports using other muscle groups,” said Sipe. “We play way too many games at early ages ruining arms, legs, etc. due to the body not being physically able to withstand the constant action without proper rest and conditioning.”

Finding quality youth athletic programs that teach proper character development and sportsmanship can be tricky, but it helps to do heavy research.

Bopp said that it is important for adults to listen to “children and parents [and] seek advice from trusted family or professionals in your community. Seek out positive remarks about specific programs.”

Sipe recommended taking a look at the adults working with the youth. He suggested that parents and guardians “observe coaches [and] leagues before their kids get ready to play. You can tell which ones emphasize skills and learning over those that just keep score for winning and losing.”

It’s critical that all adults working with youth – not just coaches, but also parents and volunteers – exhibit positive behavior in front of the players.

“Ground rules for coaches, athletes and parents need to be created, emphasized and enforced,” said Sipe. “Horror stories do exist in leagues that are not willing to control the actions of coaches, players and athletes.”

Bopp agreed that adults should be practicing sportsmanship themselves, adding that “there should always be positive reinforcement of the spirit, less on the outcome of the game.”

She continued, adding, “Adults should model appropriate behavior at sporting events and in how they treat others in general – at a restaurant or at work, for example.”

Sports can do wonders for children physically, developmentally, emotionally, mentally and socially, as long as positive behaviors and health are stressed. For both Sipe and Bopp, their fathers’ guidance helped them appreciate athletics in a number of ways.

“I think you set the example for the team by how you control yourself,” said Sipe. “I never heard my father ever question an umpire or ridicule an athlete. A coach can be a role model and mentor to their teams.”

“We all must get along together in this world of ours,” said Bopp. “Good sportsmanship can open up opportunities. My Pops, Coach Bopp, always told me “’Attitude is everything.’”

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