September Is Sportsmanship Month
By Doug Abrams
Liberty Mutual Insurance, through the Play Positive program with Positive Coaching Alliance, has named September as “Sportsmanship Month.” Several youth sports national governing bodies have joined. The initiative comes as sportsmanship in youth leagues continues to suffer strain, particularly among many adults who should be setting the example.
The Play Positive program reiterates disquieting findings from its 2014 Sportsmanship Survey, which questioned 2,000 parents and coaches of 7-12-year-old youth leaguers. The survey, conducted by ORC International, carried a margin of error of +/- 1.99%.
Sixty percent of respondents reported “either witnessing or participating in negative or abusive sideline behavior” by parents or youth coaches. Twenty-six percent of parents said that they had witnessed a verbally abusive coach, and 16% of parents said that they had witnessed a physical confrontation between parents. Fifty-five percent of coaches said that they had experienced parents yelling negatively at officials or their own children, and two in five coaches said that they had experienced parents yelling negatively at other children.
The “Worst Behaved In the World”
In a similar survey that the Play Positive program commissioned in 2013, 40% of youth coaches said that they had experienced parents yelling negatively at other children. Fifty-five percent of the coaches said that they had experienced parents yelling negatively at their own children. Forty-four percent said that they had experienced parents yelling negatively at officials, and 39% said that they had experienced parents yelling at them.
After several other national youth sports surveys found similar disturbing rates of abusive adult behavior, Reuters News and the market research company Ipsos jointly conducted a survey in 22 nations. The Reuters-Ipsos survey ranked parents in the United States as the world’s “worst behaved” parents at children’s sports events. Sixty percent of U.S. adults who had attended youth sports contests reported that they had seen parents become verbally or physically abusive toward coaches or officials. Runners-up were parents in India (59%), Italy (55%), Argentina (54%), Canada (53%) and Australia (50%).
The Role of Parents and Coaches
If Liberty Mutual’s 2014 survey holds a silver lining, it is that 75% of parents and coaches acknowledged that “teaching sportsmanship is the responsibility of parents.” Parents (and coaches) fulfill this responsibility by delivering two primary lessons about sportsmanship and the desire to win with respect. Delivery depends not only on the adults’ words, but also on their actions.
The First Lesson: Desire to Win
The first lesson is that sportsmanlike athletes want to win. Athletes who are indifferent or unconcerned about the score should not play because they deny themselves and opponents physically and emotionally invigorating competition.
But the integrity of sports also depends on pursuing victory within the rules of the game and the bounds of decorum, win, lose or draw. The British Association of Coaches strikes the right balance: “Sport without fair play is not sport and honours won without fair play can have no real value.”
The Second Lesson: Respect
The second primary lesson (related to the first) is that by encouraging respect for the game, sportsmanship can strengthen the desire to win. Sportsmanlike competitors do not turn soft on opponents, and they do not let down their guard.
Ryne Sandberg hit the target at the ceremony enshrining him in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2005. “[I]f there was a single reason I am here today,” the Chicago Cubs star told the local and national audience, “it is because of one word – respect.”
“I was taught,” he said, that “you never, ever disrespect your opponent or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never ever your uniform.” “I played [the game] right because that’s what you’re supposed to do – play it right and with respect.
Sandberg’s respect fortified his desire to win and sustained his clean play throughout his 16-year big league career. He would not have put up Hall of Fame numbers if he had softened his approach to competition, or if he had let down his guard.
Looking Toward the Future
Americans consistently link sports participation to children’s physical and emotional growth, so it may seem a shame that we need to recognize sportsmanship months or sportsmanship days in the first place. Ideally we should not have to hawk sportsmanship the way trade associations hawk “National Tulip Month” or similar commercial promotions designed to boost sales. Sportsmanship is a value and a virtue, not a commodity.
Youth leaguers are not born with attitudes about sportsmanship and respect but, like other children, learn what they watch over time. Youth leaguers react to the verbal and non-verbal cues passed by the adults most directly influential in their lives. Adults watch their children as they play, but the children also watch the adults. Surveys pointing southward appear troubling, but they can also stimulate beneficial change.
Sources: Liberty Mutual Insurance Declares September “Sportsmanship Month,” (press release Sept. 1, 2015); Liberty Mutual Responsible Sports, 2014 Sportsmanship Survey, https://responsible-sports.libertymutual.com/2014-sportsmanship-survey; Liberty Mutual Insurance Responsible Sports, New Survey Identifies Decline of Sportsmanship in Youth Sports According to Parents and Coaches, https://responsible-sports.libertymutual.com/2014-sportsmanship-survey/press-release (June 3, 2014 press release); Parents and Coaches Express Conflicting Opinions Regarding Priorities in Youth Sports, https://responsible-sports.libertymutual.com/youth-sports-survey (2013 survey); Liberty Mutual Insurance Responsible Sports, https://responsible-sports.libertymutual.com/article/1733/ (Sept. 7, 2013 press release); Reuters, U.S., India Parents Seen as Worst Behaved at Kids’ Sports, http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/04/07/us-parents-sports-abuse-idUSTRE6360RJ20100407 (Apr. 7, 2010).