Don't Hide The Handshake

I’ve often wondered why most youth sports programs have players shake hands after games rather than before.

Think about it.

We constantly talk about the importance of displaying good sportsmanship, yet when game day rolls around, one of the ultimate displays of good sportsmanship--the handshake--often gets shoved to the end of the game.

The pre-game talks from coaches, the stretching and warm-ups and--at the younger levels--even goofing around with teammates comes first.

Too often the post-game handshake for kids turns into merely “something we gotta do.” The players--in robotic fashion--line up and slap hands, or bump knuckles. At the older levels, the occasional “nice game” is blurted out, or something resembling it is mumbled. The younger kids typically march through the process in silence--their thoughts focused on what tasty post-game snack awaits them--while making contact with the opposition.

That’s not what it’s all about.

Even worse, youngsters’ emotions are the most sensitive immediately following a game. Players disappointed that they lost the game, or didn’t perform as well as they had hoped, often don’t have their hearts into the handshake. Even more problematic--some youngsters have been known to spit in their hands before going through the handshake line, or say unkind words to players who they feel mistreated them during the heat of the action.

Leading By Example

The handshake is more than a gesture of sportsmanship, it's a sign of respect, and those are two special values that sometimes get lost during the hoopla and excitement of youth sporting events.

It’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen in our programs.

There has to be an inherent level of respect between individuals and teams prior to games and matches taking place, and a pre-game handshake is a good starting point for infusing the day with good sportsmanship.

After all, sports are supposed to teach life lessons, right? And being a good sport at all times certainly deserves a spot at the top of the list.

Just take a look at how golf--a sport that oozes good sportsmanship--operates. Competitors greet each other on the first tee with a handshake before hitting their first shot. Sure, they want to play well and outperform their playing partners--if they can beat them by a dozen shots, they gladly will--but that doesn’t mean they don’t display good sportsmanship from the very outset.

Creating New Rituals

Sure, the post-game handshake is a nice ritual, but how many kids truly understand its purpose? How many children around the country simply line up and slap hands after games because that is what they are told to do? It’s like your mother saying, “Brush your teeth and go to bed.” You know it’s probably a good thing to do because your mom said to, not because you really cared how healthy it might be for you.

You know what makes the post-game handshake truly meaningful? When children from the losing team--on their own doing--walk over and congratulate the opposing team on a well-played game. Or, when a youngster from the winning team trots over and shakes the hand of an opposing player, and praises his or her effort, and looks forward to a future game.

Yes, it’s great that programs that promote the post-game handshake do so in an effort to lay that foundation so that as children grow and mature, they will make those walks to the other side of the field on their own after games--win or lose.

But in the meantime, I say move that handshake front and center.

Make it a part of the pre-game ritual, and be sure players understand what it signifies.

Good sportsmanship is certainly important enough that we should be starting games off with handshakes rather than ending games with them.

Don’t you agree?

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla., which has been advocating positive and safe sports for children since 1981. He is also the author of Why Johnny Hates Sports, which is available on He can be reached via e-mail at