Super Sportsmanship

By John Engh

The first thing the National Alliance for Youth Sports administrators do when meeting with other administrators is to discuss all the positive expectations that parents have when signing their children up. Invariably, one of the first traits is sportsmanship. The definition of sportsmanship is “fair and generous behavior—mostly relating to sports contests.” It is basically the golden rule applied to sports. And I cannot think of a better result of participating in sports for children.

Photo: NAYS

Photo: NAYS

But it doesn’t just happen, does it?

A coach, and by extension an administrator, can be the ultimate factor in whether participants will learn to play with fair and generous intentions.

So, administrators must set the tone through policies and league set-up, and coaches must be taught applications.

The Right Call
One of my oldest memories in organized sports was a lesson in sportsmanship. I probably got lucky and had a great coach because there wasn’t any type of training in the early 1970s when I was playing youth basketball.

I was on an Under-10 team as an 8-year-old with one of my older brothers. As one of the youngest players, I didn’t see many minutes off the bench. But in this particular game, I remember the coach telling me to go in for my brother. (I was always better than he was anyway, but that’s another story.)

While I was going for a loose ball, it hit off one of the opponent’s hands and then glanced off my knee and went out of bounds. The referee signaled that it was my team’s ball, but being young and naïve, I immediately told him that it had hit my knee, and he reversed the call. As I was running down the court to play defense, all I heard was my brother calling me stupid.

I was confused. At home at the backyard hoop, we always called when the ball went off us. When I went back to the bench, my teammates seemed to agree with my brother and pretty much gave me the cold shoulder. But the coach made sure to point out that what I had done was the right thing to do—and he hoped that all his players would do the same.

In today’s world, he had my back—and 40-something years later, I still remember it!

The reason I tell this story is there are so many instances in sports where we only count on the officials to make calls. Many times, these officials are volunteers, and at best they are part-timers who still love the game and enjoy being part of the action. But they are far from perfect, and we need to expect that! Administrators should encourage coaches at the recreational level to help the referees. After all, this is the time when the stakes are not as high, and teaching something like sportsmanship is easy to do. Make it a point to encourage coaches to help referees by overturning obvious calls that do not go in your team’s favor. Cheer for an opponent who has made an exceptional play so players will follow suit. In short, be “fair and generous” with opponents.

Encourage Players To Be Good Sports
Making a point to give sportsmanship awards to players and have them held in as high regard as achievements like an MVP award is also part of a great plan. And there are many other ways to recognize good sports. But nothing speaks louder than the actions of coaches and players while the game is in progress and parents are in the stands!

Check out the thoughts of these Certified Youth Sports Administrators regarding sportsmanship in their programs:

Sharon A. Payne, Youth Sports & Fitness Coordinator at Morale, Welfare & Recreation SUBASE at Kings Bay, Ga.: I ask my coaches to nominate players from the opposing teams after each competition. I let them know beforehand so they are on the lookout for great sportsmanship. I give out water bottles with our logo and make sure I outline in front of the whole team what the player did to earn it. This encourages other players to purposefully act in a sportsmanlike manner. It becomes contagious. I love seeing kids using their bottles during other activities and other players asking, “Hey! Where did you get that awesome bottle?” It subtly reminds them of why they earned it and encourages more sportsmanship. At the end of each season, I ask each coach to nominate a player for the Sportsmanship Award, and give a trophy to one player from each team.

Anne Davis, Director of Community Engagement for the United States Tennis Association: At the USTA we have incorporated character development in all of our materials, practice plans, and training. We have a pledge and a word of the day at the beginning of each practice. We then encourage coaches to go back to that word throughout the practice, and at the end of it, so the idea comes to life and goes home with the children. We use the same words: listen, respect, teamwork, effort, responsibility, and sportsmanship. As the children grow older, the questions and examples might be a bit different. And then there are coaching cues throughout practice to remind coaches to ask more questions about the word to bring it to life.

Ricardo Ceja, Recreation Services Manager for the Los Angeles Parks & Recreation Department East Region: We incorporate coaches training and parents training. They sign and pledge to a Code of Ethics. This has worked very well for us. We drill and engrave the philosophy of our mission in youth sports and don’t stop. We mention it on opening day, before games, after games, at coaches’ meetings, on registration material, during halftime, and at the banquets. Occasionally, we do a halftime drill called A Minute to Win It. Parents have the opportunity to show sportsmanship and play against other parents with a layup, a free throw, and a 3-point shot. Parents work together, and win or lose, they shake hands and smile. We also have recognized players on the microphone while they play. For example, a 6-year-old player fell, and a player from the opposing team helped him up. We mentioned it just one to two seconds after—while the play was still going on – and the crowd noticed and clapped. The player knew we had mentioned him.

John Engh is executive director of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS Member Organization, visit, email or call (800) 729-2057.