Three legendary LDS athletes—baseball star Dale Murphy, Olympic gold medalist Peter Vidmar, and basketball great Thurl Bailey—share their strategies for teaching their own children how to be good sports on the field and in the game of life.
More than 50 million youth participate in organized sports each year, but in a society where the games have become less about fun and more about victory, it can be incredibly challenging for parents to prevent their kids from adopting a cut-throat attitude where all they care about is the scoreboard.
So how do we convince our children (and sometimes ourselves) that winning isn't everything?
Here are 10 tips that can help.
1. Set the Example
We've all heard the horror stories of overzealous moms and dads getting into screaming matches or violent brawls with coaches, referees, and spectators during their children's sporting events. But in order for parents to teach their child to be a good sport—both as a player and as a spectator—they must first be good sports themselves.
"The best thing you can do as a parent is set a good example," says Thurl Bailey. "Kids are going to emulate what they see, and unfortunately, parents are often the worst examples of sportsmanship when they are watching their kids play." So if you don't want your child to throw a tantrum, it would be wise not to berate or criticize the athletes, coaches, or referees—and this includes the games you watch from the comfort of your own home. If your child sees you screaming at the television, she may learn that this kind of behavior is acceptable in the stands and on the field. She may also worry that you'll humiliate her by reacting the same way during one of her own games.
Sports offer many opportunities to teach your child about respecting other people, even when you don't agree with them. But when parents lose their cool, they can rob their child of that valuable lesson—one that reaches far beyond the football field or hockey rink. In fact, experts agree that kids who act disrespectfully on the playing field are likely to behave similarly in other situations. Conversely, children who practice good sportsmanship are inclined to treat people with respect on and off the court.
2. Be Sideline Savvy
Rather than dropping off your child for the game and getting the highlights later, make an effort to watch from the sidelines. When you do, cheer for athletes on both teams whenever a good play is made. This will show your child that sports are about fun and personal growth, not just about winning. And be sure to thank the coaches and the officials after the game. This will set a good example for the other parents as well as the players.
Speaking of parents, be friendly with those supporting the opposing team; they are not the enemy. Also keep in mind that youth coaches are often volunteers. "Their time commitment to your child's team needs to be respected and appreciated," says Murphy. And even though the coach's experience may be limited, Murphy says parents should think long and hard before making suggestions or criticizing the way he runs things. If you must approach him, wait at least a day and then do it privately—never in front of your child.
3. Strategize before the Game
But strategizing isn't just for the younger crowd by any means. In fact, whether you're in Little League or the World Series, having a strategy in place can make all the difference when it comes time to perform in the midst of a heated competition, says sports psychologist Ron Chamberlain. "When people's emotions get out of control, they often lose the ability to think rationally and make good decisions," he says. "If you can change the way you think, you can change the way you act. If you have a tendency to lose it at games, then have a plan going in." This is the same strategy Bailey uses with his own kids, and it is something that he practiced himself throughout his basketball career. "I would always think, 'I'm not going to hurt myself or the team by doing something stupid,'" he says. "Instead, I would take that anger, channel it into something positive, and punish my opponents through my athletic abilities. When you get angry and lash out, you're hurting the team. You have to know what the consequences are when you react."One of the best ways you can help prevent your athlete from losing control when things don't go his way is to have a plan in place before the game. If you have a younger child, discuss how great it feels to win a game and how bad it can feel to lose. Then think of phrases he can say after the game—regardless of the outcome—that will keep him from gloating in victory or pouting after a loss. Simple phrases such as "Good game," or "Your team was really tough," can help your child be gracious even when his emotions are running high.
4. Allow Your Child to Lose
Parents instinctively want their children to succeed. And although it's undoubtedly heart-wrenching for both you and your child when she loses, it's a critical part of developing coping skills that will serve her throughout her life. Experts report that children who do not experience failure have more trouble developing self-control.
In addition, a key component of self-esteem is learning to deal with mistakes. If you protect your child from failing, you deprive her of learning, and she'll be more likely to avoid challenges in the future. Failing is an inevitable part of life, but according to Peter Vidmar, it also plays a vital role in helping an athlete become a champion. "Great athletes build on failure," he says. "As we try to push ourselves to a higher level of performance, we're going to make mistakes, but there are valuable lessons that can be learned. We need to ask ourselves, 'What can we learn from this experience? How can we become better?' This type of analysis will help in sports and in every other aspect of life."
And while it's one thing to want your child to win, it's a whole different ball game if you get angry at your child for losing. "It's important for parents and coaches to establish an environment where it's okay to fail," says Murphy. "It's detrimental for children to play scared, thinking they'll get yelled at or made fun of if they don't make great plays. Constant negative feedback will destroy a child's desire to participate."
5. Don't Make Excuses
As difficult as it is, parents must not only allow their children to fail, but allow them to be accountable when it happens. Resist the temptation to jump in and offer reasons why the loss occurred. Explaining away your child's loss—or even your own loss at the local golf tournament—does your athlete a tremendous disservice. Blaming the equipment, the weather, the coach, fellow teammates, or the opponents only teaches your child that losing is shameful and he must make excuses for it. "Sometimes when athletes don't win or perform as well as they would have liked, they start to blame the officials, the other team, and the coach," Ron Chamberlain explains. "Many parents participate in this type of behavior, but it doesn't teach the child anything other than there's always an excuse for why things don't go well in life."
And since making excuses for a defeat in sports could later lead to excuses for bad grades or poor performance in the workplace, parents are better off allowing their kids to accept their failures as their own. "Good teams and good players look at the game honestly, take accountability, and try to do better next time," says Murphy. "The best teams acknowledge their mistakes and make adjustments after a defeat."
6. Set Realistic Goals
Sometimes young athletes can put an enormous amount of pressure on themselves to perform beyond what they are physically capable of, so it's up to parents and coaches to help them set realistic goals. If kids understand that they can't always control the outcome of a game, but know they did their best, their self-esteem can remain intact even if they lose. "One of the best things you can do is focus on the things you have control over, such as preparation, attitude, and effort," advises Chamberlain. "You can't control what your competitors will do, what the fans will do, or how the weather will be. If you learn to accept this, your chances of performing well will increase."
Unfortunately, it isn't always the kids who have unrealistic expectations. "As adults, we need to make sure that we are not participating in youth sports to fulfill our own ambitions," says Murphy. "When too much pressure is put on a child to learn and perform at higher levels, he can become discouraged." That pressure to perform, combined with long hours of practice, can lead to burnout and leech the fun out of a sport the child used to enjoy, and children can't experience the physical and emotional benefits of sports if they quit early on. "Parents just need to enjoy their kids and enjoy their progress," says Bailey. "When they try to live their dreams vicariously through their kids, they just ruin a good time." Murphy adds, "Even in my professional career, my dad always told me before a game, 'Go out there and have fun today.' You can't succeed unless it's fun."
In addition to the child losing interest in the sport, a child's self-esteem can be seriously damaged if he feels he is being treated as an economic investment with an expected payout of an athletic scholarship or pro-sports contract. In fact, not only is it damaging, it's incredibly unlikely. Statistically speaking, your child has a better chance of winning an Academy Award than landing in the pros. And the odds of winning an Olympic gold medal are a million to one (way to go, Peter!).
Parents should also know that there is approximately 70 times more money allotted for academic scholarships than for athletic ones. So what is the secret to success for any athlete? "You have to have your own goals and not have them inflicted upon you," says Vidmar. "My parents didn't push me. I was driven. I enjoyed training, I enjoyed competing, and I enjoyed winning. That's why I succeeded."
7. Focus on Effort More Than Outcome
"My philosophy about winning in youth sports is that the journey is more important than the end result," says Murphy. "Of course, we should all strive to win, but any team that focuses on turning young athletes into people with integrity and character will succeed every year. Your child is better off for having had the experience—no matter what the scoreboard said." If you sense your child is becoming discouraged, bring up some of the professional athletes who accomplished amazing feats but never won a championship—hockey star Marcel Dionne, basketball greats Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, and football legend Dan Marino, for example. You can also talk about sporting events such as marathons where people often compete even though they know they will not win. Many runners are there to push themselves and improve their performance, not to be the first to cross the finish line. Vidmar believes having personal goals like these is one of the most important aspects of sports. "Sports are not about winning so much as they are about achieving your potential," he says. "My daughter is not the number-one person on her track team, but she has been able to make her own personal records, and personal victories are independent of awards and trophies."
8. Get Involved
Since parents are ultimately responsible for the environments their children are exposed to, be certain the coach makes a point of emphasizing fair play and good conduct before you enroll your child in any sports program. Better yet, become a volunteer coach yourself. Your child will be thrilled, and you can be the one to positively influence the attitudes of young athletes.
If you are the coach, however, be sure not to be harder on your child than the other team members, but don't play favorites either. "If you want your kids to have a good experience, get involved," says Murphy. "Your involvement will have a lasting impact for good on the life of your child. It's rare to find a setting where you can consistently spend time together." If coaching is not an option for you, offer to bring some treats for the team or simply spend some time practicing with your child at home. Even if you aren't very athletic, just kicking a soccer ball back and forth or tossing a baseball around can lead to some quality time together that will show your child that you care.
And while it's great to be involved in your children's sports programs, don't overdo it by overwhelming them with critiques. "Let your kids talk to you, instead of you trying to coach them all the time," counsels Bailey. "Ask them how they are feeling before the game or how they feel about the team they're playing."
9. Keep Things in Perspective
Sometimes athletes and their parents can get caught up in the heat of competition and the drive to be the best. But if your child begins spending all his time focusing on sports, it's time to step back, take a deep breath, and remember that it's only a game. "As a member of the Church, the gospel keeps me grounded," says Vidmar. "Sports are great, but it's certainly not what life's all about. I'm grateful for my experiences, but I try not to define myself as a gymnast."
And although Bailey enjoyed an incredible career, he also refused to let basketball become his entire life. "I never wanted sports to be the biggest part of my identity," he says. "Now as parents, my wife and I do everything we can to make sure our kids are well rounded. Have your kids play musical instruments, focus on things other than sports, and be sure that education is a top priority."
Finally, encourage your athlete to concentrate on developing admirable qualities. "Focus more on the type of person you become through sports than the number of games you win or trophies you receive," says Murphy. "What really matters most is your character. Do not give the greatest attention to the things which truly do not matter most."
10. Focus on Life Lessons
"Sports are like a microcosm of what's happening everywhere else," says Bailey. "Much of what an athlete learns in sports will translate into other aspects of his life, from handling pressure to dealing with different personalities." Murphy agrees. "There are life-defining lessons taught through participating in youth sports," he says. "Commitment, teamwork, responsibility, and integrity are only a few lessons that will stay with our kids their entire lives, long after the game has been won or lost."
In addition to learning these valuable principles, Vidmar believes that sports provide unique settings that help athletes recognize the importance of other people in their lives. "I remember being overwhelmed with gratitude for everyone who had a hand in getting me to the top of that podium—my family, my friends, my coaches, my teammates, my wife," recalls Peter. "Only a portion of that medal belongs to me. We can't really achieve anything in this life without relationships. That's what it's all about."