This is the third in a series of posts I am doing on Professionalism in Coaching. The first week’s post was called, “Professionalism in Coaching 1 – Dress for Success.” The main focus of the post was to consider what you wear when you are coaching, so you look professional.

In last week’s post, Professionalism in Coaching – What is ‘Professional’?”, I defined what it means to be a professional and offered characteristics that professionals in all walks of life display. I then zeroed in on ways for coaches to make sure they handle themselves in a professional manner.

Today, I want to shift our focus to the issue that I think is the biggest issue we need to deal with in youth/school sports—Sportsmanship.

While the biggest issue that coaches must be prepared for when it comes to dealing with parents is playing time, the biggest issue facing all of us when it comes to the sports we coach and our kids play is sportsmanship.

Unfortunately, the biggest issue within the concept of sportsmanship that we must address and then work on is poor sportsmanship.

Coaches play a huge role in this extremely important issue. How we address or don’t address sportsmanship goes a long way towards teaching kids (and parents and fans) a lot about what sportsmanship is and how they need to behave within the concepts of what constitutes good sportsmanship.

Unfortunately, I have seen too many coaches not address it, address it only in a short, cursory way, or address it in some fashion, but then not handle themselves or their teams accordingly when sportsmanship issues arise.

What is Sportsmanship?

We coaches need to figure out what sportsmanship is, and then we need to help kids understand what proper behavior is that falls under the category of good sportsmanship.

We need to intentionally teach kids what that is. Then we need to give them examples of it. When our kids display good sportsmanship, we need to reward them for it.

We also need to teach them what bad sportsmanship or no sportsmanship is. Again, we need to give them examples of it. If we see any of them displaying these types of sportsmanship, we need to address it, correct it, and hold them accountable for it.

You may be wondering what no sportsmanship means. Here I am referring to moments where kids could have shown good sportsmanship but did not. It’s not that they were overtly displaying bad sportsmanship, but that they were presented with an opportunity to show good sportsmanship and didn’t do so.

Most often, this not an intentional act on their part. Rather, it is the result of either A) not knowing how to act in that moment, or B) being in their own world, upset at something that just happened, and not thinking about what the right behavior to do is.

An example of a player showing no sportsmanship (as opposed to showing poor sportsmanship) sometimes happens when a player on the other team falls down, and no opposing player helps her/him up.

There is no cut-and-dried sportsmanship rule that says an opponent must help a player up. However, as a fellow human being, it is a great lesson and the right thing to do to always help someone up who has fallen down.

If you were walking down a sidewalk and someone nearby fell, would you just ignore them? I would hope not.

So why wouldn’t we tell our kids to do the same thing in a sports contest?

We need to teach our kids that when someone falls down, they should go over and help them up, no matter which team they are on. It’s the right thing to do. 

In fact, when we see an opposing player help an opponent up, no matter at what level the contest is being played, it is often pointed out as a classic example of good sportsmanship.

Most importantly, if you are the one who knocked the player down, it is an even clearer example of good sportsmanship if you help her or him back up. 

Yes, we are competing against one another, and we are trying to do everything we can to win. And for most sports, these are contests that require all of the competitors to participate—together.

There is no enemy out there.

Teach your players that when one of their fellow competitors falls down, they should show good sportsmanship and help that player up.

It Starts with Coaches

Teaching, instilling, emphasizing, and reinforcing in players the value of being good sports is a critical component of what we do as coaches. But long before we do any of those things for our players, we must make sure we are doing them ourselves.

Sportsmanship starts with us.

While we must lead by example in many aspects of the sport experience, there may be no part of leading our teams that is more important than how we model good sportsmanship.

If we tell kids to behave with great sportsmanship and then we ourselves do not behave that way, we are sending terrible mixed messages.

Kids will hear our words, but they will believe our actions.

Last week, we saw an ugly incident bear this out at the end of a college basketball game between the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin.

In the post-game handshake line, the head coaches started arguing. This led to them and their assistants pushing each other, which then led to one head coach throwing an open-handed punch at another coach.

The players had been handling themselves just fine up until that point. But after that punch, all hell broke loose. Multiple players started going after each other, with multiple punches being thrown. It was ugly.

There is no place for such behavior. Most importantly, there is no place for such behavior from the people leading teams and programs. These are the people who are supposed to be modeling the proper behavior for their athletes. These are the people who should be the adults.

Yet, they were the ones who acted like children.

Even after the incident had happened and the coaches went to the podium to discuss it later, there did not seem to be any level of remorse for their actions. There were just excuses and finger-pointing. It took a day before we heard an apology from anyone involved, and that was only after realizing how bad their behavior was and what kind of sanctions were about to be administered for it.

It is not enough for coaches to teach, instill, emphasize, and reinforce good sportsmanship with their players. They must also live it themselves and be the best models of it.

You Impact More than Just Your Team

A coach’s influence and impact when it comes to many things is far-reaching. Of course, the first place that impact is felt is with the players.

But when it comes to sportsmanship, coaches also have an influence on the fans, too. While coaches don’t have control over the fans to the same degree they do over their players, their behavior can certainly influence fans.

I understand that just because a coach handles himself or herself with good sportsmanship, it doesn’t mean the fans will do the same. However, the moment coaches devolve into unsportsmanlike behavior, it often sets the fans off, and they start joining in with that behavior.

It is as if the fans feel that the coach has given them a license to agree with her/him and behave in the same way. “See?! Coach is upset, too. We got screwed! We’re with you, Coach!?” And then the fans get more out of control.

Unfortunately, there are times when coaches will actually try to incite the fans this way on purpose. They feel that they have been wronged in some way (usually by the officials), and they start waving their hands in the air to the crowd, trying to get the fans join to them in their displeasure and cajoling the fans to yell and scream about whatever injustice they feel has just occurred. 

Seriously, Coach?!

This is the behavior you want to exhibit?

This is the example you want to set for your players?

Come on, Coach. You’re better than that, aren’t you?

Be professional. Don’t stoop to that level. Don’t fan the flames of the situation and make it worse.

Rise above and be bigger than that. Recognize this dynamic and the influence you have over it and handle yourself accordingly in a professional manner.

You teach your players all the time to handle themselves with poise, control, and composure in pressure-packed moments in order to succeed. If they lose their heads in those instances, their chances for success plummet.

You also know that you must do the same thing in those situations, too. Your composure can help lead to their composure and help them rise up in the moment.

That same message applies to how you handle yourself when it comes to sportsmanship.

Show your players what good sportsmanship looks like. Reinforce and reward good sportsmanship when it happens and address it when it doesn’t.

And make sure you are always modeling it for them, no matter what situation presents itself.

You are the adult; make sure you act like it.

One situation for you to show good sportsmanship that will present itself at some point—and often at many points—in your career is during blowouts. There will be times when you will be on one end or the other of a contest that is quite one-sided in terms of scoring.

This is a huge opportunity for coaches to reinforce the concept of sportsmanship (good or bad). Unfortunately, all too often, coaches don’t handle this situation the right way.

Next week, I will continue the discussion on sportsmanship in this Professionalism in Coaching series by talking about how we need to handle those blowout situations that will inevitably occur.

Unfortunately, based on how poorly I saw these situations handled by many of the middle school and high school basketball coaches I watched and coached against during our seasons that just ended, this is a much-needed topic to cover.

Fortunately, I will also be talking about one coach, in particular, who totally got it, handled it the right way, and provided an outstanding example for the rest of us when we find ourselves in these situations.

You won’t want to miss next week’s post.