Will you accept my sportsmanship challenge?

Will you accept my sportsmanship challenge?


By Kate Nematollahi

Director, NAYS Education Programs

Creating a positive youth sports culture is much easier said than done. A recent survey of NAYS Member Organizations told us that 88% are looking for tips for how to create a positive culture. We realize it’s one thing for a youth sports organization to have a mission statement that harps on putting children first and teaching sportsmanship and it’s another thing to actually live that mission statement.

How does your organization focus on sportsmanship?

To me, “sportsmanship” is one of those terms that we all know but probably would explain differently if asked. I like this definition: Sportsmanship is the behaviors and attitudes in sport that show fairness, respect for one's opponent, and grace in winning or losing.

I feel sportsmanship is the key to unlocking the many benefits of sports. With coaches, parents, and athletes demonstrating good sportsmanship, we lose the overzealous behavior and we make a more welcome environment for children to practice and master a sport they love.

Next week, I’ll have the opportunity to speak in front of the Maryland House of Delegates at the State Capitol in Annapolis. A longtime NAYS member invited me to testify, as a representative of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, in support of a proposed bill that would require the Governor to proclaim the month of March as Maryland Sportsmanship Month.

[Fun fact: Although we are based in Florida, NAYS was founded in 1981 by Fred Engh, an Ocean City, Maryland native and graduate of the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. I am also a Maryland native so, needless to say, NAYS loves Maryland and we were glad to testify in support of the bill.]

The wording in the bill talks about how sports participation, specifically participation in programs that value sportsmanship, are a means for developing valuable life skills in our children. Things like physical fitness, teamwork, integrity, responsibility, perseverance, and self-discipline.

Having a commemorative Maryland Sportsmanship Month would encourage parks and recreation departments across the state to adopt programs and events that call attention to sportsmanship. For example, hosting an awards ceremony that recognizes players, parents and coaches who demonstrate exemplary sportsmanship.

I love this idea.

You may be thinking to yourself, “I don’t live in Maryland, why should I care?” I’m glad you asked. You need not live in Maryland to celebrate sportsmanship. Even if you do live in Maryland, you don’t need to wait for the result of this bill to take the initiative on your own.

Any youth sports program – regardless of location, size, sport, organization type, or leadership structure – can decide to make sportsmanship a priority and back up their words with actions.

How? Educate parents, coaches, officials and leaders about sportsmanship, why it’s important and how to foster it. Give out sportsmanship awards for athletes and volunteers each year, each season, or even each practice! Explain to the children what makes a good sport and what behaviors to look for so they can nominate their teammates and coaches for sportsmanship awards.

Get specific. Instead of simply a sportsmanship award, how about having separate categories for honesty, fair play, respecting teammates, respecting opponents, grace in winning and grace in losing? Calling attention to these moments demonstrates your organization’s commitment to a positive culture.

The 52 Maryland delegates who are sponsoring the bill understand that calling attention to sportsmanship is of utmost importance in youth sports. So much so that it deserves its own month.

But I challenge you to think what you can do, as a youth sports leader, volunteer or parent, to call attention to sportsmanship within your league. Or perhaps just your team or family.

You have an opportunity to make a real difference. Embrace it… and make it happen.

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