Navigating Your Child's Education: Grades 1-5

4 min read

Raising 'Good Sports'

Jan 13, 2022 8:00 PM

As a football player at the college and professional levels, I have witnessed my fair share of unsportsmanlike conduct. Late hits, getting punched or hit in the back of the head, taunting, and name-calling were among these displays of unsportsmanlike behavior. As a player and now a coach, I have seen other instances of behavior that do not meet the standards of good sportsmanship. Coaches and athletes who do not train or scout ethically, team cultures that encourage taunting or disrespectful words, plays, and players that do not follow the rules of the game for the sake of getting ahead. There is a wide range of what could be considered unsportsmanlike.

In contrast, good sportsmanship is generally viewed as opponents shaking hands before and after a game, players abiding by all the rules of a sport during any given contest, and coaches listening to and respecting officials' calls. But there is much more to it than what can be seen.

Though things like late hits and unethical training are examples of poor sportsmanship typically found at high levels of play, the foundation of good sportsmanship can be laid early in a child's life. With little leagues and group sports opportunities open to children as young as three and four, parents of children cannot begin to instill the principles of good sportsmanship too early. It's my conviction that good sportsmanship begins before a contest--in the coaches' and athletes' preparation. The same is true in parenting and raising good sports--good sportsmanship begins early. 

The Root of Good Sportsmanship

In order to raise good sports, we must get at the heart of sportsmanship. I believe that the root of good sportsmanship boils down to respect--respect for the game and its rules, respect towards opponents and opposing teams, respect for coaches and officials, and respect for spectators. The more a child is able to develop a general sense of respect, the more likely they are to carry that with them onto a court or field and demonstrate good sportsmanship. The problem is that the natural human inclination trends toward disrespect. 

The Challenge(s)

We are all born with the propensity to be disrespectful toward others. This propensity is perhaps most clearly visible in children. With my own children, I've seen their natural inclination to tease or shame one another in a moment of weakness or perceived failure.

Certainly, there is a genetic component to this reality. And when it comes to the way one behaves in sports competitions, it seems some children are naturally more competitive and/or aggressive. While young athletes are affected by their own genetic makeup, I think the environment in which they are raised has an even bigger impact on who they are and how they behave. 

The Solution(s)

Given the human condition and our natural propensity for disrespectful behavior toward others and the challenge this presents to young people practicing good sportsmanship, what can we as parents and people of influence do to help kids grow? I believe there are a few keys areas to consider as we aim to meet this challenge and help our kids become 'good sports.'

Lower School Boy

Focus on Character

In my experience, strong sportsmanship starts with developing values and character traits--honesty, humility, kindness, etc. For young children, this starts with fundamental questions like:

  • What does it mean to be kind?
  • What does it mean to encourage?
  • What does it mean to respect others?

A basic understanding of these traits empowers our children to move toward living them out. Defining the traits, talking about them in daily life, reading books that demonstrate them together with our children, and gently reminding our kids to practice them all help them gain the ability to interact with other human beings in a respectful way. But there is a factor far more powerful than any of our words when it comes to helping our children develop the values and traits that will help them be good sports as they grow older: modeling.


We all know sayings that speak to the importance and impact parents' behavior has on children. 

"Parents set the example."

"Values are caught, not taught."

"Actions speak louder than words."

These are all cliches because they are true. The impact that parents' behavior, words, and values have on their children cannot be overstated. And I have seen this time and again, on and off the field. When parents model respectful behavior towards others no matter who a person is, what race they are, no matter what they look like or how they perform, this naturally creates an environment conducive to raising good sports. The opposite is also true. If parents have modeled unethical behavior, disrespectful words and interactions (towards a child or others!), or a disregard for rules and people in authority (coaches, officials, etc.), this carries over to those in their influence.

Prioritize the Person, Not the Player

One thing that I recommend to parents is something that I rarely see happen. If a child is playing a video game and they don't follow our house rules about this activity (putting away when told to, going over the screen time limit, etc.), it's common for parents to take away the opportunity to play video games for a time in order to address a child's behavior. 

Similarly, some children may go through a period of time in which they struggle to practice good sportsmanship. A child may have a hard time responding to good things that happen during a contest, or struggle to handle when things don't go their way in competition.

It is important for parents to consider the question: Is involvement with competitive athletics beneficial for my child right now?   

If a young athlete struggles to respond to positive or negative things that happen in a contest, and they respond in a way that is disrespectful to themselves and others, parents need to have the ability to instruct their kids in what is acceptable behavior. And just like if other activities cross a line (like the video game example) and parents take away that activity for a time, I think competition should be taken away for a time in order to give a young athlete the space to more deeply develop as a person. I see few parents choose to do this in sports, but I think it is important to question how beneficial competition is for our children based on who they are and how they respond in competitive situations.

Perhaps one of the most encouraging components of raising good sports is time. If we start talking about, modeling, and providing space for our children to practice good sportsmanship at an early age, they will have many years to grow, mature, and sharpen their ability to respect others. 

Jeff Hartings
Written by Jeff Hartings

Jeff was an All-American football player at Penn State. He was later a first-round draft pick for the National Football League's Detroit Lions in 1996. In his eleven-year NFL career, he also played for the Pittsburgh Steelers with whom he won a Super Bowl championship and was a two-time Pro Bowl selection. He currently serves as the head coach for Worthington Christian School's football team. He and his wife Rebecca have eight children.