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How to Teach Good Sportsmanship To Your Kids

Written by Barbara Cook
Author, Awareness facilitator, Soul midwife, Creative, guest blogger and speaker.
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If you asked ten different people what being a “good sport” means, they would all focus on different aspects. Here’s one definition:

“Sportsmanship is when competitors or viewers of competitive events treat one another with respect and exhibit appropriate behaviour. This includes being supportive, being respectful, having a positive attitude, being willing to learn and practising self-control.”[1]

Good sportsmanship goes beyond the good manners of shaking hands. It’s like a higher form of competition.

We know that competing in sports, the arts, and yes, even family board games, can offer wonderful opportunities for personal development. When kids’ self-esteem is boosted by winning and still intact when losing, their resilience will be off the charts.

Here are several tips on how to teach good sportsmanship to your kids.

How to Develop a Good Sportsmanship Mindset

The competitive spirit itself doesn’t necessarily create monsters. In its highest form, competing against other individuals or teams can be uplifting, inspiring, connecting, and invigorating.

This quote by teamwork, leadership and emotional intelligence expert Mike Robbins explains it beautifully:

“Positive, healthy competition benefits us and anyone else involved. We compete in a way that brings out the best in us and everyone involved. It’s a way to challenge yourself and others while pushing those around you. It allows you to tap into your potential and succeed.”[2]

Before you go teaching your child certain behaviors, it can be helpful to create an empowering and positive mindset around competing first. Below are just four of the many ways you could do that,

1. Watch Meaningful/Inspiring Movies

Allowing your child to watch meaningful/inspiring movies helps them understand and realize the real value of sportsmanship. Movies make it easier because they can watch this virtue being applied in scenarios that they may relate to.

My favorite movie about teamwork, friendship, loyalty, and the idea that winning isn’t everything is “The Mighty Ducks (1992).”

Reluctant coach: You think LOSING is funny?
Kid: Well, not at first. But once you get the hang of it…

This movie is just one of the many films that will help teach your children the value of good sportsmanship.[3]


2. Spot a Positive Role Model

My son was quick to draw attention to this as his children watched TV coverage of the recent Rip Curl Pro surfing at Bells Beach. There were quite a number of men’s heats before the semi-finals and the finals.

The losers of the early heats were duly interviewed for the cameras, most showing respect and good grace towards their opponent and realistic self-reflection on their performance on the day. A few took off immediately to go to their accommodation.

But many were later filmed as part of the spectator crowd, sitting on the steps with the other pros and supportively watching all the way through to the final.

When the winner was announced, all of these fellow competitors raced down to the beach to celebrate with him, lifting him onto their shoulders and carrying him up the steps to the podium.

3. Find and Celebrate That Thing They Are Good At

We all know that praise and positive reinforcement are required for building healthy self-esteem in your child. Finding that thing that they’re good at has wonderful benefits for resilience.

Author and educational expert Lyn Worsley developed the idea of the Resilience Doughnut. According to Worsley,

“The Skill Factor” is one of the “seven different areas of an individual’s life that may give them internal messages of hope. These seven factors each have the potential to enhance the positive beliefs within the person and thus to help the individual to develop resilience.”[4]

4. Be Proud Of Your Child Regardless Of What They Achieve

Even with the best of intentions (or perhaps an over-emphasis on achievements), the child’s mind can somehow get the idea that when they do well, achieve, and win, then their parents will be proud of them and love them.

But this will only instill in them an unhealthy level of desire to keep achieving. They might think that if they’re not winning, then their parents won’t fully love them anymore.


How can you teach your child the idea that self-esteem is not dependent on winning?

  • Simply chill with your kids.
  • Show them that you love it whenever they light up or share funny moments.
  • Tell them that you love being with them.
  • Tell them that you love them for their personal qualities or simply for who they are.
  • Notice and comment on moments when you catch them being a good or kind person.
  • The whole family can share personal stories around the dinner table about “something I’m not good at.” No mocking and no running yourself or others down—just accepting, especially about something that you enjoy but won’t ever excel at.

Good Sportsmanship Behaviors You Can Teach to Your Child

Let’s say that your child now has healthy self-esteem and a positive competition mindset. Now, for the practical part of teaching good sportsmanship, here are good sportsmanship behaviors that you can teach to them.

Being Respectful

  • Shaking hands at the end of a game or competition
  • Looking a person in the eye and saying “thank you” when complimented

Having a Positive Attitude

  • Having fun
  • Celebrating the win, especially with the parents
  • Applauding effort—“You really went for it today. You were fully into it!”
  • I’ve seen coaches do this: Both teams gather together at the game’s end, and each coach gives a summary of what they liked about the other team’s performance and picks out a couple of “magic moments” they enjoyed watching. They also name some of these moments that are not necessarily a showcase of great skill but rather of a positive attitude.

Being Supportive

  • Acknowledging how well your opponents played or performed
  • Finding some specific quality you can point out to compliment a competitor

Practicing Self-Control

Acknowledge that feelings may need to be talked through later while showing respect for the winners.

Being Willing to Learn

After the competition, ask your child to self-reflect firstly on the question, “did you have fun?” and then any one of these questions:

  • Did you learn anything today?
  • What was your favorite moment?
  • Were you able to do something new that you couldn’t do before?
  • How did you feel you went?
  • What would you love to be able to do in the future?

Moreover, set small goals and visual charts to celebrate achieving progress. Your child should understand that they are competing against themself and that the event is a chance to test their skills against others. It should be about the process of training rather than the end product of winning.

What to Do When Your Kids Show Unsportsmanlike Behavior

As parents, it can be difficult to admit that our kids may sometimes show unsportsmanlike behavior. Fortunately, showing this kind of behavior does not mean that your child is a bad person. There are still some things that you can do to correct this.

Bad Sportsmanship—It’s a Good Thing, Right?

Some people see “bad sportsmanship” and lock that in as a person’s identity.

Instead, try viewing the behavior as a temporary drop into a negative competition mindset, borne of underlying unconscious emotions. Then, the following behavior list below makes perfect sense.

According to Mike Robbins:

“Negative competition is a zero-sum game and is based on the adolescent notion that if we win, we’re “good,” and if we lose, we’re “bad.” In other words, our success is predicated on the competitors’ failure.”[5]

If a person has unconscious feelings that create a negative competition mindset, they might demonstrate:

  • Sulking or angry outbursts after losing
  • Giving up and not putting in effort when they’re clearly not going to win
  • Being ungracious and refusing to shake hands or congratulate the winners
  • Gloating or cockiness about winning
  • Running down the winners
  • Jealousy or resentment
  • Finding someone to blame
  • Refusing to keep playing the season when they’re rarely winning

It’s reasonable to assume that if kids felt secure and happy within themselves, they’d naturally have a positive view of competition. Their self-esteem wouldn’t depend on whether they won or lost.

How to Deal With Those Pesky Bad Emotions

The self-control of good sportsmanship does not mean a repeat denial or repression of feelings that arise under the guise of good manners. Moreover, we can accept and sit with all of our feelings without shaming them or labeling them as “good” or “bad.”

So, if your child has sunken into despair after they’ve lost, take them aside and provide them with space to safely express their feelings and allow them to pass through. Every time your child’s feelings are normalized and released, these feelings get less of a hold on them.

Below are some more tips on how to help your child deal with bad emotions:[6]

  • Tune into cues, such as their body language and behavior.
  • Attempt to understand the feeling behind their language or behavior by asking leading questions.
  • Help them by giving a name to the feeling.
  • Identify that feeling in others and normalize it without judgment.
  • Allow all emotions without labeling them as “good” or “bad.”
  • Be a role model for them by naming and appropriately expressing your own feelings as they occur.
  • Praise them for being able to talk about their feelings.
  • Hold them and cuddle them to soothe their nervous system as the emotion passes through them.
  • Teach them various ways to self-care and safely manage their emotion, such as breathing, drawing or writing, mindfulness meditation practices, and physical exercise.
  • Provide context for the event that brought up this emotion.

Clean Up Your Own Act

Yes, parents and coaches, if you feel a twinge of anything less than celebration and joy when someone else in your life succeeds or wins, it’s a sign that you have some work to do. Don’t just let your kids have all the fun of personal development.

There are no extra tips here—simply go back and re-read this whole article as if you’re talking to yourself.

Final Thoughts

Your interest in teaching good sportsmanship to your kids is so worthwhile.

By helping children develop a positive competition mindset, teaching specific behaviors that reflect this, and allowing for lower emotions to come up and be released without judgment, they will learn the valuable life skill of being able to fully engage in their endeavors and stay uplifted whatever the result.


Your children will possess an unshakeable inner state that goes beyond the mere good manners of sportsmanship.

Featured photo credit: Adrià Crehuet Cano via unsplash.com


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