Parents and Sportsmanship

By Dr. Darrell Burnett

Pick up a sports page and you get a stark picture of the world of competitive sports - corporate sponsorship, fierce competition and a win-at-any-cost mentality. For decades, recreational youth sports has been the beacon of hope for maintaining the purity of sport, where unsportsmanlike conduct has been the rare exception. And yet, even at a level where 20 million youngsters play in leagues throughout the USA, the sign of a decline in sportsmanship are evident: talking trash, challenging officials, refusing to shake hands with the opponent after the game, making excuses after every loss - and that's just the parents!

We reveal our true selves through sports. And like it or not, our kids are watching us … looking to us as role models of good sportsmanship.

Youth sports are supposedly an avenue to teach values to kids: teamwork, hard work and practice, handling and learning from mistakes, developing confidence and winning and losing gracefully.

Most parents are conscientious about their parenting role. And yet, it constantly amazes me what some parents "reveal" about their character when it comes to their behavior in youth sports. Some examples:

  1. A team of 8- and 9-year-olds lost a baseball game in the last inning after the right fielder dropped a fly ball. One of the dads on the losing team said, loud enough for the coach and right fielder to hear, "We would have won if the coach would have played that kid in the middle of the game. Everybody knows he can't catch the ball. Why did the coach put him out there with everything on the line?"

  2. The mother of a girls basketball team that won 51-19 in a tournament for 11- to 12-year-olds, in full earshot of the parents of the losing team, "I guess that team has never seen a real full-court press before. I can't believe their coach didn't teach them how to beat a press. Oh, well, maybe it taught them not to come to this level of a tournament until they're ready!"

  3. I was doing baseball umpiring on the bases for a game of 10-year-old boys. A small group of parents from the home team was berating a boy at the plate from the visiting team who had gone hitless his first two times at bat. As he came to bat the third time, the parents yelled to their pitcher, "Here's an automatic out! He swings like a girl! He's afraid up there! Blow it by him!" The batter lowered his head. He struck out a third time for the third out. As the pitcher came off the mound, the same group of parents shouted, "If they had more players like that kid, you'd have a no-hitter!"

Why do parents lose it at youth league games? Sports psychologist Thomas Tutko and other feel that parents get too wrapped up in the competition because they are living vicariously through their children. Other experts feel that parents might be filled with unrealistic expectations, hoping their child will be the next superstar. Consequently, they place too much emphasis on making sure their kid "wins" or "has a great game" or "looks good."

Here's hoping we remind ourselves of the significant role we play in the lives of our kids, at their sporting events, and at home.

Dr. Darrell Burnett is a clinical psychologist and a certified sports psychologist specializing in youth sports. He has been in private practice for 25+ years in Laguna Niguel, California. His book, IT'S JUST A GAME! (Youth, Sports, & Self Esteem: A Guide for Parents), is described at his website,, along with his other books, booklets and CDs on youth sports and family life.


Leave a comment: