by Malinda Carlson

How to raise a ‘good sport’

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My son is my oldest child. He has always been highly competitive. He needs to win. He must be first. Otherwise he can get very frustrated. In kinder he used to bolt down as much food as he could and then say he was full, even though he had half his lunch left, just so he could be the first to finish.

This is ironic considering that from the minute we decided to have kids, my husband and I were determined to raise our offspring to be non-competitive good sports.

None of this “Second place is the first loser” for us. We emphasised fun over winning, asking him “Did you have fun?” before we asked anything else.

Yet, here we are with a 10-year-old who will do anything to win – including cheat – and cries like his heart is broken when he loses.

We went to our paediatrician with our concerns about Evan’s competitive streak. He advised us to start teaching Evan about sportsmanship.

It turns out sportsmanship isn’t just about how you handle winning and losing. Good sportsmanship is:

  • playing fair
  • respecting the rules
  • respecting the people in charge, like coaches or referees
  • respecting the other players.

Coaches and psychologists further define sportsmanship as, “an awareness that on the field or the sideline, your actions, attitudes, and behaviour affect everyone else, how they play, and how they enjoy the game.”

So how do we teach respect, fairness, and grace to our children?

Here are 4 ways to start you down the path to good sportsmanship and raising a good sport.

“Tempting as it may be, don’t let them win all the time. Learning how to lose is important in developing sportsmanship.”

  1. Play games with him

Sportsmanship is learning how to have grace under pressure and developing a sense of fairness and equality. Developing that grace and equality requires practice.

Sit down with your son and play games. Take this opportunity to mindfully model sportsmanship. Show your respect for the rules, enforce the rules, and show respect for the other players.

And, tempting as it may be, don’t let them win all the time. Learning how to lose is important in developing sportsmanship. When they lose, coach them using sportsmanship phrases that they can adopt such as:

  • “You played a good game!”
  • “I thought it was great when you…”
  • “I got lucky here when I….”
  • “I had fun playing with you.”

You can also learn sportsmanship by watching sports or other performances on television. Point out what makes someone a good sport. As importantly, point out when someone isn’t. Use these as a springboard into conversations about what sportsmanship is and what it means when you are a “good sport” versus a “bad sport.”

  1. Sign him up for activities that emphasise teamwork

Playing on a team (AFL, soccer and hockey are good examples) or joining a group (orchestra, dance or theatre) enables your son to commiserate or celebrate with others. In group activities ‘success’ doesn’t necessarily equal ‘winning’. Success is each individual doing their part to their best ability and seeing it come together as a whole.

Having that network of support and peers to mirror helps develop sportsmanship. When you are aware that how you act can affect the success of the entire group, you choose to behave differently. You become a better sportsman.

  1. Go through the play-by-play

Teaching sportsmanship doesn’t mean downplaying success and failure and only talking about fun. Good sportsmanship celebrates and analyses the successes and the losses, along with talking about fun.

I use a technique called appreciative inquiry. Appreciative inquiry is a way of analysing situations using positively worded statements to talk about tough topics.

For example, saying “What can I improve on?” instead of “What went wrong?” makes confronting failure feel less unpleasant and more constructive. Appreciative inquiry is also a great tool for helping boys express the very powerful emotions they are feeling in a positive and productive way.


An appreciative inquiry conversation after a sport game may look like this:

Acknowledge the outcome
Parent: You won (or lost)! 
Child: Yeah, I did!

Look at what went well
Parent: What do you think was your best moment? 
Child: I think when I helped set up that first goal.

Why did it go well?
Parent: That was pretty cool. Why do you think that was your best moment? 
Child: I was really focused on the ball and I could see Matt up ahead. I was nervous I wouldn’t make a good pass, but I did and it worked!

What didn’t work?
Parent: So, what would you want to go better next time? 
Child: Well, I missed two goals today.

How can you improve on what went wrong?
Parent: Oh, OK. What do you think you want to do about that next time? 
Child: I’m going to do some extra kicking practice before the next game.

Appreciative inquiry allows your son to celebrate his successes while learning to build upon them and allows him to find the little successes inside their failures. Regardless of whether he won or lost, there will still be moments in every game that your boy can be proud of – you’re just helping him recognise them.

He also begins to learn that losing doesn’t mean that everything he did was worthless. Finding that worth is a stepping-stone to developing the grace and respect sportsmanship is built upon.

  1. Compete against yourself only

There is a lot of emphasis in society/the media to be ‘the best’ and ‘a winner’. It’s hard for a kid, especially a highly competitive one, to play a game and have goals other than winning.

One way to build sportsmanship in this kind of environment is to start comparing you to yourself, instead of to others. Swimming, athletics and other sports that involve competing against yourself to improve your personal best are great ways to teach this to your son. He can celebrate his own growth along with the successes of his friends or teammates.

Good sportsmanship won’t develop overnight but in moments of frustration, remember you’re taking one for the team. Your effort will pay off: having a son who’s a good sport will stand him in good stead for the rest of his life.

Brought to you by Brighton Grammar School

Malinda Carlson MSOD is a life coach, wife, and mother of two spirited boys. She blogs about parenting and travel as the Swiss Family Carlson at This article is about