Sportsmanship

sportsmanshipAt a summer league meet one year, against a team we were going to beat soundly, my 15-18 boys asked if they could swim “silly strokes” against the competition in the 100 free, and didn’t initially understand when I said NO. I explained that being so sure you’re going to win that you don’t do your best, that you don’t even compete “for real”,  showed immense disrespect for your competitors, and was terrible sportsmanship. I recall asking them how they would feel on the receiving end of that. Luckily, I was able to dissuade them from this behavior. Luckily, they asked me before they did it.

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”  Wise words.

As a coach, I was a stickler for sportsmanship. I didn’t engage in “trash talk”, and discouraged my athletes from doing so. I insisted that they showed respect at all times for themselves, their teammates, their competition, and the volunteers. I made them stay in the pool until everyone had finished the race; I encouraged them to congratulate their competition, win or lose; I would not allow temper tantrums or throwing of goggles over a bad race; I pulled my best swimmers from competition for unsportsmanlike behavior; and I was always on the lookout for anything that smacked of poor sportsmanship, to the point where I’m sure many of them thought I was just not any fun. So be it.

Sportsmanship is a demonstration of character, and was always one of my highest priorities. Honoring the rule and spirit of competition by competing fairly, honoring yourself by doing your best, honoring your competition by being gracious in both victory and defeat, holding yourself to a standard of behavior that exhibits respect…these are all incredibly important life skills, and athletic competition is a natural place to learn them.

I have become distressed in recent years to see the growing lack of emphasis on sportsmanship in athletics, from beginner levels up through professionals. Increasingly, talented athletes are being given a free pass for their bad behavior as parents and fans clamor for the win at all costs. Ugliness creeps into the team culture, accountability on the athlete goes out the window, and the ultimate result in the long run ends up being toxic players and, ironically, fewer wins. Allowing poor sportsmanship is the “path of least resistance” in the short term, but ends up eating the team alive from the inside like a cancer.

It was painfully evident at the Olympics that neither Chad Le Clos nor Hope Solo were ever held to a standard of sportsmanship. Le Clos’ behavior prior to competition, running his mouth, trying to “psych out” Phelps by waving his fanny in his face, simply served to make Le Clos look the fool even before he entered the pool. If he had been able to back up his talk, chances are many of us would have shrugged it off, but that would have been the wrong response. His trash was called out and mocked because he lost, but should have been called out had he won as well. Regardless of the outcome, he exhibited a lack of respect for his sport and for his competition, and that is NOT OK.

Hope Solo played badly during the Olympic competition, and instead of taking responsibility for her share in the team losing, she bad-mouthed the team that won. Having to denigrate the winner to mitigate your loss is the definition of “sore loser”, and is a lesson she should have learned by the time she was 12 years old. Behaving that way at the world champion level and at her age was pathetic and embarrassing; the ensuing  prolonged hand-wringing about how USA Soccer should respond was equally pathetic and embarrassing.

When talented athletes are given a pass to behave this way, whether they are 10 years old or 30 years old, we send the message that sportsmanship does not apply to some; that only those not as good should know how to behave with respect. To that, I say POPPYCOCK! When we, as parents of the prodigy, don’t back up the coach when the child is reprimanded for mocking their teammates or competition, we are creating a monster. When we as a culture excuse a Bobby Knight for throwing chairs because he is a winner, or when we excuse the remarks of a Hope Solo because she is so good at playing soccer, we are creating a monster.

These are not just lessons and behaviors for athletics. Athletic endeavors are where they are most often learned, but respect, manners, graciousness and good behavior are life skills, and we disregard this at our own peril.

You don’t think this spills over into real life? Think again.

Our current election cycle was a prime example of poor sportsmanship in real life. It was filled with people who have either never been exposed to these lessons OR who have been exempted from having to learn the lessons because of their talent or wealth. A major party candidate announced that he would only accept the outcome if he won, and continues to question the integrity of the process, despite winning, because he cannot emotionally accept how many people voted against him. In my own state, a sitting governor refuses to accept the results of the election, repeatedly demanding recounts and alleging fraud…presumably because he can’t believe he could lose in a state that was heavily gerrymandered to make sure those of his party won. It is an understatement to say that I’ve been disappointed with the behavior of the adults who have been tasked with leading our government, at every level. Their behavior would never have been allowed on my team.

America is suffering from a lack of sportsmanship, and the lack of character that follows along. People are appalled by the young athlete who throws a fit over losing, but will defend that behavior when it’s their own child. People bemoan how “kids these days” don’t say please and thank you, but do not demand that their own child do so with volunteer officials. People are furious with the rudeness of others, but dismiss their own rudeness as “speaking their mind”. People gripe about the sore loser who complains and whines about losing, but when their favorite star athlete trash talks, they see nothing wrong.

You can’t have it both ways.

“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

Wise words, indeed.