Teaching Children to be Good Sports- Advice from Dr. Frank J. Sileo



Good sportsmanship is an important skill that children need to be taught. All children need to learn how to share, follow rules, handle negative feelings, try their best, and learn to win and lose appropriately. As adults, we serve as their role models on how to be good winners and losers. Adults who interact with children, especially in competitive areas, are in the key position of teaching good sportsmanship. Being a good sport applies not only to athletics.  Children need to learn to cope with everything from losing the lead in the school play, to getting a lower mark on a test, to losing a videogame, to not getting a solo in the choir.

We live in a highly competitive society where all-too-often winning is paramount and the expectations imposed upon children are tremendous. These pressures for perfection can create excessive anxiety.


Good Winners/Poor Winners

No one likes to lose. It is reasonable for children to feel sad, disappointed and even angry when they “fail” or lose at something. It may be hard to congratulate the winning team. It may be difficult to accept questionable calls by referees in a calm fashion or to congratulate the person who got the part in the school play that you wanted. How children overcome these unwanted feelings and respond to these types of challenges to exhibit good sportsmanship ultimately will prove that they are indeed true winners.

To begin with, good winners often are generous individuals. They view winning as a team or combined effort and work better with others. They don’t always see themselves as the “star” and, instead, work more collaboratively toward common goals.  The good winner sees that the way to win a game is not based solely on one player’s efforts but the collective effort of the team.

Children who are good winners also tend to show more gratitude toward others.  Good winners demonstrate appreciation to their parents, coaches and teachers for helping them achieve their goals. They recognize that part of their accomplishments have been the result of the assistance and guidance of others. Moreover, children who are good winners are more humble, have a healthier perspective on the activity at hand, and engage in better peer relations. Good winners are liked by their peers and consequently make and maintain better friendships. Conversely, poor winners often are those individuals who brag, taunt and showoff.


Sore Losers   

Children who are poor losers often bully others on and off the field/classroom/stage. With bullying having a disturbing prevalence in today’s society, the importance of teaching children to be good losers becomes even more critical. Poor losers tend to be bullies because they have received the message that winning and having power are the goals. Children who are poor losers may engage in behaviors such as pouting, name-calling and temper tantrums.

To help children learn to cope with losing we need to encourage them to work harder, to re-think goals and interests, and to persevere in the face of adversity. We need to help children with their negative feelings by teaching them relaxation skills, and discouraging negative acting-out, aggressive behaviors.  We, the adults, also need to not be sore losers or live vicariously through our children.  When your child loses at something and you become angry with them or the coach, teacher, etc., ask yourself, “What is this really about?”  “Is it about my child or is it about me?”  When we teach children to deal with losing, we are preparing them for future losses and disappointments. Losing helps build character, humility and perseverance, and that’s a win-win for all involved.


Basics Tips for Fostering Good Sportsmanship

  • Be mindful of what you say at an event and at home. Be careful not to yell at, put down your children or other children.  We need to be good sports, too!
  • Do not bad mouth those in authority. If you have an issue, speak privately with those in charge.
  • Be a good spectator, not a “spec-teaser.”
  • Encourage positive statements like “Good game!” “Congrats” and “Good try” or “Good job!”
  • Be an example by congratulating the parents and players on the other team.
  • Do not live your dreams or favorite activities through your child. In order for them to be happy, they have to be themselves and not you.
  • Teach that all things aren’t about winning and losing. Activities are about making and keeping friends, learning skills, keeping our bodies healthy, making memories and having FUN!
  • Look for examples in the media of good and bad sportsmanship.
  • We do not build self-esteem by giving children some type of award for everything. We need to move away from the “trophy culture” where everyone is a winner.  We do not need awards for participation.
  • If you are finding that your child continues to struggle with being a poor sport, it may be appropriate to seek the help of a licensed professional.


Dr. Frank J. Sileo, a licensed psychologist with a practice in Ridgewood, is the author of five, soon to be seven children’s books, including his Gold medal award-winning book Sally Sore Loser: A Story about Winning and Losing (Magination Press). To learn more about Dr. Sileo, his work and his books, visit www.drfranksileo.com.


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