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Raising Children who are Good Sports

With a seemingly steady decline in sportsmanship and rise in outrageous behavior in professional sports, it’s not surprising that there has also been an increase in poor sportsmanship (such as trash-talking and violence) in youth sports.   In some cases, this lack of sportsmanship has carried over to other non-sporting activities as well.  In addition, children are bombarded by media messages using a “winning is everything” or “win at all costs” philosophy that can contribute to the lack of respect for others during friendly competition or even in everyday interactions.  But, like it or not, competition is a part of life, and teaching children to compete with grace and respect is an important lesson – for both children and parents.

In Denise Yearian’s post “Are You Raising a Poor Sport?  Teaching Kids to Compete” , she gives some suggestions as to how teach children to be good sports and compete with honor.  In this article, Jessica Giles, assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, points out that the first questions about competition happen around three and a half years of age, with basic concepts of winning and losing, like “I got my shoes on before you did!”  Paige Powell, child psychologist at Texas Children’s Hospital states that at age seven or eight children start thinking in more competitive terms and relate it more to games and sports involving numerical value.

According to Rob Gotlin, DO, quoted in the article “Sportsmanship: Teach Your Kids About Winning and Losing in Sports” by Catherine Holecko, “Parents often don’t realize how easy it really is to instill the values of sportsmanship.”  For children under the age of eight, Dr. Gotlin suggests that low-pressure team sports or activities are best, and that parents should look for leagues and coaches that emphasize the activity, fitness, and fun aspects of playing rather than the winning and losing.  For children ages 8 to 12, Joel Fish, psychologist and author of “101 Ways to Be a Terrific Sports Parent,” says it’s important for the parents and children both to know their own attitudes about winning and losing, know their own triggers, and know how to stay calm if one of those triggers occurs and sets off an emotional response.

So what do you do if your child is too competitive?  Although it is normal for a child to be disappointed with a lost game, signs that the child’s competitive streak may be getting out of control include “intense anger or crying,  an abundance of negative self-talk, becoming overly anxious about competing, cheating, withdrawal from friends and other activities, unsportsmanlike conduct, and/or using performance-enhancing drugs.”  If your child is exhibiting any of these behaviors, set aside a time for a discussion, after your child has had time to cool down.  Giles suggests finding out why your child was so upset, and then reframing the situation; for example, saying “You didn’t win, but you did do good things.  Can you name a few?”  The most important thing to do, Powell says, is to reinforce with your child what is and what is not acceptable behavior, both verbally, and by your own actions.  Giles also reminds parents that the messages they send to their children about competition are both explicit and implicit, based not just on what the parents tell their children, but also on the expression on the parents’ faces and their body language.  Additionally, parents may send value judgments regarding winning and losing by how they talk to the television while watching sporting or other competitive events.  Finally, a good tip is to emphasize what can and can’t be controlled and that sportsmanship is a choice.  “I can’t control what ESPN says or what the other team is doing.  But I can teach my kid the importance of playing by the rules, shaking the hands of the opponent, helping him or her up if he or she falls – teaching that even if his or her opponent doesn’t do that…it’s the right thing to do,” says Dr. Fish.

Dr. Fish also states that knowing your child’s temperament can help you find the most effective way to teach your child about sportsmanship and other important values.  Dr. Fish suggests that children’s personalities break down into four main types: emotional, conscientious, aggressive, and social.  If you can identify which one your child is, then you will have more direction about what you will need to work on most when teaching sportsmanship.  The Kidtelligent assessment can give you even more insight into your child by profiling your child as one of sixteen personality types, and then offer suggestions based on his or her unique type.  Kidtelligent even has a specific sports profile for your child’s type, with information about types of sports that would be best for your child, how they learn the game, how they react in game situations, and how to best coach your child!  To learn more about Kidtelligent, go to, or follow us on Facebook at

Sarah is a guest mom writer for Kidtelligent. If you are interested in submitting an article to be shared on the Kidtelligent Blog and Facebook please email us at