Building Sportsmanship

posted on: January 12, 2015
author: Brian Lomax

Female Tennis Players Shaking Hands

If you watched the College Football Playoff game between Oregon and Florida State on New Year’s Day, you may have noticed that a large number of the players from FSU walked off the field at the end of the game without shaking hands and congratulating their opponents. The announcers observed this and commented on it. Fan reaction on Twitter and social media was not favorable toward those players as it was deemed to have demonstrated a lack of grace on the part of the FSU football program.

In the wake of this, I came across an article written by a sport psychologist with a different take on the episode. In his view, athletes should not be compelled or forced to shake hands at the end of a contest if they don’t want to do that. Of course, he’d prefer that they did, but forced handshakes don’t teach sportsmanship, and on that point, I agree. Look at any line of Little Leaguers shaking hands and you’ll see the majority of them not even looking at the players on the other team. Occasionally, we’ll see this from pro tennis players when they come together at the end of a match. There is neither interest nor recognition of the opponent by these athletes in both victory and defeat.

While the point of the article was about forced handshakes and sportsmanship, as a coach, I don’t believe that the conversation should stop there. Why don’t those athletes want to shake hands at the end of a contest? It’s a question that needs to be asked and discussed, for without those opponents, athletes cannot achieve anything. Sure, they’re upset that they lost or at the way they played. Maybe the opponent cheated or the officials blew a call. Being upset and disappointed is understandable and the emotions are valid, but it lacks perspective when it comes to the nature of competition.

If forcing handshakes doesn’t teach sportsmanship, then what does? It starts with respect. Respect for yourself. Respect for your teammates, coaches, officials, parents, fans, and yes, your opponents. In their book True Competition, David Light Shields and Brenda Light Bredemeier refer to opponents as our “partners” in the quest to fulfill our potential in the realm of competition. Without opponents, we cannot achieve our peak performances. Without opponents, we don’t learn about ourselves. We need them and they need us. And while we all want to win, we are also helping each other get better by giving our best effort and being the best that we can be every day. Every day that we compete is a learning experience.

If you’re a coach and you want to engender sportsmanship into your program, teach your athletes how to exercise and flex the character muscle of respect for themselves and for others. Teach them that winning today is not as important as reaching their full potential in the future, and that they need others to help them fulfill that dream. Have your athletes come up with ideas for how they can demonstrate more respect. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at all the good ideas they come up with in this exercise. Make it a core value of your program, model it yourself, and you’ll build good sportsmanship in your athletes.

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About the Author

Brian Lomax founded PerformanceXtra™ in 2009 with a mission of helping athletes achieve their goals and their top performances more consistently through a progression of mental skills that enables them to focus on what is truly important.

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