Why respect your opponent? Teaching sportsmanship must be explicit, coaches find.

Posted on Oct 26, 2012

Why respect your opponent?   Teaching sportsmanship must be explicit, coaches find.

Sports idols perform touchdown dances, update Twitter feeds constantly, and are often caught behaving badly off the field. Young athletes connected with social media are engulfed by an athletics culture where civility, respect and general sportsmanship are hard to find.

Neither athletes nor coaches can ignore the prevailing tides. In this environment, how do coaches impress student-athletes with the value of fair conduct; respect for oppo nents, teammates and offi cials; winning and losing graciously? How do you make sure athletes practice the skills that are bound to help them succeed in life?

“Respecting your opponent is an important part of the game,” Milton’s Director of Athletics Lamar Reddicks tells his basketball players. “It’s the only time you’re going to face someone who is going through exactly what you’re going through.” If you respect your game, Lamar points out, then it only makes sense to respect the player with the skill to oppose you.

Varsity softball coach Amy Hickey agrees: “When you compete, you’re expressing a lot of passion and emotion—some positive, some negative. Practicing good sportsmanship is a reminder that you’re all civil people. Great athletes, and great coaches, weave those elements together.”

Milton coaches view their roles broadly. They’re not just developing plays and driving winning seasons; they’re working to make sure team experiences help shape students’ approaches to challenges of all kinds, over time.

“When the coach is a mercenary and not an educator, when his sole priority is to win and not to teach, that’s a problem at this level,” says head football coach and program veteran Kevin MacDonald. “The expectation that a coach communicates sets up the team dynamic.”

After tryouts, and before practices begin, coaches explicitly go over team rules and expectations—some passed along from the athletic director, others they develop based on their own experiences. Many of these points deal in concrete terms with sportsmanship and how players are expected to represent the program and their School.

“My players physically sign the list of expectations so that they feel ownership,” says Anne Sheridan Quigley, head coach of girls’ lacrosse. “The students know right from wrong, but it often helps them when we’re specific and provide examples.”

In turn, the expectation of the coach is that he or she will hold the line. “Once you lose credibility with your players, it’s very difficult to gain it back,” says Lamar. “If you don’t address something right away, you’re enabling the behavior. Even when your players act out of frustration, you have to hold them accountable.”

Kevin shares a story of one lacrosse game when coach Derek Stolp’s team realized after their victory that they had had an extra player on the field—a detail the offi cial had missed. Derek called the opposing team’s coach and the referee to report the news. “A victory is tainted when you know it wasn’t a fair win,” says Kevin. “Derek called for the same reason you call a ball out when the official wasn’t close enough to see. It’s the right thing to do. You can’t tell your players to do the right thing if you don’t do it yourself.”

“The team represents Milton off the field as well,” adds Britney Carr, assistant athletic director and head field hockey coach. “I make sure my team cleans up our bench area when the game is over. We thank the bus drivers when they drop us off. We leave a locker room the way we found it. Sportsmanship extends across a whole season.”

Coaches may drive team expectations, but players implement them. Student leaders set the tone; captains and seniors infl uence the dynamic quite a bit. A teammate telling a player he or she has stepped out of line resonates more clearly than the same advice coming from an adult.

The responsibility falls on the coach, however, to empower players and give them the confidence to speak up—to know that it’s not only allowed, but also the right thing to do. “We let our players know that it’s okay to hold one another accountable,” says Amy. “The whole ship can move forward if we’re all working positively in the same direction.”

Most of the coaches agree that the level of sportsmanship has decreased over the years. Some credit bad habits picked up in youth sports programs; parents who overinvest time and money, skewing a fragile balance; precedents set by for-profit AAU programs and club teams. Things go quickly from participation trophies for all to cutthroat competition vying for a few top spots.

“Children don’t have unstructured play anymore,” adds Kevin. “The decline of the multiple-sport athlete is a result of that, and a shame, I think. Today, young people train year-round for a single sport, which doesn’t allow for their working with different teammates, having different experiences and exposure.”

“As a high school coach, you have to foster your players’ getting to know each other,” says Lamar. Every Saturday morning, before their afternoon home games, Lamar takes his basketball team to eat breakfast together in the dining hall. “I want my players to be around each other, to know each other and get a sense of the people they are off the field.”

“Many college athletes are good examples for our players,” adds Anne. “I take my team to college games to see positive examples of talented, hard-working, respectful athletes—role models for my players.”

“Teaching what it means to be a teammate is also important,” says Britney. “I explain that they have to respect each other and work hard for one another, but that they don’t have to be best friends.”

“At the end of the day, I want my girls to go as hard as possible,” adds Anne. “That doesn’t mean stopping play when someone falls to help them up and see if they’re okay. Of course I want them to be compassionate, but I also want them to be competitors. There’s a fine line between the two.”

“In a really great season, you can have both,” adds Britney. “Nothing is better than being at the top of the league and winning the ISL sportsmanship award, too.”

–Erin E. Berg