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Being a Good Sport (Spectator): A Quick Guide for Parents

Jan 13, 2012

Written by Lars Dzikus, Ph.D.; Jeffrey T. Fairbrother, Ph.D.; and Leslee A. Fisher, Ph.D.

Many parents have witnessed outstanding sport parenting behavior as well as disrespectful and disruptive behavior at youth sport events. Overzealous parents may feel they have their child’s best interests at heart when they try to encourage or challenge him or her. Here are a few guidelines that will help us all be good sports spectators. Your child will have more fun and may even perform better as a result!

Don’t be a bully.
Make sure to control your emotions. According to the Government of Alberta, bullying behaviors in sport include needless yelling and screaming, constant blaming of athletes for mistakes, making unreasonable demands concerning performance, repeated insults and put-downs, repeated threats to remove privileges, intimidation, and physical violence. Avoid these and similar behaviors. Educate others by having your child’s team adopt an abuse prevention program and anti-bullying policies. You can create a motivating and emotionally supportive environment at sporting events by modeling good behavior.

Help children keep winning in perspective.
Kids enjoy learning new skills and getting better at them. They also enjoy having fun while learning. If winning is the only goal, second place is failure. This sets children up for disappointment, and if children feel like losers, they are bound to quit. Striving to win is not bad for children if we model how to keep winning in perspective. Together with your child, you can set achievable process and performance goals that focus on skill development. Set process goals like, “Reach with your hands and keep them together” when blocking in volleyball. Set performance goals like, “Try to block three times more (or another realistic goal) in every game between now and mid-season.” Even elite athletes are in control of their sport process and performance goals and are not in control of winning; for example, even when they break a world record, someone else may have run faster in that race. On game day, let the children enjoy the process of playing and interacting with each other. During competition, calling attention to any type of goal may actually have a negative influence on performance. After a game, make sure your child feels loved and appreciated regardless of the outcome. Avoid asking, “Did you win?” Rather ask, “What was fun today?” or “Did you keep the ball close to you when you dribbled?”

Cheer! Don’t instruct.
When you instruct your child during a game, there is a good chance s/he will change her/his behavior to comply. This can be problematic for at least two reasons. First, any instruction regarding technique may direct the child’s attention to aspects of her/his performance that should be completed automatically. Performance in sports involving throwing, striking and kicking objects can be degraded when a player directs attention inwardly. For example, when hitting in baseball, your son or daughter will probably be better served by focusing on the movements of the pitcher and ball rather than on his or her swing technique. Comments such as “swing harder” or “keep your elbow in” may actually hurt your child’s performance. Second, when you offer instruction, you effectively put your child in the position of switching back and forth between two different tasks. The first task involves the response to the cues in the game (e.g., catching a ball) and the second task involves responding to your instruction. Such switching can cause a decline in performance. Let your child focus on the task at hand and leave the instruction to practice sessions or post-game discussions.

Blend in with the crowd.
An increased level of stimulation often accompanies participation in competitive sports. Such stimulation increases result in a narrowing of perception, increasing the likelihood of distraction or failure to note information that is relevant to performance. Because of familiarity with your voice, your child may be more susceptible to distraction when s/he hears it. In addition, when you single your child out, s/he may feel the pressure of additional scrutiny, which can further heighten arousal and negatively impact performance. If you direct your cheering toward a single child, try to do so when there is a natural break in the attention demands of a sport.

Following these guidelines will help children (and parents) enjoy youth sports for a long time. Showing support in this way will increase children’s’ enjoyment of sport and potentially improve their performance. For more advice on positive sport parenting, see the American Sport Education Program, the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, and the Government of Alberta’s Bullying Prevention in Sports program.

View the full summer 2009 issue of the ACSM Fit Society® Page online.

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