Winning and Losing: How to Teach Good Sportsmanship

Winning and Losing: How to Teach Good Sportsmanship

Experts explain how we can encourage kids to compete and still have fun.

By Heather Chaet

All kids will be losers or winners at some point, either on the playing field, in a school competition, or even across a board game from their siblings. So how do we teach our kids to play fair and become gracious winners and losers? We asked the experts for advice.

1. Focus on fun. Whether they’re playing soccer or gin rummy, the key here, especially for younger kids, is keeping the attention on the main idea: having fun. “5- to 7-year-olds should be enjoying themselves, making friends, learning new skills, trying a variety of sports, and discovering how to play cooperatively with teammates,” says Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist and parenting and child development expert Denise Daniels. “Winning and losing is not the object here.”

2. Play games with your children the right way. Being a good sport is a life skill that kids begin learning at home. From the moment you first introduce those toddler-friendly board games, try to encourage a family culture of healthy sportsmanship. “All games that have ‘rules’ and winners and losers are capable of teaching the concepts of fair play, taking turns, and winning or losing with grace,” says parenting expert and radio host Tara Kennedy-Kline. “Simple card games like Go Fish or Slap Jacks can teach kiddos that even losing can be fun when we allow it to be.”

Kennedy-Kline cautions against letting kids win. “Parents who allow kids to cheat or who ‘take a dive’ so their child can win aren't teaching them anything except how to manipulate people into letting us win and that they are above having to lose,” she says. “When playing a game and the child is losing, remind them that you are still enjoying playing with them and you love when they are happy players. Recognize them for rolling a high number or for smiling or laughing when things don't go their way. If they get upset, name their feelings, and say to them, ‘I can see that you are frustrated, I understand how that feels, but we are playing because we like spending time with each other. Let's just enjoy the game.’ It's also important to remind them that everyone likes to win (instead of focusing on how no one like to lose), and to celebrate all of the winners, just like we would want others to be happy for us when we win.”

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3. Be aware of what kind of sport YOU are. Kids pick up on what is acceptable by watching how their parents behave. Think about how you respond when your favorite team loses or when you miss that shot on the golf course. “Kids are more likely to be good sports when their parents model it consistently and routinely,” says parenting coach Elaine Taylor-Klaus. What are examples of how you can be sure to exemplify gracious winning and losing? “When you encourage others for their success or when you cheer on a rival team when they make a particularly good play,” says Taylor-Klaus.

4. Be kind to the coach. We’ve all seen those online videos of parents fighting with coaches. Even though you may never do that, be aware of how you talk about and interact with those coaching your children. “Leave the strategy to the person who's been hired to do that job,” says Daniels. “Children must respect their coaches and abide by their decisions. Hearing critical remarks from you undermines the athlete-coach relationship. If you have a serious issue to discuss with the coach, take it up with him or her privately.”

5. Emphasize graciousness. It’s a small gesture, but a key one to enforce every time a game is played: Make sure your child congratulates the winner. “One of my favorite memories from my children’s time playing sports was watching the teams congratulate each other after the game,” says Daniels. “Not that it was always easy to do, but it's so important to put a smile on your face, extend your hand, and say, ‘Good game.’"

A great way to emphasize this is recognizing when others do well -- even when you aren’t a part of that game or competition. “Teach your child how to recognize the accomplishments of others, both in and out of a game setting,” says counselor and former kindergarten teacher Liz Rampy. “Help them do this by pointing out when their friend or sibling reaches a goal. Say, ‘Wow. Suzy won the spelling bee. Let's make a card for her to celebrate her hard work.’ Do this in situations when your child is a participant in the event and when he is only observing.”


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6. Reframe who the competition really is. There will be a point when your child loses a game, no matter how great he or she is. Remind your kids that the only competition is against themselves and their own personal best. “Encourage them to compete with themselves, rather than always competing with others,” says Taylor-Klaus.

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7. Shift the conversation to focus on their effort. When the main chit-chat in the car ride home is about who won or lost, that’s what kids end up thinking about. Instead, shift the conversation to how they played the game. “Focus on effort and skills,” says Rampy. “Instead of saying, ‘You're an awesome football player!’ say ‘You ran very fast!’ This helps teach your child that his identity is not associated with winning or losing. A child who does not gain his identity from winning is more likely to keep perspective that it is a game to be left on the field.”

If your child is upset after a game, be aware of how you respond. “Refrain from statements like ‘Oh, you're fine,’ or ‘Get over it,’” notes Kennedy-Kline. “When the game is over, don't focus on everything that went wrong. Instead, focus on the stuff they did right. Ask them if they noticed anything they would have done differently or if they want to work on anything with you.”

8. The game is not about you (or your child’s possible sports career). If your child is competing in a sport and doing well, even though you are proud and want her to succeed, remember, it’s not about you. “This is not the time for parents to relive their glory days as high school athletes, seek vicarious success through their children, or focus on a future college scholarship,” says Daniels. “Childhood is all about finding an activity that your child relates to and feels good about.”

How do you teach your kids to be good sports?

Heather Chaet documents her mini parenting successes, epic mommy fails, and everything in between for a plethora (love that word!) of publications and websites such as CafeMom, New York Family, and AdWeek. While her online persona is found at, Heather lives in New York City with her film director husband and one insanely curious, cat-obsessed daughter.

Image © Andrew Rich

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