Where Has All the Sportsmanship Gone in Kids’ Sports?

Posted October 24, 2008 by

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OK, I have to start this blog post by saying that I am not a violent person. I don’t even like to watch violent movies. But what do you do when your kid is getting hurt and no adults are stepping in to help? Do you encourage them to fight back, or run away every time? What if they can’t run away? And is there ever a good time to fight back?

The reaction I had last week surprised me.

2 Saturdays ago, my husband Joe took our son Alex to soccer practice. He’s on the kindergarten soccer team, which basically entails a bunch of five and six-year-olds swarming the soccer ball in a big kid-sized clump and having a little fun.

Except last week. You see, there was a first grader on the opposing team who was knocking kids down left and right, and hitting, pushing and kicking anyone in his way (yes, even the girls). For some reason, this boy’s coach wasn’t doing anything to stop him. The kid’s dad was standing behind my husband saying, in a loud voice, “Well, this is a rough sport, you know? That’s the way the game is played,” and kind of chuckling a little.

Well, our son Alex, who is on the small side for his age, was getting knocked around and pushed down with all the rest of them. And then, from out of nowhere, it happened. As my husband tells it, Alex had had enough. When the other kid came up behind him, he got in his karate stance, blocked him and used an elbow jab. Alex didn’t hurt the other boy, but he did shock the heck out of that first grader, who was a little less rambunctious afterward.

OK, would I normally advocate for my child to use karate on his opponents, or hurt anyone? No way. But in this case, I thought he did the right thing.  If no adults step in to stop bullying behavior, shouldn’t kids be allowed to protect themselves? Or am I way off base here?

Later, I asked Alex how he felt about what he did. “OK,” he said. “That boy was hurting everyone. It wasn’t fair.” I hugged him until he said, “Mommy? I can’t breathe,” into my sweatshirt. I never thought I’d be so proud of my kid for standing up for himself. I think I was partly just giddy that he’d learned how to protect himself and wasn’t just standing there letting kids whale on him, which is what was happening last year in pre-school.

Still, when we signed him up for karate, I didn’t think he’d be using it to protect himself on the soccer field. I don’t understand why coaches don’t step in more to stop that kind of behavior — and should parents say something here? What do you tell your kids about protecting themselves? Is it ever OK to fight back?


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. toni vitanza (Edit) Report

    Mandy, thank you so much for taking the time to share that story!!!
    When I opened this blog I expected to find tales of how kids didn’t know how to shake hands at the end of a game or win or lose gracefully. I think this is less about “sportsmanship” (as I may be narrowly defining it) and more about bullying. The fact that it happened on a sports field seems almost incidental to me, except that the father of the offender seems to feel that the behavior falls within the parameters of acceptable.
    Mandy, your story resonated with me. I had a similar experience with a peer, but also with a teacher who was a bully. Perhaps I will make it the subject of my next blog post…But again, thank you!

  2. mandy (Edit) Report

    Many, many years ago when I was in First Grade, I experienced bullying. I wore corrective shoes and was not as light on on my feet as some of the other children.

    This one girl that I will call Kay bullied me in every aspect of school. She would poke me in the back with a pencil to turn around to visit in class. Then, of course, I’d get in trouble for turning around. My mother told me just to ignore it so I did. Kay poked me in the back with her freshly sharpened pencil until there were marks all over my white blouse and even some holes in it. Clearly, ignoring didn’t work.

    When we walked home from school, the bullying didn’t stop. She’d scamper up and kick me in the shins and jump back. This went on until I had quite a collection of bruises and skinned marks in varying hues.

    Finally, one day I had had it. I told Kay that if she kicked me again, I’d hit her over the head with my lunchbox. It was a big black, domed lunchbox with a heavy metal and glass thermos in it – the kind men took to work with them. My arm was cocked over my shoulder with the the lunch box in hand.

    Kay scampered up and kicked me. I bopped her. She wailed, “I’m going to tell and you’re going to get in trouble!!!!”

    I went home and went to my room. Kay ran straight home to tell her mother who immediately called my mother.

    My mother had great wisdom. She didn’t make snap judgments, but used her own eyes to see and her own ears to hear.

    My mother came to my room and asked me if I had hit Kay over the head with my lunch box. I said yes. Then my wonderful mother asked me why. I told her that Kay had been kicking me for a long time and I had had it and told her to stop but she didn’t so I hit her. My mother examined the bruises.

    My mother went back to the phone and explained it to Kay’s mother. My mother was emphatic about the quantity and quality of the bruises. Kay’s excuse for all of this bullying was that I was teasing HER.

    After that, Kay left me alone.

    My points from this whole story:
    1. The parent has to ask, “Why?” to get both sides of the story.
    2. A child must be given the tools needed to defend themselves including knowing how to speak up for their own rights and how to physically fend off a bully.
    3. A parent or other adult must not allow bullying to continue once it is discovered.

    The fundamental issue here is justice.

    No one has the right to bully another. To prevent a child from being a victim, justice calls for vigilance on the part of the parents and calls for arming the child with skills and tools for defending himself.

    Now I am an old, old lady and I still remember vividly the horror I went through at the hands of a bully. Not being over 40 years old, I didn’t automatically know what to do and that I didn’t have to put up with that kind of treatment. Now I know. And I have tried to teach my children what I have learned so that they don’t have to put up with being bullied.

    As a post script, my children and I have noticed that you have to stand up to a bully or they think you are a doormat. Once you stand up to them, they leave you alone or want to be a “best friend.”

  3. Dr. Joan (Edit) Report

    Whenever I read about kids trying to resolve a situation peacefully then taking matters into their own hands like Alex and many of the kids in this blog did, I always say “Good for them!” It is not realistic to think that our children will not have to protect themselves at some point in their development. Anyone who says otherwise has not had their child bullied on the playground, the sports field, or at a play date. My husband and I are very serious about our kids not hitting or bullying, but I always tell my kids if someone is physically harming you and you’ve tried to get them to stop, you need to protect yourself. To do otherwise is tantamount to allowing another child pummel your child while you sit idly by. In my experience, kids who bully are just trying to see what they can get away with. When our kids set limits with them, it gives the bully pause and empowers our children by letting them know they can protect themselves. What an important lesson for ALL involved!

  4. Sarah (Edit) Report

    My youngest daughter at the tender age of 4 was bullied by the boy next door who was also a first grader. Katie warned him over and over to leave her alone by growling at him. He didn’t get the message so one day, she punched him in the stomach. I found out about all of it when his dad walked him over to our house to complain that Katie had hit the boy. She had kept the entire situation to herself and tried peacefully to resolve it to no avail, so she did what she could to make it stop. Did I approve? Yes, I did, because she took care of herself and stopped the abuse she was experiencing.

  5. KREP (Edit) Report

    Alex did great; and so did you. You did not advocate aggression, but when Alex had enough he stood up for himself. And that is exactly when, and only when, the bully will stop. Life it tough, and even tougher when we lack the confidence to take care of ourselves. I don’t like violence, and I don’t want to see any fight. But I also do not think it is necessary to become a human punching bag; and when enough is enough you must take care of yourself. Bravo for raising your child to value themselves.

  6. Charlene (Edit) Report

    There IS something wrong with kids who constantly overdo the physicality of sports to the point of bullying–usually with the parents’ smiling approval of their “tough” offspring. Parents with political clout in the community sometimes make coaches afraid to get on their bad side & stop it–& sometimes coaches don’t stop it because they want to win & the bullying is working to intimidate the other team.
    A constant bully is different than a kid who occasionally overdoes it in their sports enthusiasm.
    Bullies need to be stopped.
    If coaches won’t–then it’s up to the kid or the kid & his friends.
    It’s important to teach kids various ways to make things change their way.
    Most bullies simply do it because they can–so attaching negative consequences to their bullying behavior will quickly change their minds.
    Helping your child choose an appropriately negative outcome for the bully is the answer–if he’s shown you he can’t figure one out on his own.

  7. Becky (Edit) Report

    Coaches are usually volunteers and as such it’s difficult to ensure they are good at what they do. Remember they are doing this for free and may be intimidated of parents of the bully child. I’ve seen coaches being bullied by parents… This makes it very hard for the coach to know how to handle it. Some coaches are good at this, others aren’t. When parents see bullying they should speak to the coach in case the coach isn’t aware, but they should also be willing to speak to the parents of the kid who is doing the bullying. At the end of the day bullys remain, and our kids have to find different ways to manage different scenarios. In the scenario sited, the child managed it beautifully!

  8. roger (Edit) Report

    If kids sports around the country are anything like they are where we live I would expect you to get a lot of affirmative responses to this article.

    I too have noticed that bullying in sports is not controlled as much as it used to be by coaches and parents. It’s a sign of the times we live in. And often times it is the parents who are actually encouraging or modeling this behavior. Most coaches seem to take the approach of “anything for the win”.

    I have seen just as many arguements and fights among parents on the sidelines or in the stands as between kids on the field (but have seen more of both in recent years). When will some parents realize that as good of an athlete as their kid is, he is not pro calibur and they are taking their kid’s sporting events WAY too seriously.

    Just to be clear, I am not advocating a “fun only” approach to kids sports. I think that winning should be every team’s goal. Kids learn many good character traits from competitive sports including discipline, teamwork, competitive spirit, physical training and mental toughness. I’m sure there are others I have not listed but one thing all too often missing that used to be part of that equation is sportsmanship. I suppose some readers would say that self defense should be added to that list. Maybe so, but bullying IS becoming more prevalent which for me points to poor or corrupt leadership.

    Most bullies have learned their behavior in their own household or from their coaches on the field. Add to that the fact that professional athletes model poor sportsmanship more than they used to. Then throw in the news media that is more than willing to sensationalize poor sportsmanship for the sake of ratings. Next, consider sports video games like MLB Slugfest that allow you to make the players run around the field punching and kicking each other (this game is rated E for everyone).

    I think that kids sports have always been fantastic for physical fitness and character building. Even considering the issues with sportsmanship it is still one of the best things going for kid’s general well being.

    It’s good that Elizabeth’s son learned how to defend himself but if the coaches, referees or parents were doing their jobs properly it probably would not have gone that far. The bully’s dad may have been squelched for the rest of that game but who knows if he talked to his son about changing his behavior.

  9. Elisabeth (Edit) Report

    Thanks, Chris, I will. I actually went to the soccer game last weekend and heard what happened from the other parents. No one understood why this kid was allowed to bully all the other players (even the ones on his own team.) I’m still not sure how to handle this type of thing in the future, but I was very proud of my son for realizing that he had other options than to get upset and want to quit, or to let the other boy hurt him, which is what he did in the past.

  10. Chris (Edit) Report

    Kudos to Alex for standing up for himself in this
    pc-crazy world. And kudos to you for supporting him
    because he did the right thing. Coaches, teachers, etc should monitor those situations, allowing some contact
    in sports. I encourage my 10-year old son, also named
    Alex, also a karate student, to stand up for himself
    when appropriate and he does so. Pat your boy on the
    back one more time, but not too hard or he might lunge punch you in the leg.

  11. Maura (Edit) Report

    Last year, my 13 year old daughter was knocked down and pushed around a lot by a girl on her basketball team. The parents of this girl never said or did anything but make excuses for their daughter, and the coaches didn’t say anything either because she was a good athlete.The sad thing is, the other girl doesn’t have many friends, because of the way she pushes around the other girls on the team. Not sure if I should say anthing to her parents this year (but I have talked to the coaches.)



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