We've all seen the news clips of out-of-control parents who physically or verbally abuse their child's coach after a perceived 'bad call', or the umpire who announces an unpopular decision to a deafening chorus of boos. Ugly scenes like these have filtered down to kids, too, and can be seen in the young athletes who respond in inappropriate ways to their team losing a game or what they perceive as a bad call or unfair treatment.

So is good sportsmanship a thing of the past? Some sports authorities fear that it is, sacrificed to a shallow desire – often fueled by parents – to win at all costs.

However, these sorts of outbursts did not used to appear regularly in news headlines. Charlie Kuntzleman, a retired University of Michigan Physical Education Professor who has had extensive coaching experience, says that a few decades ago, when he was a young athlete, competing teams would sit down together to milk and cookies after a game. "Sport has become such a big business they've lost sight of what it's supposed to be,” he says. “It sort of looks like Roman times – this idea of destroying your opponent instead of realizing this is an opportunity to compete. I still believe that sport is a marvelous way to teach kids about sportsmanship, caring about people, working hard – but this is all gone."

The Citizenship Through Sports Alliance (CTSA), the largest coalition of professional and amateur athletics organizations in the United States, is one organization working to revive character-building through sports. Fueled by a concern over deteriorating sports behavior by parents, athletes and coaches, the CTSA works to help adults involved in youth sports put kids, teens and competition into perspective.

Organized sports can be a great benefit to young people. Physical fitness aside, sports can help develop important values like teamwork, courtesy, discipline, hard work, fairness, self-esteem, responsibility and even humility – if kids are taught to respect the game, themselves, the other team, and officials.

So how can parents help their kids develop good sportsmanship traits?

CTSA Director Ted Breidenthal says parents should "understand that there are lots of life experiences and life lessons from sports that will make kids stronger, more responsible, more confident in life" – and that sports is not just about winning.

The CTSA website offers a lot of great tips designed to help parents help their kids have really positive sports experiences. Here are a few helpful tips:

  • Know your role. For parents, who are usually 'fans', this means providing lots of praise and positive support for their child athlete, as well as helping them to have fun and keep the game in perspective. Parents should also model good behavior by respecting the decisions made by the coach and officials without offering loud personal opinions about what 'should have' been done – during and after the game.
  • Have realistic goals and expectations. When asked, most kids say they want to play sports to have fun, make new friends, and develop their skills. Parents, however, often have other ideas, like hoping for college athletics scholarships or a future playing professional sports. As the CTSA points out, relatively few student athletes receive college athletics scholarships (about 1 in 56 high school athletes), and far fewer will go on to play on a professional sports team. Kuntzleman notes that often, it's the parents who have unrealistic expectations of their child's abilities or potential. "Most kids will never measure up to their parent's extremely high expectations. So the parents set the stage", he says.
  • See the big picture. Help your child to see that a sport is just one of many enriching activities in his or her life, not its focus. Parents should emphasize important values like teamwork, dedication, and responsibility, and help their child focus on putting forth their best effort and developing skills, instead of just focusing on the scoreboard. Importantly, parents should also help their child bounce back from disappointments in sports. This is a good preparation for 'real life.'

As Kuntzleman points out, "Everything has to be perfection, but that's not what life is. Be gracious in defeat, and gracious when you win too - this is an important lesson to teach kids."