Good Sports, Bad Sports

Spain's Rafael Nadal reacts as he plays Switzerland's Roger Federer during the men's final match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Sunday, June 10, 2007. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
If the words "play" and "game" aren't synonymous with your child's extracurricular activities, then The Saturday Early Show's family and adolscence counselor Mike Riera has some ideas for you.

The simple joy of playing a game is often being replaced with the competitive drive to win. Kids hate to lose, and many parents aren't setting good examples of sportsmanship themselves. But losing has its winning lessons as well.

Most children begin playing games at a very young age. It is ever too early to start talking to your kids about competition? About winning and losing?

Mike's answer: At an early age, experience is the most important thing for a young child. There is a growing trend in young children's games where there is no winner, no score is kept. It's good to have cooperative games where no one loses; it's getting experience.

But as they get older, when we only let them play games where nobody loses, then we are saying they are too fragile to handle defeat. What we are really saying, in a way, is that we don't trust our kids to handle losing. We're sending the message that losing is too tough for kids to go through. There is nothing wrong with winning and losing, if it's not the focus of the game.

So, as kids get older and begin to compete, what can parents do to make sure their children are gracious winners and losers?

Mike's answer: Parents need to stand at the sidelines and ask their kids about the quality of the game rather than the outcome of the game. You never lose with this kind of questioning. Kids shouldn't be focused on winning and losing, but rather on having fun. If they're not having fun, then something is wrong.

If your child wins, make sure he doesn't rub it in the other players' faces, and it's the same with losing. If your child loses, he shouldn't be a poor sport and throw a temper tantrum. If parents only focus on winning and losing, then that's all the child is going to focus on.

A lot of the sports cliches are true to some degree: "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that counts."

I would love it if parents and coaches would talk to their kids after games and ask them several questions:

  • What did you learn from today's game?
  • What did you learn from the team?
  • What did you learn about yourself?
Whether you win or lose, you should learn things every game you play. Kids will respond to this. They will get it.
If you have a question for Mike Riera about dealing with your teen, send an email to with "Ask Mike" in the subject line. Or write to "Ask Mike" The Saturday Early Show, 514 West 57th St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10019. Your question may be featured on future shows.

There has been a lot written lately about poor sportsmanship among parents and coaches. A recent report from the National Alliance for Youth Sports shows that 15 percent of youth games today involve some sort of verbal or physical abuse from parents or coaches. That's a 10 percent increase from just five years ago.

Mike's comments: Parents are taking the game away from their kids. This leads kids away from the sport instead of towards it.

They learn the lesson that winning is everything. They learn to put blame outside themselves, rather than learning that life isn't always fair, and that you have to do the best with what comes your way.

When you do discover a certain talent in your child, should you push the child?

Mike's answer: In general, it's pretty clear that it's best to wait until a child is 13 or 14 to specialize in a sport. Don't push your kids too early.

There is a fine line between pushing and encouraging your kids. We all have to look at our own behavior.

They might have great success at 8 or 9 and, at 13 or 14, suffer burnout and stop enjoying themselves. This is the time in their life when they need to be in love with a sport and experience "a paralysis of self-consciousness," when they lose themselves in the joy of play. Everything else in life is put on hold for a while.

It's very important for teen-agers to escape their problems. It's one of the healthiest things they can do as teen-agers. If you push them too hard at an early age, resentment might build up and the child tends to look at the activity as more of a job than a fun activity.

For more information, go to the Center for Sports Parenting.

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