Democracies require laws and institutions. They also need people with democratic dispositions, that is, people who are ready to pitch in to help their communities, who are open-minded and trust others, and who are prepared to work with fellow citizens, even those with whom they may disagree. These traits often develop when kids participate in extracurricular activities where they have a chance to be a part of a group or work with a team. Sports teams would seem to fit that bill. But the way in which adults coach, talk about, and model behavior in sports can make all the difference. If you want your kids to grow up to be good citizens and productive members of society, here’s what you should – and shouldn’t – do on the field.
Emphasize the Team
The foundation for citizenship is a sense of attachment to a community that is larger than oneself, a feeling of membership and bonding with others beyond our families. Certain prerogatives and responsibilities flow from one’s membership in a civic community – for example, the prerogative to speak up and have one’s opinion taken seriously; the responsibility to heed the views of others and to find common ground, realizing that, in a democracy, one doesn’t always get one’s way. A good citizen is aware of the ways that her/his well-being is intertwined with the fates of others whom s/he may not even know. But how does that awareness and the emotional attachment to the identity of citizen develop?
In team sports, each player has to accept responsibility for putting forth the effort, for doing her/his part for the good of the whole. Parents can emphasize the contribution of their own child to the team by regularly pointing out how the child’s play on the field contributes to the achievements of the team.
For example, in soccer, even at an early age, kids should learn that a goal belongs to the team and that assists are as important as goals in achieving the team’s success. Coaches and parents should cheer on a good pass or defense, not just a score. After a game or match, are the parents and coaches asking, “Did you win?” or “Did you have fun?” To be clear, we are not criticizing the competitive spirit or even the notion of winning. The problem is that when winning is the only goal, not only is it not teaching civic skills, it’s not even fun. One large study of thousands of kids in sports found that those who had recently stopped playing decided to quit because there was too much pressure and they were no longer having fun.
Highlight Professional Sports Examples
Parents and coaches also can point out to kids how, even in the pros, team work is essential. For example, F. C. Barcelona is perhaps the most successful soccer team in the world. Their iconic style is quick passing of the ball. Although Messi is considered their ‘star’ player, he could not succeed, and neither could the team, if it were not for the coordinated quick passing of the members working as a unit.
One of the best parts of sports is the sheer joy of interacting with, looking out for, and being around teammates. Youths’ civic attachments – to a community of others that is larger than their individual identities – are cultivated through such practices. They are learning to care about, be responsible for, and consider the welfare of others.
Team solidarity also builds trust in others. Scads of studies confirm a positive association between social trust or faith in humanity and civic contribution. Citizens who believe that people in general are fair and trustworthy are more likely to volunteer and give their time to community groups. Trust in others we know and in people in general can be fostered through sports. Cooperation is key to the success of the team and is a foundation for learning to trust. Each team member has to do their part, pull their weight.
Don’t Bash the Umpire
Even the way that coaches and parents interpret an umpire or an official’s “bad call” can teach a lesson about trust. Umpires, like the rest of us, are human and humans are fallible. Sometimes the official’s calls may not go our way and it feels unfair. However, the civic lesson about fairness should not be based on one call. If we believe, and this is important, that the official is trying to be fair, then we learn to trust the process in the long run. Social trust or faith in humanity develops if we slough off one call that doesn’t go our way and give the ump the benefit of the doubt.
Don’t Focus on Kid “Stars” or “Stand Outs”
If youth sports are going to nurture the civic dispositions and skills of players, the focus on stars poses problems. When kids are treated as stars – as stand outs – they can learn that they are special, that they’re exempt from the rules that apply to everyone else. That aura can lead to bad judgments, to beliefs that they’re better than their peers. We can all recall stories of high-school athletes who bullied fellow students, of stars who used performance enhancing drugs, and of unsportsmanlike (aka uncivil) behavior that we don’t want our kids to emulate. When stars are in the news for unethical behavior, parents should make a point of telling their kids that those aren’t behaviors to emulate.
On the other hand, there are sports figures who have used their fame and fortune for the common good. And parents should be sure that their kids know about those choices as well. They can point to someone like Peyton Manning who has donated $6.5 million to programs for kids who lack opportunities. Likewise, Dave Bing didn’t spend his free time as a pro relaxing in a warm climate. Instead, he stayed in Detroit and tried to help rebuild the city, ultimately becoming the mayor. Roger Federer has such a record of charitable work that UNICEF appointed him as a Goodwill Ambassador in 2006. When Ervin ‘Magic’ Johnson announced his HIV status, he was taking a stand against the prevailing prejudice about AIDS. More recently, the stand that Colin Kaepernick has taken, while controversial, represents the bravery necessary for free speech to flourish in a democracy. There are many other examples. The point is that the sports role models that we hold up to our children should tell them what is important in sports and in life.
Be a Good Sport Yourself
In every game one team has to lose. How the coach and parents interpret losses is key. Youth can learn to lose and not feel as though they are losers. After a tough loss, the coach should show some empathy for the players who will feel down. But the coach also has to put a loss in perspective – what can the team learn from the loss; what mistakes could they improve on; how can they bounce back; the team should learn from the loss, move forward, and the coach needs to praise teamwork as the ultimate goal.
The language we use to discuss the opposition also matters. Opponents should not be treated as enemies but as personal challenges. Cooperation and competition can be combined if individuals view their game as an opportunity to learn and become better and appreciate the excellence in their opponent’s game. Some things that parents and kids can do during a game – when a player is injured or falls on the field, the opposing team players can check into her/his welfare. Everyone should recognize the efforts of an injured player when s/he has to leave the field. Before and after the game, smiles, nods, or handshakes to parents on the opposing team also are a good practice.
Roughly 50% of children in the United States between the ages of 6-17 have played on at least one organized sports team. Just imagine how an emphasis on the team and not the stars could contribute to the formation of character in the next generation.
Connie Flanagan is the Associate Dean of the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is the author of Teenage Citizens: The Political Theories of the Young. Stevie MacGregor is a tenth grader in Michigan with an avid interest in team sports and sports journalism.