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You’ve heard it countless times: It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that matters. The concept looks great on paper, but how do you explain it to your 8-year-old who is heartbroken and crying after getting shut out at the local soccer tournament? Or, for that matter, to the angry parent who’s shouting criticism from behind the batter’s box at the neighborhood little league game? Even if you don’t have children, chances are you’ve seen poor sportsmanship in action — at the corporate softball game, on the tennis court or even at your monthly card game. Maybe you’ve been a sore loser a time or two yourself.

“On the one hand, watching someone blow a fuse when he or she loses a game or makes a bad golf putt can be pretty entertaining,” says Timothy Delaney, PhD, a sociology professor at SUNY Oswego and author of The Sociology of Sport. “But the reality is, people who cannot control their behaviors in the sporting world are likely to see a carryover effect in other spheres of their lives.” In other words, if you can learn to be a good sport on the field or court, you stand to reap the benefits everywhere — in your career, your fitness routine and your personal relationships.

“It’s an essential life skill to learn how to move past our first reaction (which may be anger or disappointment) and go for the second reaction, which is usually more balanced,” says Tamar Chansky, PhD, founder and director of the Children’s Center for OCD and Anxiety in Philadelphia and author of Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking: Powerful, Practical Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility and Happiness. “And while it’s best to learn that skill as a child, it’s never too late to examine your responses to loss and disappointment and make some positive changes.”

“People who cannot control their behaviors in the sporting world are likely to see a carryover effect in other spheres of their lives.”

Don’t assume being a good sport will take the edge off your game — you can exhibit good sportsmanship and still be competitive, says Delaney. In fact, some athletes believe being a good sport can even give you a winning edge. “I find that the key to good sportsmanship is to take credit for your own strengths and weaknesses. Winning is an attitude,” says Nicole Branagh, an AVP pro beach volleyball player who competed at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. “And negative energy toward competitors will only work against you.”

Above all, it can be fun to test yourself, both physically and mentally, to set goals, work hard and savor the experience, no matter the outcome. To help you embrace the virtues of sportsmanship, our experts outlined some tips you can apply whether you’re a parent on the sidelines, a competitor of any age or just looking to be a better sport in life.

Child’s Play

Mother to three boys ages 8, 6 and 4, Jennifer Lewon has had to spend some serious time teaching good sportsmanship — both on the soccer field and at their home in Boulder, Colo. “You want your children to succeed, so when they don’t, it can be hard not to be personally invested and react poorly,” Lewon says. Encouraging her boys to shake hands with their opponents when they win or lose is one way she encourages good sportsmanship. “They’ve also learned to look out for teammates who are hurt, and to clap when a fallen player gets up and perseveres.”

But the real test of sportsmanship is at home. “The boys love to play cards, and when we’re playing a new game, they can be really sensitive to losing,” she says. It’s not unusual for one of her sons to win and gloat, and another to stomp away from the table in tears. The best solution she’s found is to bring everyone back to the table, talk it out and continue playing. “If we play a game 10 times in a row, the boys eventually learn that they will win some and lose some, and that it’s important to not give up,” she explains. In the meantime, the winners learn to celebrate their successes without hurting anyone’s feelings. “They’ve learned to say, ‘Yay! I won!’ instead of ‘Ha! I beat you!’”

Lewon is onto something. “One key aspect of good sportsmanship is the notion that it can help kids be both more compassionate for others and less critical of themselves,” says Chansky. You can help your kids be more tolerant of their mistakes, be more gracious winners, and better manage their disappointment. Here are a few ways to start:

  1. Instead of focusing solely on the outcome (win or lose), ask your children how the game felt to them. By doing so, you’ll help them to focus on the entire experience. Ask: “What went well?” and “What do you want to improve on next time?”
  2. Tell your kids that you know it’s hard to lose, but no one wins every time. By validating their feelings and putting the experience in perspective, they’ll learn to go a little easier on themselves.
  3. Teach your children to enjoy interacting with opponents in a positive way, and give them positive feedback when you see them congratulating the other team or being encouraging to someone who needs it.
  4. Instead of giving nonspecific praise such as “Good job!” or “You did great!” (which your child can dispute), look for concrete, truthful feedback such as “That was a tough game, and you never gave up.” Or, “I can tell you worked really hard on your swing, and I saw a big improvement.”
  5. If your child is really upset, take a moment to listen, acknowledge her pain and frustration, and then redirect her thoughts to the positive moments of the game, using specific examples, Chansky suggests. Even if the only positive thing you can think of is that it was a sunny day and it felt great to be outdoors, mention that.

Not Just for Kids

Of course, all those lessons you teach your children are for naught if you’re a bad sport or highly critical of yourself. “You can’t have a double standard, trying to teach your kids to win or lose gracefully when you aren’t able to do that yourself,” Chansky explains. The same goes for teachers, coaches and other adults. Take a step back and look at how you react to losses, adversity and disappointment, she suggests. Do you criticize yourself (out loud or in your head)? Do you throw an adult version of a temper tantrum? What messages are you shouting from the sidelines?

When you feel yourself reacting emotionally to any situation — a soccer game, a bad performance review at work, a slow time in your last 5K — take a deep breath and look at the big picture. If you have to, take a moment to be alone and let the anger and frustration run its course. Then, when you return, say something truthful and constructive, such as, “Well, I’m upset about the outcome, but I know what I need to work on in order to improve.”

It can help to make some notes about the things you did well and the things you want to do differently next time. Then, if you start feeling down or self-critical, refer back to your notes for encouragement and guidance. Practice using coaching, not criticizing, language.

“Whether you’re 8 or 80, there’s no value in saying ‘I’m a failure’ or ‘I’ll never get this right,’” Chansky says. It’s all about flexibility, perseverance and respecting the learning process.

The Integrity Factor

“Cheating, particularly when the stakes are high, will always be tempting,” says Delaney. “And there is no lack of examples of athletes and nonathletes alike who are guilty of such behavior.” Indeed, from pro sports to academics to corporate America, plenty of people bend the rules.

Of course, most of us would never take illegal supplements or blatantly circumvent the rules of fair play. But chances are many of us have cheated on a smaller scale — calling a fair ball “out” during a weekly tennis match, taking a mulligan in golf or fudging the number of reps we do at the gym. “Part of being a good sport is honoring your real skills, efforts and goals,” says Delaney. “And you can’t do that if you cut corners.”

There may not always be a coach or a referee around to hold you accountable, so it’s important to hold yourself to good sportsmanship standards no matter if you’re competing in an event or doing a solo workout, he says. Start from a place of integrity and you’ll be more satisfied with your results.

When you exhibit a positive, healthy attitude toward life’s wins and losses, when you honor your strengths and weaknesses fairly and honestly, it can go a long way toward making you happier, healthier and more satisfied in every area of life. And one of the best rewards? Good sportsmanship is contagious. Do the right thing consistently, and those around you — teammates, bosses, family and friends — will feel more compelled to follow suit

Are You a Good Sport?

Use the following checklist to determine if you play fair. If you answer “no” to any of the following, your sportsmanship skills could use a little sharpening.

___ Do you enjoy playing games, even when you lose?

___ Are you always courteous to fellow players, officials and volunteers involved in the event?

___ When you win a game, do you admire the other team for their effort and show your support?

___ Do you strive to do your best and stay dedicated to your goals?

___ Can you honestly say you’ve never cheated at a game or fudged a workout?

___ After a game or event, do you recognize and honor your strengths and weaknesses?

___ When faced with adversity or disappointment in life, do you take it in stride as a learning experience?

This article has been updated and originally appeared as “Good Sport” in the September 2009 issue of Experience Life.

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