There is a lot of discussion today among parents, teachers, and coaches about sportsmanship. There is no doubt this focus is a gift from my generation of boys who were injected with a win at all cost mindset. Sportsmanship and compassion were secondary to winning a game, tournament, or city championship.
As a father now in my early 40s, I’ve recognized that winning or losing can include sportsmanship and the wide variety of emotions that come with it. I credit this with some honest self-reflection in the months leading up to the birth of my son; the first time I had ever spent thinking about the hopes and dreams of another human.
These moments made me realize what I learned as a child wasn’t the best fit for my life. While I have no doubt my father was loving and supportive of my dreams, some of the lessons I remember took a toll on my happiness and ability to be the best athlete we both thought I could be.
When I was eight years old, my father shared an anecdote about an NHL hall of fame hockey player he admired. Having just read his autobiography, my dad explained what made this player so good was his toughness and attitude. The hockey player would never speak to an opponent on or off of the ice. He once got up and left an untouched steak on the table the moment an opposing player walked into the restaurant. That’s how much he cared about winning.
That concept stuck with me through my adulthood, and it was my hope that there could be a better way for my boy.
Shortly before my son was born, I had a serendipitous moment in my life when a man entered my chiropractic office for treatment on his neck. Accompanying him were his three son ranging in age from three through 12.
What stood out was the behavior of these children with their father. They were inquisitive but quiet and respectful. It made a strong impression on me because I was used to seeing the exact opposite behavior from many children up until that point. It was so odd, in fact, I interrupted his appointment to ask, “How and why are your children so well behaved?” He responded by explaining that he was their father but also their taekwondo teacher. He helps builds National champions by teaching respect and perseverance.
“How old does my son have to be to start?” I asked, eager to plan ahead.
“How old is he?”
“My son is due in May, but when he is ready I want you to be his coach.”
The coach came in for a few adjustments until his condition improved, but we didn’t speak much after our initial meeting. However, I was counting the days until my son turned four years old. That’s when I called that coach to ask about him about training my son in taekwondo.
It is an understatement to describe my son’s taekwondo experience as difficult. The exercises and drills were challenging, but so were the expectations of each child the coach took the time to train.
He had a brilliant understanding of what each student needed. Some needed to be broken down, and others needed to have their confidence built. This coach took the time to understand their needs and provided a place for these boys and girls to explore their feelings on a daily basis. Either way, his students would be facing appropriate physical and mental challenges.
After six years of training in taekwondo, my son’s final two years of competition culminated with back-to-back silver medals at the US Junior Olympics. Training was six days a week for two hours each day. He spent limited time with school friends, play dates, movies, and video games. Unlike most of his peers, his diet was meticulous.
Shortly after the finals loss, I reached out and hugged my son. He immediately started to cry, and I just squeezed a little harder.
I told him I was so proud of him, and with a scratchy voice I heard him say, “I sacrificed so much.” The parent in me wanted to save him, correct him, explain things away to make it better. All that came out was, “I know you did.” He cried a little harder. The sportsmanship and emotions he showed were alien to the old me, but I knew it was important to not make excuses or attempt to disregard the reality of the sacrifices he made. He was speaking his truth.
Through hard work, struggle, and lost opportunity, boys will learn to have compassion, empathy, and emotion. As parents, we have a responsibility to let boys learn lessons about sportsmanship by doing. If they are sheltered from these experiences, they may not have the learned emotional intelligence to deal with obstacles that occur as an adult.
Friendship and camaraderie are forged in the life lessons hard work and effort can give our boys. With the right mentor helping to steer the ship, boys can have a safe place to explore their emotions while also trying to be better versions of themselves.
For my family, this was done by selecting an activity based on the mentor I wanted my son to learn from. Too many allow the sport to dictate the coach, and if sportsmanship is important, this is a major error. In addition to this, many parents may not allow for their boy to be challenged on a regular basis.
Every parenting journey is unique, which makes a one-size-fits-all solution impossible. However, I encourage every parent to choose an activity that has a superior coach and mentor that will set high expectations for their boys. Our goal has simply been to challenge our boy with lessons about sportsmanship, compassion, and emotions during his journey.
It is my hope that he will one day realize that the value was not in winning but in the lessons learned throughout his journey.
Related, here on GMP:
How do we console our boys when they lose a game? How do we teach them good sportsmanship when they win?
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