sports’man ship’ (n.) the practice of playing fair, of taking loss or defeat without complaint or victory without gloating, and treating opponents with fairness, generosity, courtesy, etc.
As a Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) registered official for more than twenty years, I’ve studied the rules and talked over the mechanics of the games I officiate with other umpires that I respect. I arrive on time and conduct the pre-game rituals required of me. I meet with the coaches before the game. I explain what is expected of them, what they can expect from me and my partner, and how the game demands sportsmanship from the coaches and the participating athletes. Then it’s “Play ball!”
Youth softball and baseball are two of the traditional children’s games of summer—summer fun on the diamonds of dreams. Not only have I officiated at all levels of these games, I have coached three of my kids in both baseball and softball. Yet I am always surprised by the conduct I see and hear from parents, coaches and other athletes on an all-too-regular basis. I am talking specifically about unsportsmanlike behavior.
First let me define sportsmanship from the standpoint of the game official, the one charged with working to the best of his or her ability to fairly enforce the rules of the game without affecting the outcome: the umpire. They call the balls and strikes and outs—that is their job on the diamond. Many of these calls are based on judgment. Judgment can be based on years of experience, or brief experience, in the case of rookie umpires. When the calls are made, sportsmanship shows in the way the competitors, coaches and spectators behave with dignity, and know how to persevere in the face of adversity. They are exercising sportsmanship by getting up out of the dirt, dusting themselves off and getting back to focusing on the next play. No dirty looks, no whining, no arguing. Period.
The best way, in my opinion, to foster good sportsmanship is by seeking out positives during the game and setting a good example for others. Some things that would foster a community of good sportsmanship for your team are as follows:
- Cheer for the good play of all competitors, from both dugouts.
- Use words of encouragement. You would be surprised how easy it is to hear loud discussions from the bleachers while digging in at home plate to take swings or standing in the batting box and on-deck circle.
- Don’t argue with umpires from the bleachers. Most times we ignore you but there are occasional incidents that could get you tossed if your behavior becomes too unruly. Try to remember this great saying by Baseball Hall of Fame Manager Earl Weaver, “The job of arguing with the umpire belongs to the manager, because it won’t hurt the team if he gets thrown out of the game.” If you get tossed, however, your kid will still be playing; you just won’t be watching. And don’t think they won’t be embarrassed by that happening.
- Resist the urge to coach if you are a parent. Even if you have coached in the past, remember, you have turned your young athlete over to their present coach for good reasons. Trust them.
- Try to remember that it is only a game and the outcome is unlikely to destroy your child’s life.
- Think of the opposing parents, coaches and team members as friends. After all, they are hopefully there for the same reason you are, to witness kids having a good time playing a competitive, fun game.
- If you want to discuss something about your young athlete with a coach, remember to do it privately, at a more appropriate time. You can’t look worse than when you are upset about something and venting in front of your son’s and daughter’s teammates, their parents and the other coaches.
All the above items speak to one overall philosophy: Try to set a good example for the children, the other spectators, the game officials, and mostly for yourself. You will walk away with pride, knowing that you “kept it positive” for the kids.
And don’t forget to thank the umpire. Youth sport officials are especially grateful for feedback as they are often learning the game, hoping to work their way up to higher levels of competition. The game demands a lot of focus and hard work to be in proper position to make the calls. Umpires are watching a lot more than just “your” child on the diamond. If other spectators at the competition see one person recognizing the umpire’s efforts—saying thanks for the work today on the field for their kid’s sake—that act can set the tone for the way young competitors view officials in the future.
Share sportsmanship and you will share the good times that youth sports offers coaches, parents, and most importantly, the kids.
Mitch Smith is a MHSSA registered official with over 20 years experience in officiating high school sports. He has coached and officiated swimming, softball, baseball, football and wrestling. He resides in Mason. Read more of his ramblings at http://referee1.blogspot.com