The Parenting Page: What Ever Happened to Sportsmanship?

What’s happened to sportsmanship? I believe it was ruined by the theory that drives permissive parenting. If you accept the theory that a child will have good self-esteem only if you tell him he is a winner or the best all the time, consequentially you must remove the possibility that he might lose. That’s what has occurred.

Do you remember playing sports in kindergarten? They were insignificant games, but there was definitely a winner and a loser. Today that’s often not the case.

I have a politically incorrect theory (I know you are shocked) about why studies show that kids hold little regard for the traditional idea of fair play. Some intelligent, possibly well-intended researcher decided that games that are won or lost — fair and square — are judgmental. (I have a feeling that person was likely not the best athlete). Unlike when we were growing up, today’s children often aren’t allowed to win or lose during their most formative years.

Permissive parents compound the problem, because they demand their children be told they are perfect. I can visualize thousands of little league and soccer coaches nodding their heads … and thinking of their headaches! The child played “great” in every game, even if they didn’t. The lesson children learn is that rules don’t matter. Kicking a goal or making a basket earns both teams a point (remember, it would ruin their self esteem if anyone lost, so they have to tie).

Gerald Early said it well: Everyone in our culture wants to win a prize. Perhaps that is the grand lesson we have taken with us from kindergarten in the age of perversions of Dewey-style education: Everyone gets a ribbon, and praise becomes a meaningless narcotic to soothe egoistic distemper.

Many children haven’t been prepared for even the slightest adversity. Because they never lose, their parents start to believe it’s true and get upset when they are confronted with the fact that their child isn’t perfect. Or, they’ve invested so much of their own time in driving the child to numerous practices and games that they feel they’re owed something. But face the facts: No one is perfect and no one is great right off the bat.

Even Tiger Woods, who was great at a very young age, didn’t start out that way. He had to practice. He lost games. His father didn’t tell him not to keep score. His dad told him to practice. Smart dad! By the way, it’s well documented how much Tiger loved and respected his father. Tiger didn’t become great because his dad never allowed him to lose. He’s great because he knows how to keep going after he loses.

We are led to believe that children’s self-confidence will be irreparably harmed if they fail in anything. The truth is that, from the age of 4 or maybe even 3, kids know the real score, and nothing a parent or coach tells them can change that. Instead, it confuses children. The message is, “You are always a winner.”

What about just having fun playing the game? Well, that’s terrific, but in the end you always have to win. I wonder if that actually leads children to fear letting their parents down.

“What counts in sports is not the victory, but the magnificence of the struggle.” — Coach Joe Paterno, Penn State

Obviously, Coach Paterno is teaching athletes the lessons that will help them as adults. While it’s always tantalizing to think your child might be so good at a sport that it will become their career (and who has a son who doesn’t want to become an NFL, NBA, or NHL player?), the reality is much different.

Here are the facts: There are about 37,000 high schools in the United States. That’s about 440,000 high school basketball players. Of that number, only about 8,000 make it to college teams. Of that group, only 550 play in the NBA, and only 30 to 40 new players make it to the league each year. Half of those are from outside the United States. Bottom line: Of the 440,000 high school players in America, less than .005 percent will make it to the NBA. It’s unlikely your child, even if he or she is the star of the team, will play professional sports. That means the best thing you can hope for is to have a coach that will teach more than just how to play a game.

“Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom.” — Gen. George Patton

We play games to establish teamwork, develop leadership skills and teach sportsmanship by learning to accept victory or defeat and keep on trying. Somehow, though, the “we’re all winners every time” experts got schools, sports leagues, and parents to buy into their theories. Instead of teaching about morals, ethics, perseverance and grace, the game teaches them they won’t be allowed to lose, and the rules don’t matter.

What we need to be teaching our children is that sportsmanship means winning fair and square and losing with dignity. Players need to practice, deal with defeat, and learn that a winner in life is a person who rises each time they fall. These are real life lessons.

“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” — William Arthur Ward

E.D. Hill is a FOX News Channel host and author of "I'm Not Your Friend, I'm Your Parent." She has eight children. Click here to read more about E.D.'s new book.