THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
By Nadia Leunig
Secretary of the Board of Directors
I am an administrator in a small district located in Central New Jersey (yes, it does exist). One of the best suggestions I received this summer was to read The Power of a Positive Team by Jon Gordon. He discusses a myriad of team dynamics in the book that includes businesses, schools, and sports. While reading the book, I realized why I was so dissatisfied at the end of my son’s soccer season.
I never participated in sports as a child; my focus in school was Fine and Performing Arts. So imagine my surprise when my son asked me to play soccer when he was five years old. I knew absolutely nothing about the game but would do anything to support my son. I signed him up for the township’s recreational league and so began our soccer journey. After a couple of years, he was able to participate in the travel soccer program.
I learned the most about sportsmanship from that travel program. It is so easy to become one of those parents who yell at the referee about a call that was made. It was so easy to yell at our kids from the sideline to run faster and play harder. I really had to sit back and ask myself, “Am I helping my son by acting this way?” The answer was obviously no, and I had to change my mindset. As parents, we are one of the best people to show our children good sportsmanship, how to lose with grace, and how to navigate negative feelings.
Throughout the two years, I watched the team grow together. The first season was rough. We lost every single game. While some of the parents were not happy with that outcome, our coaches kept reiterating the importance of teamwork and foundational skills. We won only one game that winter, but we went undefeated that spring season. The boys even won a tournament where they were playing against a team that was many flights above them. All stakeholders in the team went into the second year with a positive outlook.
Near the end of our second year, though, I started to notice a change. At first, I did not know how to put it into words, but The Power of a Positive Team helped. There was a shift in the team's mindset: rather than being processed-focused, the team was becoming outcome-focused. There was more importance placed on individuals who wanted to win rather than the entirety of being a great team. I honestly believe this is what caused our team to fall apart. There were games lost that shouldn’t have been lost. The language that was being used toward the boys changed. I was not surprised when my son was not asked back on the team. He is a solid member of a team but is not a standout individual player.
At the end of the day, not making the team is not the end of the world. My son made another travel soccer team, and I hope we can continue to build that good sportsmanship and teamwork mentality. I wish the former team all the best and hope they can continue to grow like they want. If you are a coach and/or a parent of a youth sports team, remember that it is not about the outcome. Focus on the roots of your tree and you will see the fruit of your labor.
“No one creates success alone. We all need a team to be successful……Positivity leads to winning.” - Jon Gordon (2018)
By Katelyn Mulligan
Chief Operating Officer
How many kids start playing golf because a parent or other adult has promised to let them drive the golf cart?
I was one of them.
Fast forward a few decades and you'll see I really enjoy playing, even though I’m not very good at it.
Years ago, I discovered my pharmaceutical employer had a golf league, the competitive equivalent of company softball with recorded statistics and official bragging rights at stake. As someone who was already playing softball for the company, I decided that adding one more activity was another way to play more rounds of golf and meet some colleagues.
I enjoyed playing in the golf league while it lasted. Ultimately, however, my colleagues who ran the league retired, leaving nobody interested in taking the reigns. After consultation with a different colleague, she and I decided we would reinvent the league as an informal club, complete with the same opportunities to play golf and enjoy colleague camaraderie without brackets and scoring. (After all, I didn’t understand how the scoring worked and didn’t want to take on that responsibility!)
Two years later in the present day, our new golf club (no pun intended) is a huge success. The number of people who have signed up skyrocketed to triple digits, far beyond the handful that kept the league alive. We give each other words of encouragement when a nice drive is hit, and we help each other look for a ball that’s lost in the rough. I hear no negative talk or snide comments (aside from the good-nature ribbing we naturally use). Instead, it's a plethora of positive camaraderie amongst colleagues, all of whom are wondering, once the round is over, when they get to do it again.
Now, I never witnessed any acts of poor sportsmanship while I was in the formal company golf league; however, now that it is less formal as a club, it’s reassuring to see so many people enjoying themselves and playing. No one seems to mind that we’re all at various skill levels; everyone knows the golf rules and playing etiquette, and that is enough. I don’t feel any worse than I normally do if my drive hooks and goes into the woods. It just affects my own individual score, not my team's ranking.
This poses a question regarding whether the league/club dynamic could be beneficial in other sports settings. What if children were mandated to participate in equal parts informal recreation and a competitive setting for their sports or competitive activities? Could this perhaps curtail acts of poor sportsmanship? Developing a child's ability to understand when to "turn it on" for a more serious competition could influence positive change.
This template has been applied before with mixed results. Kids who want to participate in their town's competitive summer baseball program, for example, are required to participate in the spring recreational league that correlates. However, the same kids might feel no remorse about skipping a less important game in the spring, as opposed to a more serious game in the summer. Further, many parents cannot understand that, regardless of the competitive level, it's just a game and no the end of the world. Understanding the delicate balance between playing to win the competition but not at the expense of maturity and good sportsmanship is quite difficult. If only the positive vibes could be bottled by my pharmaceutical company and distributed to everyone involved in competitive sports.
By Sean Comerford
Board of Directors
After a stultifying day at work, I often look forward to sitting down at my computer to enjoy some video games. Games are big business these days, but even long before they were ever taken seriously by the mainstream, they have been a go-to release for me, particularly as a kid who was interested in sports but not particularly athletically inclined or talented. Despite my own enjoyment of many games with a competitive or team element, there is usually someone not enjoying themselves, and that person will let the other players know it—often with abusive, racist, and shocking language. In short, the same tendencies towards awful behavior that coaches, parents, and players seek to fight in the “real” world of sport occur online as well.
While unsurprising that some people will choose to behave badly in any venue available to them, the nature of online, networked gaming specifically worries me for a few reasons. First, much of the social pressure to behave is removed when online thanks to anonymity. Some participants will see this as license to act horribly towards their teammates or opponents despite any culture or accepted practices of the game, such as typing “GG” (good game) into the chat, win or lose. Second, bad behavior online is often viewed as having little to no consequences, as opposed to acting like a jerk at a Little League game, where a bully’s actions may result in punishment or retribution. Finally, although video games do come with a rating system to gauge age-appropriateness, even appropriately aged individuals can act in ways that are not acceptable to anyone. This includes abuse directed towards children or young adults, who already struggle with self-esteem issues and bullying online. Even as a grown adult, I find this behavior to be incredibly off-putting; it easily gets under my skin, leaving me angry or stressed out after playing a game, which is exactly the opposite of how I want to feel after using some of my leisure time.
So what can be done?
Some good first steps are technical. Most games have reputation management systems through which players can report others for abusive behavior. These "trolls" suffer restricted privileges in the game or can be banned entirely depending on the frequency and/or severity of their negative actions. Of course, these sorts of remedies miss much of the abuse, as they rely on action taken by the game developers and let toxic players off the hook if they are—for whatever reason—not reported even though they have acted terribly. Players can also act themselves by “muting” other players so they don’t hear their voices or read their chats, but this can unfortunately directly harm the competition of the game, as most online games require team coordination and strategy.
A brand-new game that I just played addresses the issue of toxicity by having players read through and indicate that they have understood a three-point “code of conduct” before unlocking the ability to play online with others. This is a nice approach, but of course, anyone truly determined to be awful can ignore the prompts and continue to make other people miserable.
Ultimately, as in other activities, education is imperative. The more that can be done to raise awareness among the participants in any activity that their bad behavior has a negative effect on others, detracting from everyone’s enjoyment and character-building, the better off everyone will be. Organizations like OSIP can help inform the public about their responsibility to uphold good sportsmanship, whether online or off.
By Katelyn Mulligan
COO & VP of Community Relations
The 2022 Olympic Winter Games inspired me to reflect on a sportsmanship situation we encountered a few years ago.
While manning a table at a local town fair, a woman approached us and became combative (in front of children, no less), expressing her opinion that she did not see a need for OSIP to exist, claiming OSIP is another form of a participation trophy.
This couldn't be further from the truth.
For some background, OSIP's mission statement is:
We would love nothing more than to not have to exist, but as it stands now, there are lots of eyes that can greatly benefit from being opened on the subject. Sportsmanship exists beyond athletic settings; it goes with us on the journey we call life. Competition plays a role in politics, the workplace, and many other facets and situations. Participation trophies do nothing to help young minds learn how to handle these scenarios. Winning isn’t everything (though the desire to win and give it “your all” on the field is celebrated); being able to lose and accept it with dignity is just as important than winning (if not more so). Learning how to lose in organized sports is an important lesson just as it is when you’re in the running for a job, an election, or any other related capacity.
“Participation trophies actually take away from the concept of sportsmanship,” said OSIP Chairperson Sean Ryan. “The process of winning and losing and how to accept those situations gracefully is a life lesson. Failing is learning while winning should be humbling. Participation trophies, depending on their context, can represent winning without trying. To truly experience winning, we first must experience losing and what it feels like. This way, outcomes are more appreciated and accepted.”
“How exactly would the Brian Stow incident or a young athlete yelling at umpires relate to a participation trophy?” asks OSIP Vice-Chairperson Sean Gough. “Were violence and whining the trophies? Seems telling, too, that those who bash from afar often stereotype by invoking participation trophies. Aside from the lack of originality, the confusion of decency with coddling already suggests a problem with their conceptions of sportsmanship.”
So, once the pandemic storm calms, if you see us at a community event, please stop by, say hi, and help us spread the good word. Heck, we will even sweeten the deal with some giveaway candy.
There is so much more to be said about this topic, more than I can muster in this blog post. But if you’ve made it this far: rock on! Please don’t let me bring your interest to an abrupt stop here.
Allow me to introduce you to “On Sportsmanship: A Critical Reader and Handbook,” available in paperback, hardcover, and Kindle formats from Amazon. Happy reading, and happy good-sportsman-ing!
OSIP is always looking for more people who would like to get involved. Visit www.osipfoundation.org for more information. (Although, since we already have three people named Sean, if your name happens to be Sean, we may need to lovingly assign you a new alias.)
By Mark Gola
VP of Marketing and Publicity
There are moments in nearly every sporting event when a player, coach, or fan encounters a fork in the road. Do I take the path that allows my emotions to get the best of me and fall victim to a display of poor sportsmanship? Or do I take the path of discipline and show poise?
There are so many elements surrounding athletic events that we don’t control. Demonstrating good sportsmanship is a component that lies 100 percent within our control. When confronted with a situation riddled with turmoil, every coach, player, and parent gets to determine how they will handle their actions.
Let’s take a simple example of when an athlete encounters a fork in the road. Consider a baseball game where a batter is at the plate with the bases loaded and one out. It’s late in the game and the batter's team is down by one run. With a 2-2 count, the batter takes a called strike three. In that moment, the batter has a decision to make:
Listen, it’s not easy. Competitive juices are flowing; an opportunity to have a big moment was missed, composed with failure in front of everyone in attendance. But one must work at it, just like other aspects of the game. Further, any successful athlete will tell you that the most important play is the next play. If emotions can't be kept in check, the ability to focus on the next play will suffer.
Teammates will notice. Opponents will notice. Coaches will notice. Game officials will notice. Recruiters will notice.
Make the decision to become exceptional at sportsmanship. You’ll not only choose the right path at each fork you encounter, but you’ll begin to take others with you.
Topics like this and more are discussed regularly on How You Play The Game, the official podcast of OSIP. On January 1, OSIP founder Jack Furlong and chairperson Sean Ryan will produce their 100th episode of the program. Dale Scott will join them on the podcast, and Furlong will announce the release of his highly anticipated book, On Sportsmanship: A Critical Reader and Handbook. The mission of the book is to “reveal the steps to ensuring that each person does their best at treating others with respect in sports and competition.”
Tune in to listen to the podcast and also learn more about OSIP at osipfoundation.org.
There have been plenty of times while I've been umpiring a baseball game when I began to wonder if the coaches know that a human being is officiating this game.
In other words, do coaches/players/fans understand that the official is a human being with a soul, a spirit, emotions, a will, experiences, and value? Does that one coach who constantly bickers with me know that I'm not just an object? Does that coach know that, as soon as I walk off the field, I have to go home to my life and my loved ones and deal with the realities of life?
On the other side of things, when I watch a game, am I conscious of the fact that those on the field have to do the same thing?
Look at it this way: although it does not necessarily fall under the umbrella of competition, do we realize that those who are involved in the creation of a movie are also human? When we watch the movie, do we realize that actors and actresses are on the screen portraying characters, not the actual fictional (or factual) character? When I'm watching Star Wars, do I see Luke Skywalker on the screen? Or do I know that Mark Hamill is on the screen portraying Luke Skywalker? If the character does something I don't like (see Episode VIII), is it the fault of Luke Skywalker? Is it the fault of Mark Hamill? Maybe it's the fault of the director, Rian Johnson! Maybe it's the fault of the parent company, Disney! Maybe it's nobody's fault! Why am I so quick to need to place blame?
The point is that competition (or a vested interested thereof, especially when we are fans) suppresses our ability to empathize with others. If we are not careful, we see the opposing fan as an object, not as a human being. We see the official as a robot who is supposed to get every call right. We see our opponent as the enemy who must be defeated. We don't see any of these parties as people we might run into at the bar later, possibly trying to just unwind with a drink after a stressful day who may just need the company of another person to feel loved.
Competition tends to have a clearly defined distinction: my victory equals your failure. That is, if two parties are competing for the same thing, one will win and one will lose. And if multiple parties are competing for the same thing, one will win and many will lose.
In some respects, that's not always the case. Some competitions have multiple winners, or at least multiple parties who "make the cut." The best example I can think of in my other industry of music is getting a gig at a particular venue. Whether it is a club, concert hall, restaurant, or wherever, there are probably a limited number of available slots for an artist to perform, so the goal is to fill those slots with a variety of acts so as not to saturate the event. One musician is not necessarily going to play every Saturday night at the same restaurant; there is probably a rotation of musicians who come in over a set period of time. Therefore, if the competition is between getting the gig and not getting the gig in this case, you have a better chance of succeeding, and your success does not automatically equal the failure of someone else.
However, it is very easy to forget this. No matter the industry, our failure can easily seep into our thoughts when we see someone else succeed, especially when it has no correlation to our situation! If I see a colleague succeeding at a gig at a restaurant where I once tried to get a gig years prior, why am I jealous? That doesn't mean that I am not a successful musician! I can have tons of other gigs that allow me to perform and compensate me, but the fact that I didn't get that one gig and someone else did still irks me. These are the situations where many of us need to take the additional time to think through these thoughts and readjust our views.
If a baseball roster has 25 guys on it, then 25 guys are going to make the cut, not just one. Sure, there may be competition to earn a specific spot, but pulling the lens back will show that the example is somewhat similar to the idea above.
The point is that competition sometimes leads us to become jealous or wish even wish failure on others when it really has to bearing to our success. Our paths sometimes lead us to something greater, and we have to be open and awake to that.
Have you ever stopped to think about whether professional athletes are actually friends?
On one hand, as we have always stated, it would behoove athletes in the same sport to recognize that they are all on the same team when it comes to being in the same union. There is no reason to fight with members of other teams within the same sport for that reason alone, let alone that it is just plain wrong. After all, they all want the same thing: a fair wage to play a game for a living.
But on the other hand, think about how players on the same team have to compete with not only the players in the other dugout or on the other sideline, but on their own team as well. If a player isn't performing well, he will usually be replaced by another player. It becomes a competition within the same team to make sure that playing time is earned so as to avoid the "business" of sports where a slumping athlete will be benched for someone who might produce.
A similar comparison might be two actors who are both auditioning for the same part. Or even just two professionals both trying to get the same job. Colleagues under the same heading (and perhaps in the same union) must now fight for work just to be on the proverbial playing field where the actual work might happen!
The common response to this is that "it's a business." The business is to produce the best possible product so that the bottom line continues to grow. Success is defined by the income brought in, not the quality of the work.
It's not something that is changed easily (or even needs to necessarily be changed). But it does deserve a second thought when it comes to trying to empathize with others. Perhaps some of the lessons learned in this conundrum can be extrapolated into our lives.
As we return to the book "No Contest" by Alfie Kohn, an interesting thesis is presented. We discuss competition as it relates to sports. We've even examined it at the workplace. But what happens when it comes home?
A quote from Walter Weisskopf cited by Kohn notes that competitors eventually sprout in the forms of "sex partners, siblings, neighbors, and peers of his group." It's no wonder that a slang term for bedding a lover is "scoring!"
But think back to elementary days when emotions and attractions were not what drove someone towards a partner, but rather the competition to call him or her "yours" and parade him or her around like an object to be shown off.
Think of even more complex questions that could develop later into relationships as adulthood presses on. Perhaps partners wonder who has the bigger paycheck, the most friends, or the sharper wit, to quote Kohn.
What happens when a child is born? Could there be a competition as to which parent will be preferred by the child? Could multiple children signal a competition for who is Mommy's or Daddy's favorite? Do parents begin to compete with other parents as they socialize, wondering whose infant walked or talked first? Does it continue as it is compared as to whose teenager got into the better college?
As you can see from these suppositions, anxiety is probably knocking at the door!
The point here, though, is that a conscious awareness that we have the potential to bring this type of setting home with us may just diffuse it and prevent it from even happening. We are practicing good sportsmanship when we realize that none of these things should be a competition! There is no ultimate prize in winning any of these games! A perceived status or quick and short-lived gratification do not feed the ultimate desires of being human.
Instead of feeding this beast, work to celebrate each individual accomplishment for what it is: individual. It's not a game when it comes to this stuff.
I know we have bored readers with the exhaustive look at self-esteem and its relationship to competition and sportsmanship over the past few weeks. So we'll move on...slightly...
If you're looking for more material on similar subjects, check out the old book "Problem Athletes and How to Handle Them" by Bruce Ogilvie and Thomas Tutko. Although published many moons ago, there is a key point that holds true and reflects some interesting thoughts for us today.
According to their research, participants in athletics "with immense character strengths" actually tend to avoid competitive sports.
That's right. If you subscribe to this train of thought, if you see someone who does not enjoy competition (specifically athletics), that person has a lot of strength in the ol' noggin. This is an amazing thought when we consider begin to consider old phrases about how competition builds character, etc.
Along these lines, according to Ogilvie and Tutko, competition actually can fuel things such as depression, extreme stress, and the tendency to only have relatively shallow relationships. Perhaps that may be a bit obtuse, but the theory seems to hold truth.
Look, we're all going to face competition. And just because research shows something like this doesn't mean that we should give up competitive athletics. What it does mean, however, is that a more conscious understanding of how our psyche works mixed with a greater awareness of what unchecked competition can do can prevent us from heading down this dangerous path. Maybe it can help us actually indirectly build character.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.