Talking Sportsmanship with Youth Players

Danny Jackson, former MLS captain of the Seattle Sounders is now a columnist for SoccerNation.comDaniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer (MLS) star and captain of the Seattle Sounders. SYSA is pleased to bring you his column with insights into the professional world of soccer with permission from soccernation.com.

It appears that fierce competition and financial pressures at all levels of sport have pushed sportsmanship aside. Do we turn a blind eye to talented players behaving badly? Has respect fallen victim to the longstanding hatred some players and fans nurture for the opposition? This is not something we should teach our youth. And even if bad behavior sells, the media has a responsibility to up-and-coming young fans to portray a more positive view of sports.

How we talk about these incidents with our youth players is extremely important. As coaches and role models, we need to use these situations as teaching opportunities. Youth players are influenced in so many ways, both positive and negative, but a consistent voice making sense of it all is vital. As coaches, we must establish values in our everyday lives, demanding respect and fair play in all that we do.

When I was growing up in youth soccer in England, there was always a sportsmanship award at the end of the season, along with recognition for the MVP and top goal scorer. The sportsmanship award emphasized that a person didn’t have to be the best player on the field in order to wield an immense influence. How you treated teammates and opponents mattered. It was a great lesson to teach a rowdy bunch of 11-year-old boys, all hungry for trophies and recognition. But sportsmanship is not just a shiny award at the end of the season; it is a mentality and a characteristic that should be an integral part of the game.

Even as competition became increasingly heated when I joined a youth academy, sportsmanship remained central. We fought hard on the field, and our desire to win and compete was huge. We fought for each other and also for ourselves. During practices, we were in direct competition for playing time and contracts. But in games, we dedicated ourselves to each other. I would do anything to help and assist my teammates. And they would do the same for me. As much ferocity as we demonstrated in practice, we showed more in games. It was a wonderful lesson in separating on-the-field competition with off-the-field friendships.

I learned an invaluable lesson in those two years: how to leave competition on the field and how to not take it personally. It’s a skill that serves young players well, if they can master it. You learn to be a warrior on the field, but that you must separate your off-field persona. This ensures your competitive spirit does not morph into dangerous personal hatreds and grudges, but remains professional, useful and appropriate.

On one soccer trip to Argentina with the Seattle Sounders, I became really impressed with how the Argentine players handled themselves. We spent two weeks there, playing a number of games against clubs like Estudiantes and Newell’s Old Boys. They played passionately; they would kick and hit you hard, but they would pick you up after. This was refreshing. The tackles didn’t hurt any less, but the impact and aftermath was clean.

There’s a lot of dignity in picking a player up or even apologizing after a bad tackle. In the heat of the moment, it’s too easy to cross the line between healthy aggression and a dirty foul. We can all get too worked up. Recognizing and managing those emotions is the key, but it’s not an easy thing to do. Sports can exhaust, drain and pump you full of adrenalin. You’re not always at your best, in terms of executing good judgment. If you can control yourself and compete respectfully when emotions are high, you’ve done well.

I think sportsmanship also extends to the issue of cheating – pretending to be hurt or fouled to gain a penalty or advantage. This practice seems more prevalent these days, as the pressure to win grows ever stronger. Soccer is big business now, from the youth level to the pros, and there’s such a demand for results. When Thierry Henry got away with a handball during a World Cup playoff game against Ireland, qualifying France for the 2010 World Cup, he admitted the handball. The incident led to a lot of discussion, and even escalated to comments made by the respective leaders of each country. This was a matter of sportsmanship, and how professional players with great influence should conduct themselves on and off the field.

As in so many other arenas, leadership is needed. It’s the coach’s job to teach players how to manage competition and demonstrate sportsmanship. The coach must create a positive environment and serve as a role model for youth. If the coach is shouting at the ref and opposition, players will emulate that behavior. Youth coaches can validate the worst behavior exhibited in the wider world of sports, or counter-balance it with a positive example. Parents too, must strive to lead their children in this arena. And when they don’t, it’s also the coach’s job to coral the parents.

I have actually benched kids for parental behavior. It’s a very tough thing to do, but when parents won’t follow the rules – and are shouting at players, other parents, the ref or the opposing coach – you must take action. You must first, of course, communicate your rules, expectations and consequences. Then, when their kid is pulled out of the game, they know why. I have found this sort of discipline to be very effective in ratcheting down bad sideline behavior, as hard as it is to punish the kids. Just make sure you follow through, and then reiterate the reasons behind your decisions.

Players at all levels must understand that poor sportsmanship carries serious consequences.

I think youth coaches can use the high-profile news incidents as powerful teaching moments. They should take time to talk with players about sportsmanship, respect and fair play. These kinds of dramatic illustrations can stay with players for a lifetime.

There is one very positive example of good sportsmanship that I vividly remember – a generous play made by Paolo Di Canio in 2001.

Now, Di Canio was generally a rather emotional, eccentric Italian player for West Ham United. In one game he stopped the play – catching the ball with his hands after the opposing goalkeeper twisted his knee. Di Canio could have scored, but refrained because he didn’t want to take advantage of an injured player. He was commended for his judgment and later won a FIFA Fair Play Award. It was an act that went against his immediate self interest and the success of his team. But it was the right thing to do. And that’s the kind of sports story we could all see more of.