Yelling at the TV. Cussing at a ref. Crying like the Northwestern kid. Wait, what are children getting out of sports, anyway?
Gathering to watch the Zags make Final Four history, passionate cheers for the hometown team no doubt will fill area living rooms, restaurants and bars. Where children are within shouting distance, can Zagmania or the game itself offer teachable moments about being good sports?
Yes – plenty, say coaches, sports leaders, and parents. Modeling good behavior works from the bleachers, in front of TVs, and as parents who support kids playing sports.
“It’s definitely OK to be passionate about a sport and a team; you just don’t want that passion to kind of show the ugly side to where you’re disparaging or putting down the other team or players,” said Phil Champlin, executive director of HUB Sports Center in Spokane Valley.
Parents modeling how to handle disappointment and keep perspective are other keys, he and others say. Spokane residents Cory and Kathi Plager share Gonzaga basketball love with their daughter Ellie, 11, and son, Abe, 9. Abe has grown into quite a big Zags fan, said his mom.
In fact, her son shed a few tears when Gonzaga lost only one time this season to BYU. Abe, watching in The Kennel with his dad, left the game somewhat sad, Plager said, and a little rivalry with classmates who supported BYU probably didn’t help.
Abe soon came around, though, after she and her husband talked to him about the bigger picture.
“That’s the key, perspective, reminding him Gonzaga still had all these other wins; this is just one game, and that they’ll play again,” Plager said. “It is just a game. We love the Zags, but there are other things to appreciate.”
With a laugh, she added, “It’s fun having a sports-crazy kid, but it can bring up some issues too.”
Plager had a recent reminder about fan behavior from talking to another mother describing her child wearing a 49ers jersey to school at the height of Seahawks frenzy. Other children yelled at the kid, while putting down the San Francisco team.
“I try to make sure my kids know if you see someone wearing a BYU jersey or a whatever to school, you don’t yell at them,” Plager added. “You just be positive about your team, and don’t ever put another team down.”
“I’m always struck not just in sports but in everything about how much our kids are watching us, so when we’re watching the game, I think let’s not get too crazy. We need to be good examples.”
Bill Chaves, Eastern Washington University’s director of athletics, also suggests people keep a healthy dose of reality but still enjoy the many benefits of sharing a love of sports with children, whether that’s watching Gonzaga or being at a kid’s sporting event.
Despite wins or losses, players on a team can only control what they bring to the game such as their best abilities, attitudes and contribution as a good teammate, Chaves added.
“I think sports can teach kids an awful lot of life lessons,” he said. “As long as they enjoy what they’re doing and they love the sport, that’s the most important piece.”
“You want to be supportive. At the end of the day, there are going to be a lot of wins and losses, but you need to keep it in perspective. Only one team wins ultimately.”
Champlin’s calculation tracks it another way for how far the Zags team has come, to help kids see a bigger picture that, “343 teams would trade positions with Gonzaga in a heartbeat.”
“If they lose, you might be a little sad, but keep in mind what these young men have accomplished.”
Coaches often witness passion for sports from different perspectives – those of the players, fans, and parents – including those who get a little carried away in the moment. Central Valley High School boys’ basketball coach Rick Sloan first thought of one word, character.
“I think character first; that’s what defines you,” Sloan said. “It’s your behavior when nobody is looking. Sports is going to end for all of us. It’s the soft skills, the life skills you get out of it that have the true value.
“As a coach or a parent, you hope sports teach kids work ethic, team play, and unselfishness, those intangibles that go with a job or relationship with a spouse.”
Younger kids especially need to have fun when participating in sports, added Tara Groves, a Lewis and Clark High School teacher and softball coach. Her three sons at ages 17, 15 and 8 enjoy sports, and the eldest at Shadle Park will play basketball this fall at EWU.
“It’s not all about winning,” she said. “With our third-grader, we talk about how important it is to enjoy the game, learn the skills. The outcome of winning the game isn’t important. Learn to love the sport.”
That’s a foundation, too, if children decide to stick with an athletic pursuit, she added.
Philip Helean, Spokane Youth Sports Association executive director, said the organization’s mission includes emphasizing fun and growing up to love sports. Crossing a line would be players or parents criticizing coaches, referees or other participants.
“It can turn what is supposed to be a fun experience into a negative experience,” Helean said. “As long as you go out and compete and do your best, win or lose, be proud of how you played and competed.”
“You see fans that when there are losses, they’re upset and angry, and those aren’t healthy things. You have no control over how Gonzaga plays this weekend. I think that’s where people get into trouble. At the end of the day, it’s a game, you have fun, and you get a snack after the game, win or lose. That’s what we teach the kids; you still get a snack.”
The HUB’s Champlin also suggests parents can help by pointing out positive examples of good sportsmanship, such as when a player helps up a teammate who gets knocked to the ground. When a referee makes a bad call, and people get upset, the adult might circle back to talk with kids about how we’re all human and make mistakes.
Champlin added, “When they show the shot of the players on the bench, and they’re jumping up and down and being excited, you can say ‘Look they’re there encouraging and rooting on their teammates even though they’re not in the game.”
“Pointing out those good sport and good character aspects of what they’re seeing on television is a great way to try to reinforce those behaviors you want to see in your child.”
Chris and Renae Howat are raising a few sports enthusiasts, including a daughter who swam competitively and three sons in soccer. The family regularly cheers on the Zags together. Frustrations creep in watching a game, but Chris Howat said they try to stay positive.
“Fundamentally, it’s what you model as a parent,” he said. “If you want your kids to be positive and respectful to their teammates and the teams they’re watching, you’ve got to model that yourself. It’s not berating another team or player.”
Sports can teach kids much about participation, being respectful, and learning to adapt, Howat added. His approach with sport-active kids included remembering to be the parent.
“We’re not a coach, but we expect our kids to be coachable, open to coaching, adaptable and respectful. What we’ve tried to do the most is tell our kids to have fun and try hard. If you’re going to do this sport, have fun doing it, or otherwise why are you doing it?”
“They might get frustrated with coaches, situations, teammates, and the people they compete against, so our job there is to listen, provide a little guidance.”
“It’s more keeping them engaged if they show the enthusiasm.”
Gentle parent support in sports benefits everyone, said Pete Tormey, who played football for University of Washington’s Rose Bowl victory over Michigan in 1978. He’s now a big Zags fan, both working for the university and from the bleachers.
“Kids are only young for a very short period of time,” he said. “Support your children in sports but try not to live your sports aspirations through your children. I’ve just seen so many occasions when parents put so much pressure on kids. It ends up backfiring, with kids quitting athletics.”
His father didn’t know much about organized sports but always showed his support. “He’d just say, ‘do your best.’ ”
Tormey hopes families do their best at cheering on Saturday. “I hope everyone has a fun time watching the game and gets very passionate about the Zags.”
Win or lose, Gonzaga playing to the level they’ve achieved in the Final Four is a feat worth celebrating, EWU’s Chaves emphasized.
“The season won’t be defined on Saturday,” he said. “The season has been defined already for them. They’ve had a phenomenal year.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.