Moms Discuss Teaching Sportsmanship Despite Loss The Olympic Games are throwing a spotlight on how elite athletes respond to winning and losing. However, the challenge of good sportsmanship in the face of loss is something that many parents have to confront regularly, whether their children are playing sports, or competing in spelling bees. This week's Mocha Moms discuss teaching kids good sportsmanship, even when they lose.
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Moms Discuss Teaching Sportsmanship Despite Loss

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Moms Discuss Teaching Sportsmanship Despite Loss

Moms Discuss Teaching Sportsmanship Despite Loss

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LYNN NEARY, host:

I'm Lynn Neary, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few Mocha Moms. We visit with members of this mother support group each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today, we're talking about sportsmanship, a topic inspired, of course, by the Olympics. We've been struck by how differently some athletes react to their medals. For those who win the gold, of course, it's a triumphant moment marked by exuberant joy or quiet satisfaction. But silver and bronze winners are more complicated. Some of those who place second or third are thrilled to be on the medal stand. Others can barely conceal their disappointment.

And in this year's Olympics, the worst display of bad sportsmanship came when Sweden's Ara Abrahamian, a Greco-Roman wrestler, angrily discarded his bronze medal at the award ceremony in protest. In response, the International Olympic Committee decided to strip him off the medal. Joining us for today's discussion are Mocha Mom regulars Jolene Ivey, Cheli English-Figaro, and Davina McFarland. And also with us is soccer coach Jeanne Robinson. Welcome ladies. So good to have you with us today.

Ms. DAVINA McFARLAND (Mocha Mom): Hey, Lynn. Nice to see you.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Mocha Mom): Hi.

Ms. CHELI ENGLISH-FIGARO (Mocha Mom): Hey.

Ms. JEANNE ROBINSON (Soccer Coach): Nice to see you.

NEARY: Jeanne, let me start with you because you're a coach. And, of course, Abrahamian may be an extreme when it comes to bad sportsmanship, but, you know, you also see how disappointed these athletes are - some of them when they get a silver or bronze, and I always think it's such a shame that they can't enjoy this moment because they have achieved so much. There they are at the Olympics on the medal stand, and I just wonder, you know, shouldn't they be able to relish it? And what's going wrong that they can't?

Ms. ROBINSON: Well, definitely, they should relish it. Look at all the athletes worldwide that want to be in their spot. And the whole philosophy behind the Olympics was to not care if you win but just to relish being a part of it. So it is a shame when they can't enjoy coming in second or third.

I think we learn more when we look at the winners that have been behind Michael Phelps and have said how wonderful it is to come in second place and just be part of the American team that's done so well. So when you see someone acting out like that, it is a disappointment to all the fans of the sport.

NEARY: You know, the whole idea of winning isn't everything is almost a cliche. But how do you impart that idea to your kids, that you want to go for the gold, but if you don't, maybe you need to pat yourself on the back and say I did pretty well? Jolene?

Ms. IVEY: You know, the great thing for our family is the sport that we've been most involved in is swimming, and it really is such an individualized sport in so many ways. You teach your kids to beat their own time. You're not trying to say you have to beat that kid. You always say, well, what was your time last time? Oh, what was it this time? Wow! You got a second off? That's great. So swimming is such a great sport for being able to reinforce that.

I think that something like basketball would be a lot harder to be able to do that. Such a direct team sport, where every member is dependent on everyone else, and one person might steal the limelight, and one person might mess up, you know, mess up the whole game for the team. So, you know, that kind of thing is more difficult. So, for our family, swimming has been fabulous for that.

NEARY: Boy, that whole idea of messing up, too. We've seen that in women's gymnastics at the Olympics, the young woman who feels like she lost the gold medal for the - for her team, yeah. That's really tough. I think what we kind of have to teach our kids, probably, is how do you move on when something like that happens?

Ms. MCFARLAND: I'm not sure how you teach - this is Davina - I'm not sure how you teach the children how to move on. But I think you begin in the beginning. Part of how you teach them how to lose gracefully is to teach them that it's more about the process. It's more about, you know, you've learned this great thing.

My kids are very involved in Cub Scouts. And so every year, they build a pinewood derby car, and then they race the cars. So it's usually all about, you know, who wins the race. Well, we try to focus on how much fun you had building the car, and isn't that cool that you designed it, and you made it, and all these other things.

And at the end of the day, there can only be one winner. And, you know, there are 90 guys there. So there's 89 losers and one winner. But the fact is, the best part is, didn't you have a good time building that car? And that's where you want to keep the focus, not on whether or not your car is the fastest. Because, you know, it's over in two seconds, but the memory that you carry with you about the time you took to build the car with your dad or with whomever and all the things you got to do, that you'll keep with you forever.

NEARY: Cheli, do you think that works in sports?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Well, I don't know. I mean, my daughter is involved in gymnastics, and just, you know, in interest of full disclosure, she is not going to be any kind of Olympic anything. She likes the sport, and she liked the sport for a long time. She's not particularly gifted in the sport. But she's eight, and she likes it. I think she likes the leotards, and I think she likes the attention.

And I think part of the problem, I think, is the emphasis on competition even at the very early ages and at the very early low levels because she's at a very entry-level space in terms of the gymnastics world. At her gym, she has to practice two and three days a week. And then they have these in-house competitions in which they're competing with their fellow classmates, and you have to pay 40 bucks a pop for these in-house competitions, and they get these little ribbons. ..TEXT: And I think it sort of breeds this false sense in the children. I don't agree with it. And when I withheld her from being in the in-house competition, I've been, you know, sort of slapped on wrists because the other children are in it, and mommy, I want to be in it, too. And I don't get the point, you know. It should be for fun. I mean, I think that recreational sports should be for fun for children, and I don't think they necessarily all have to aim to go to the Olympics.

NEARY: Well, you know, my daughter is in a soccer league where the idea is that nobody really keeps track of who's winning and who's losing, but everybody knows who's winning and who's losing. So it's really hard to go against that. Jeanne, you're a coach. I mean, it's really hard to instill that, in some way, that oh, this is just for fun.

Ms. ROBINSON: You know, I don't know that I always am in favor of keeping from the kids who's winning and who's losing because I think everybody does know. And when you deny that one team is doing well at a certain thing, you're kind of not sharing in their success.

I think, instead, what I try to do with my team is teach them to be gracious winners and gracious losers and to see the individual moments within a game that they won a certain interchange or did very well at a specific thing and then from that, to see what they need to alter and what they have control over in their own lives. I mean, somebody's going to come to the court. There's always somebody better, faster, bigger, stronger. You can't just want to be the best at everything. You have to appreciate someone else's strengths.

I had a girls' team that we entered into an all-boys league because there weren't enough girls teams in there. And I let them know going in, we were probably not going to do real well, but we were going to have a good time. So to be able to play, we had to pick up at least one boy to be eligible for this league. So we invited the little boy down the street who invited his friend, and we ended up with about four or five boys.

And we had our first game, and we played a fantastic team from New Carrollton in soccer and got crushed like 12 to 1 or something, right? And so I told the kids how proud I was of them because, you know, this was the first time 11 on 11, first time in a boys' league. These boys came to play, and it was a compliment to think they didn't hold back, that they played their hardest. And this was all they could do, and that we should learn from what they did.

And so we practiced some different things, and the last game of the season, we played them again. We lost, but we lost one to nothing. And at the end of the game, you couldn't tell who won and who lost because my team was so excited that they had improved to the point to lose one to nothing. We were thrilled. And the parents in the other team were saying gosh, this doesn't even look like the same team.

So I think part of it is you need to be able to be happy for your friends' success. You know, it is like the whole thing is a village. If your brother is a terrific swimmer, and you're not, you're happy when he wins.

NEARY: And as you pointed out, you have to be a gracious winner as well because there's nothing worse than a really arrogant athlete who thinks they're God's gift to the world.

Ms. IVEY: Oh, there is one thing worse than that. This is Jolene speaking. It's the parents who are not gracious winners or gracious losers. They're the worst. I mean, after all, the parents are supposed to be the role models, not the person who is in some pro-sport. And if they're out there acting a fool, then what do you think the kids learn?

NEARY: Yeah, of course. The kids are modeling on whatever behavior their parents are showing.

Ms. MCFARLAND: And I think no matter whether or not your children are involved in organized sports, you have to look for teachable moments. When you play board games with your children, and you know 90 percent of the time they're not going to win, and you know, when you win, how do you behave? And when you lose, how do you behave? That's where the learning begins. And you can't ignore those teachable moments because they carry those moments to the soccer field, to the swim meets and everywhere else, and, you know, someday, maybe even Cheli's daughter will take those moments with her to the Olympics.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Right. Here's to hoping.

NEARY: Well, you know, I mean, the board game is interesting because it seems to me - maybe you guys didn't do this, but up to a certain point, a lot of times, I'd let my daughter win a board game, and you know, then I started thinking, when do I stop doing that?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: I don't do that.

Ms. MCFARLAND: I never did that.

Ms. ROBINSON: I used to do it.

NEARY: Oh, God, I'm a bad parent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBINSON: It's OK, Lynn.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: This is Cheli talking. I would do it occasionally because I didn't want her to lose every single one. I wanted her to feel the victory at some point.

Ms. IVEY: I still lose sometimes, too. Like, when I race my kids, I usually like either just win by a nose or just lose by a nose to make them think that they were so far in it that, if they work harder, the next time they'll take it from me, or that they better speed up, I'm about to get them.

NEARY: Did any of you ever see your kids have a really tough loss, and what did you say to them, or how did you talk to them about a loss that they really had a hard time with.

Ms. ROBINSON: All you can do is give him a hug and say that we know how hard it is. We've been there, then move on to the next thing, not to make too big of a deal about it.

Ms. IVEY: Yeah.

Ms. MCFARLAND: And you also have to remind them to, again, be proud of the success it took to get there. My son is a really awesome speller, and he lost a spelling bee at the last word, one letter, and he was devastated. And after it, you know, he was really holding back. He tried really hard not to cry, and he didn't.

Then I took him out in the hall, and I said, you know, I'm really proud of the way you handled yourself, and I know it was really tough. And he said, mom, it was one letter. And I said, I know. You poor guy. I'm so sorry, but think about all the people who got out way before you did.

You know, but it's hard because there's not really a lot you can say. But, you know, again, look for teachable moments, and that was a teachable moment. I was so proud that he held himself together, and he didn't get angry, and he didn't stomp off, and he didn't, you know, melt down on stage. So those are the things we focused on.

Ms. ROBINSON: You mean, he didn't hurl his bronze medal back in their faces?

Ms. MCFARLAND: He didn't. That's because he was raised right.

NEARY: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and I'm speaking with the Mocha Moms about sportsmanship and setting achievable goals for kids. What about girls? I mean, do you think that there's any difference in terms of gender and how sportsmanship should be taught?

Ms. ROBINSON: I was mentioning earlier, I think, to one of your assistants, that studies have been showing that, actually, Fortune 500 companies, 80 percent of the CEOs that are women all claim to have been tomboys growing up. So they say that the activity level and the team work and the strategies for improvement, they were all things that they bring to the business and management world to make them better leaders and more used to successes and failures and how to handle them and how to strategize to move as a group to the next thing. So I think sports for girls and boys to be treated exactly the same.

NEARY: Have your kids been watching the Olympics, by the way?

Ms. ROBINSON: Absolutely.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Yes.

Ms. IVEY: Can you see the dark circles under my eyes because we've been up all night?

Ms. MCFARLAND: I keep falling asleep.

NEARY: Right, me, too. I keep trying to stay up and then falling asleep at the wrong moment. But, you know, what's their take, or have you had any discussions about some of these moments when bad sportsmanship has come up, or you've seen how disappointed some of these young athletes are over their performance? I mean, have you been able to talk about these kinds of things?

Ms. IVEY: You know, my kids - this is Jolene - my kids just say, mom, you are just such a mom because I see these amazing athletes who are doing incredible, incredible feats, and I just am amazed. And I don't care what team somebody is on. I don't care what country they're from. When they do a beautiful performance, I'm right there saying oh, that's great. And then, if they have something bad happen, I go, oh, that's terrible.

And my kids will be like, aren't you suppose to be rooting for the Americans? I'm like no, that's somebody's child. And that kid's out there working her heart out or working his heart out, and, you know, I just want to appreciate what each one does. I can't worry too much about who wins as a country.

Ms. ROBINSON: Sorry, that's an important part of teaching sportsmanship. You should be able to appreciate each athlete and skill set for what it is, not just whether you are rooting for your own team during the game. I mean, it draws divides. When we watch the Games, you applaud the best play and the successes that each team has, not always just one.

NEARY: But, of course, as part of what makes sports fun for people who aren't going to be in the Olympics, you know, is to watch and, particularly with team sports, is to root for a team. You know, you can't help but do that.

Ms. MCFARLAND: I agree. My kids - we've been watching, you know, the Olympics and, of course, last week, it was all about swimming. So everyday, when we will go to the pool, it was, you know, today, I am going to be Michael Phelps. And I thought it was so funny for these two little brown boys to be saying, I am Michael Phelps, when, you know, normally, you hear brown kids saying they want to be somebody, they are always like, I am Michael Jordan, or I am Dr. J. But my kids want to be Michael Phelps, so I think that's kind of cool.

NEARY: And Davina, your husband has coached sports, is that right?

Ms. MCFARLAND: He has, yes.

NEARY: So does he have any tricks for teaching sportsmanship that ...

Ms. MCFARLAND: You know, the main trick that he told me to make sure that I mention was to teach them about the process, you know? To enjoy the process of getting there and not so much focus on who wins or who losses or what happens at the end, but enjoy getting there.

NEARY: But have you or has anybody else ever had the experience of having a coach that you feel was putting too much emphasis on winning and had this sort of...

Ms. IVEY: We had a coach where, for one of our kids one time, that we basically said that our kid will not be on his team again. Yes. So, yeah and I was stuck with that.

NEARY: Because they were just too fanatic about...

Ms. IVEY: They did not have - that person did not have his priorities in order.

NEARY: And have any of you had an experience with a child who just had to leave a team or leave a sport because they weren't feeling good about themselves as the result of it? Or have you seen anybody else with kids that that's happened to him?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: My son, when he was little, we put him in kung fu because we wanted him to be more confident. And that worked out, we thought. We thought it worked out OK. He was great at forms. He really was, and he went to the competition. He always won in forms, but he got his little tail whipped.

And when it came to sparing, and sparing was a big part of it, he just never really got it together, and you had to participate in sparing in order to continue in that studio. And so we ended up taking him out after a couple of years because it was just a tearjerker. It was just a tear. He would come back from being, you know, defeated badly, you know, and we ended up just taking him out after a couple of years because it was too painful to watch and too painful for him to experience.

NEARY: And he has gotten over it?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Yeah, well, he's way past it.

Ms. MCFARLAND: Well, you know, Lynn, the great thing my kids have gotten out of swimming, particularly, is to see that the kids who only swim in the summer versus the kids who swim year round. And you can see that, by putting in all that extra work the rest of the year, that you see the difference in those swimmers. So it's been great for my kids to be able to know, if I put in this kind of time, if I work this hard, I will definitely get good results.

NEARY: I guess all I have to ask you, what do you think about Michael Phelps? I mean, in terms of sportsmanship, how's he handled it?

Ms. IVEY: Isn't he fabulous? I mean, he is so excited. I love watching him because I love his reaction at the end. He is just so gracious and wonderful, and the one day when he won and threw off his goggles and kind of tossed them to the side, it looked like he was angry. The commentators were speculating, oh, he thought it was going to go faster or whatever. It turned out he just couldn't see.

NEARY: He had bad goggles.

Ms. ROBINSON: You know, I just have to say, his mother must be a very wonderful person.

Ms. MCFARLAND: She really is. She must be. To raise a child who behaves that way. Absolutely, hats off to Mrs. Phelps.

Ms. IVEY: That's what we all aspire to.

Ms. MCFARLAND: Yes, indeed.

NEARY: Hats off to all good moms. Our Mocha Moms are Jolene Ivey, Cheli English-Figaro, Davina McFarland, and Jeanne Robinson. They joined us here in our Washington studio, and thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. IVEY: Thanks.

Ms. MCFARLND: Thanks, Lynn.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Thank you.

Ms. ROBINSON: Thank you.

NEARY: And that's our program for today. I am Lynn Neary, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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