Teaching Compassion in Sports

The longer my son plays soccer, the more one thing becomes clear: we, parents as a whole, have a lot to learn (and teach) in terms of compassion and team sports.

At one recent tournament, over even the voices of the parents on our sidelines came the voice of a father on an adjacent field, constantly berating his teen daughter. The constant negative commentary was grating, and one couldn’t help but pity the man’s daughter.

This may be an extreme example, but it’s not uncommon. My son’s former coach, at our first parent meeting, offered a story of a former player who asked to only play on one side of the field – the side away from her father, because his constant shouting was so disruptive. He informed us that he had also banned another father from attending the games because his constant barrage of commentary and criticism was so disruptive to both his child and the team as a whole – so we needed to be only supportive and leave the coaching to him.

When did such pressure come to be a common thing? I don’t recall any time as a child or teen hearing any parents on the sidelines shouting instructions or criticism of their children on field (or on court). Not once.

These days, it is all too common.

The pressure to WIN that comes from the parents (and some coaches) has grown out of control. After all, what kid doesn’t walk on field or court wanting to win?

It seems, too, that the pressure and focus put on winning matches also affects children’s spirit of sportsmanship and compassion towards both fellow and opposing players.

My son shares the goalkeeper position on his team, playing half of each match in that position. It is a position that makes me anxious, so I tend to grab my camera and follow the team up and down field on the sidelines looking for interesting action shots to distract me. This often puts me at the opposing team’s sideline. At a recent match where the other team was particularly physical, they yelled at the referee in disgust when a foul was attributed to one of their players, and when one of ours fouled one of theirs, shouts of “kick his @#%” and “pound him” were heard. At the end of the match (which they won by one goal) instead of shaking hands with our boys as they lined up, the other team laughed at them and did cartwheels.

These are 10 and 11 year olds.

Compassion? I think not.

I’ve witnessed coaches screaming and swearing at their players when they “screw up”.

I’ve observed players (on other teams) berating and badmouthing fellow teammates when mistakes are made.

What messages do these actions ultimately send our children?

I see:

  • disrespect for the referee
  • poor sportsmanship
  • belief that winning at any cost is the end goal

Ultimately, what I want my son to learn is respect for his coach, his teammates, and the referee – including the fact that “the referee is always right (even when he isn’t)”. He has the final say, and back talk, a show of anger or poor sportsmanship could land you with a yellow card. It is a great introduction to the concept that not everything in life is fair.

And, look – I get it. It is far too easy to get caught up in the energy of the moment. It is tempting to join in with rejoinders to the referee on a perceived bad call or missed call, to shout instructions to a player who seems to be out of position, to coach from the sidelines.This is not our job. Our job is to encourage. To be positive role models.

The reality is that these kids are only 10 and 11 (or 8, or 6, or 15). They are not professionals. The goal at younger ages should be on development: skills, teamwork, compassion. With growth and development come victories – whether personal or team.

Our kids need to learn compassion on field. With sports such an integral part of the lives of so many children, what they learn on field they WILL carry off.





    • Jenn

      It really made me sad and I vowed that if ever heard someone yelling so badly that we were all cringing, I’d find a kind way to say something. Most of the time parents are supportive, but I bet if you asked kids what they want their parents to be shouting from the bleachers it would be…nothing.

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