When the topic of increasing sportsmanship comes up on a regular basis, we often think of pre-game meetings between coaches and captains, announcements over the public-address system and a handshake line after the game which conveys that both teams can accept victory and defeat in a graceful manner. The reality is that promoting sportsmanship starts much earlier than that pre-game meeting and extends well after that post-game line.
Setting the Stage
Before we can expect the teams taking the court to display good sportsmanship, the effort should start with the administration and coaching staffs at both schools becoming familiar with each other prior to arrival.
An easy way to start this process is for the host school to send a game management plan in advance of the game, with direct contact information included, and to arrange for someone to greet the visiting school upon arrival to campus. While it is preferred for the person on-site who greets the visiting school to be an administrator, that approach is not always practical, and even the use of a campus supervisor can foster goodwill between programs with a welcome message and official greeting onto campus.
That early contact and in-person greeting upon arrival not only shows a visiting school that the home school is interested in creating a positive atmosphere for both programs, but provides a face and voice to a potentially unknown opponent, increasing the personal connection.
While that might be a first step in fostering goodwill between programs, it does little to address another equally important aspect of sportsmanship, which is behavior off the court, especially in the stands. Like best methods to promote sportsmanship on the court, the effort off the court also starts long before the start of the game and involves multiple people who work either behind the scenes or along the fringe of the event itself.
As people walk into a facility, their attitude about an event starts with the initial perception. This includes attention paid to the cleanliness and set-up of the facility itself, an indication of the importance placed upon the program and event by the host school’s administration and support staff. This support staff includes the custodians, who are responsible for cleanliness; the athletic administrator who ensures proper facility set-up; and the event staff that works to ensure safe admission to each event.
Admission staff not only ensures that people have purchased the necessary ticket to enter the event, but often find themselves helping spectators learn how to purchase digital tickets, how to retrieve them from their email or app and how to redeem them. This is in addition to these staff members often giving directions to the nearest restroom, letting visiting fans know where to sit, and other small hospitality-based items that enhance the athletic experience for spectators. Having a friendly staff that handles these tasks and diffuses any potential issues without creating conflict can help set the tone for the event and give an immediate perception of the host program.
Just like we expect coaches to continually teach and coach sportsmanship cues with their student-athletes, the same philosophy can pay dividends with spectators at a sporting event. The obvious aspects of this are scripted announcements before, during and at the end of each event.
Even more important is the physical presence of school administrators who promote sportsmanship and do not allow confrontational or unsportsmanlike behavior during the event. An often-overlooked aspect can be the mere presence of additional coaches or staff members as spectators, as they can serve as vital ambassadors for either school by promoting positive sportsmanship values from the stands.
Aside from announcements over the public-address system, a host school can use positive signage to promote good sportsmanship. If a school has a digital scorer’s table for its indoor facilities, this is a perfect place for a creative graphic aimed at promoting sportsmanship. And while announcements, signs and graphics are certainly not going to alleviate all sportsmanship issues, the combination can set the tone of the event. Even the music we play at sporting events serves to set the tone and behavior of those at the event, and it is especially important at interscholastic events for this tone to remain professional and fun at the same time.
A big part of maintaining the sportsmanship-oriented approach during the game also comes from official scoring table staff. Consistent staff or trained adults who run scoreboards and do scorebooks add to the professionalism of an event. It is imperative each year, however, to remind them that they are officials at the game; they must remain neutral and cannot become an extension of the crowd.
Similar to the importance of a good pre-game support staff to help set the stage for a positive event, the same goes for the staff that is responsible at the end of events. The admission staff is often gone, replaced by supervisory and custodial staff. The end of a game often carries with it the greatest risk for poor sportsmanship inside the event to carry outside and turn into something worse.
With this in mind, we always make sure to start with multiple announcements in the final minutes of a game, thanking the spectators in advance for upholding the sportsmanship values that define interscholastic athletics and reminding students to arrange for their transportation so they are not lingering long after a game. As a game winds down, the announcer should thank both teams for their effort and wish the visiting team luck for the rest of its season.
Our supervisory staff is trained similarly to our admission staff, thanking spectators for their attendance as they leave and asking them to drive home safely. They are prepared to deflect comments regarding officiating or coaching, and to politely ask spectators to contact the athletic director after getting home if they have any concerns. Our supervisors and administrators keep an eye out for any issues all the way into the parking lot, while our custodial staff begins to clean the facility inside after only a few minutes, serving as a gentle reminder that loitering around after an event is not one of our target behaviors.
The biggest challenge in maintaining the sportsmanship-first, educational-based approach is the consistency of coaching and support staffs because we rely on them to spread the correct message. There is always going to be turnover in these positions, which is why athletic administrators should recognize the efforts of these individuals on a regular basis. Thanking support staff for taking shifts and doing their job within an education-based philosophy can make them feel valued and result in better retention.
It is a collective effort, and each person contributing to that effort needs to feel valued. An end-of-year meeting and dinner that includes support staff, like an athletics banquet, allows everyone to feel valued. This is one small way to show appreciation for the work they do to ensure that each event occurs within the educational- based philosophy of athletics and further serves as a positive view into school culture. It has been said time and again that the athletic department serves as the front porch to a school, and hosting events that emphasize sportsmanship from start to finish ends up speaking volumes about culture across campus.