Although some pregame traditions have come under scrutiny in recent years, there is still no better time to set the tone for good sportsmanship in youth sports than in the minutes before a kickoff, tip off or first pitch.
The challenge, however, is to make this activity more engaging than a half-hearted cheer. Pregame rituals should go beyond just looking good to the adults in the stands; they should actually mean something to the kids on the field.
While postgame handshake lines are a staple in most sports, having the entire teams greet each other prior to the game is less common but perhaps more effective.
A pregame greeting helps put names to faces and shows your athletes the other team is made up of kids just like them, rather than being some nameless ‘enemy.’ Even better is providing time for athletes from both teams to meet, chat and goof off together for a few minutes before adults issue any formal statements of sportsmanship.
An easy way to accomplish this might be to have the athletes stand in alternating fashion (as opposed to being divided by team) a few minutes before the national anthem plays and during any other pregame announcements.
As a coach, shaking hands and chatting with the officials and opposing coaches is also important for setting a good example for your team. Some coaches go so far as to have their players greet and thank officials and opposing coaches prior to the game. Not only does this encourage sportsmanship, it also helps younger athletes practice the components of a respectful greeting, including eye contact, a few polite words and a firm handshake.
Many (if not all) high school sports associations make a customary public address announcement about sportsmanship prior to a game, similar to this one from the Alabama High School Athletic Association:
“Good evening, (name of school) welcomes you to (name of field / stadium / gymnasium) for tonight’s game. We remind you that interscholastic events are an extension of the classroom, and that lessons are best learned when respect is shown to all. Please let your good sportsmanship show during the game.”
Unfortunately, announcements like these often fall on deaf ears amidst pregame excitement.
One solution to get more people to pay attention is to allow one athlete be the honorary PA speaker, similar to how Major League Baseball games have a young fan announce the first batter in the lineup. People pay attention when kids take on a role usually held by adults, and this way they (and their teammates and opponents) might actually listen to the message being communicated.
In high school, sportsmanship should not only be encouraged between opposing teams, but also between athletes from different sports within the same school. Pairing up teams that have parallel seasons and having them support each other with pregame activities (such as forming a tunnel) and then staying to act as a cheering section can help create a connection between athletes that might not otherwise interact or publically support one another.
For instance, if a school’s baseball and softball teams are paired, the players attend each other’s home games and visa versa. Some schools also pair up teams that have different seasons (e.g. boys basketball and girls tennis), if teams in the same season have too many coinciding game days.
While getting an entire team to attend every home game is likely impossible due to other sports, school and life obligations, assigning a few team ‘ambassadors’ to each game can still provide some consistent representation. It could also be something done on a volunteer-basis, with a prize of some sort going to those who went out and supported their classmates the most.