Teaching Fair Play and Sportsmanship to Youth at All Levels

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Participating in interscholastic sports is more than playing games and winning trophies. Only a handful of young athletes will go on to a professional sports career. But the lessons that young people learn on the playing fields ― such as being fair to others and understanding the value of teamwork ― can enhance their emotional growth and stay with them throughout their lives.

“The purpose of interscholastic athletics is to enrich a student’s high school experience; promote citizenship and sportsmanship; instill a sense of pride in community; teach lifelong lessons of teamwork and self-discipline; and help young people grow physically and emotionally,” according to the Ohio High School Athletic Association.

For those pursuing a master’s in athletic administration online, understanding ways to promote fair play and sportsmanship can be invaluable to a successful career as a leader in an interscholastic sports department. Athletic directors (ADs) who keep up with current trends in fair play can help their departments run smoothly from year to year.

Sports management articles, websites, and refresher programs are available for ADs looking to brush up on their fair play and sportsmanship proficiency, including a free online course offered by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).

What Does Fair Play and Good Sportsmanship Entail?

Social skills and teamwork are among the most beneficial tenets of interscholastic sports. Student-athletes should learn how to work with others and improve their skills for the good of the whole team.

The basics of fair play are rather intuitive, but frequent review can benefit both students and coaches. A study done in 2017 by Fair Play and Happiness Through Sports (FAIRHAP) found the most popular methods for instilling fair-play values in student-athletes to be:

  • Teaching athletes how to respect each other both physically and ideologically, especially when disagreements arise.
  • Guiding students to reflect on their own behavior and ask themselves where they might be able to improve.
  • Setting a good example. Student-athletes who see their coach react badly to a loss are more likely to do the same.
  • Adjusting the level of competition by scheduling games with teams of differing skill levels to show students how to win and lose honorably and with humility.
  • Instructing students in fair play and sportsmanship through classroom lessons and lectures.
  • Selecting learning activities to highlight lessons in fair play and sportsmanship.
  • Creating an environment where students expect to learn while they are playing/training.
  • Teaching students to work with their peers to strengthen their sense of teamwork.
  • Helping students to understand others’ world views and beliefs by engaging in role playing.
  • Leading discussions on topics designed to guide students toward personal reflection on their points of view.

Athletic directors can aid their programs by crafting a mission statement around the concept of fair play.

The Sportsmanship/Citizenship Manual by the Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) is one such example. The manual defines sportsmanship as being courteous to all (participants, coaches, game officials, and fans); knowing the rules of each game and respecting officials’ decisions; winning with character and losing with dignity; appreciating good performances, even on the opposing side; exercising self-control and positive self-reflection; and building an image of sportsman-like behavior for the school and its athletic department.

As with any athletic endeavor, sportsmanship and fair play require disciplined practice and consistency. A compelling mission statement can guide student-athletes toward being a valuable part of a cohesive team and help them build the type of self-confidence that comes from the honesty and respect inherent in good sportsmanship.

What Fair Play Standards Are Required of Athletic Departments by Law?

State laws vary regarding fair play in interscholastic and community sports. One regulation in particular, though, applies to all educational institutions that receive federal funds: Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Title IX, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation’s “Play Fair: A Title IX Playbook for Victory,” focuses on equal opportunity for male and female athletes, especially where separate teams exist for both genders.

The regulation doesn’t mean that high schools with a male football team must have a female football team. It does require that the male football team and the female softball team have equal access to fields, equipment, and training facilities. The penalty for violating Title IX can result in the withdrawal of federal funds from the school as a whole, not just the athletic department.

Many states have added to the federal fair-play laws by requiring schools to provide equal opportunities for special-needs children where they are needed and feasible.

Learn More About Ohio University’s Online Master’s in Athletic Administration

Ohio University houses one of the first academic programs in the nation to offer post-graduate educational options in the field of sports administration. Since its inception, OHIO’s Master’s in Athletic Administration online program (MAA) has consistently graduated skilled athletic directors who understand the importance of fair play and sportsmanship in interscholastic sports.

OHIO’s teaching staff focuses on preparing interscholastic athletic directors to nurture student-athletes and run athletic departments fairly and successfully. The MAA program includes the Management and Leadership in Sports course, which covers strategies for building teamwork, fostering effective communication techniques, and maintaining a fair play environment.

Ohio University’s MAA program is accredited by the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation (COSMA) and prepares students for National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) certification. For more information, visit Ohio University’s MAA page.

Recommended Reading:

10 Inspiring Examples of Sportsmanship

The Importance of a Strong Coach-Athlete Relationship

10 Ways Coaches Can Promote Sportsmanship


School Sports Are Vital to Ohio’s Youth – OHSAA

Sportsmanship Course Details – NFHS

Field Research Report – FAIRHAP Project

Sportsmanship/Citizenship Manual — KSHSAA

Title IX Playbook for Victory – Women’s Sports Foundation