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Improving Sportsmanship in Education-based High School Athletics

By Dr. David Hoch, CMAA on February 08, 2017 hst

Editor’s Note: The following is an interview with Valerie Miyares, athletic director of Wekiva High School in Apopka, Florida, and Vince Sortino, athletic director of the Baldwin-Whitehall School District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, regarding suggestions on developing sportsmanship programs in education-based high school athletic programs.

Question: How do you cover the issue of sportsmanship at your preseason parent meetings?

Miyares: We discuss it at all parent nights for the school – the Athletic Open House, team meetings and every opportunity. There is a section in our student handbook that explains if a player or spectator is ejected, and this also includes adults, that you are personally responsible for any financial penalty that is levied on the school. I then jokingly explain that the parent will be called into the principal’s office for a meeting between myself, our principal and the spectator in question. The financial responsibility typically perks their ears up, and it has helped.

Sortino: All coaches have time during our preseason meetings to cover the required district expectations. Everyone seems to enjoy this approach rather than hearing from me and it also provides an interactive opportunity with our coaches.

Question: Do standard signs in venues, state association slogans and public-address announcements at games really work to improve sportsmanship or are your personalized efforts at your school more effective? What works best in your setting?

Miyares: Perhaps we are lucky. We have an outstanding public-address announcer and he does a great job reminding the crowd of their limitations. Instead of any slogans or catchy phrases posted around our facilities to encourage sportsmanship, we attempt to make it a part of our everyday culture in order to achieve our goals. When that doesn’t happen, we typically have the administrator or off-duty officer to also get involved. When other spectators see a person in question being singled out for their actions with school administration and/or law enforcement, that presence usually goes a long way to keep spectators acting appropriately.

Sortino: Unfortunately, very few really listen to public announcements about respect and expected behavior at the beginning of the game. Instead, we meet with our student body to discuss the importance of sportsmanship and use our student leadership council to get this message out to our students. This leadership group meets every month, and outside speakers and local businessmen stop in to share and help develop their skills.

Question: With preseason parent meetings, getting to know your students and community members over the years and posting helpful articles on your websites, you may have a decent handle on your fans. But it usually seems that many of the problems with sportsmanship arise from opponents’ fans who may not have the same expectations at their schools. How do you handle this dilemma?

Miyares: This is always a difficult issue because an opposing school doesn’t always have an administrator who travels to all games. Orange County has made it a practice that at least one or two administrators have to attend away games when we play our rival schools and a few other games in order to be a presence with our students. Also, we treat the opposing spectators the same as our own fans with respect to sportsmanship expectations. It there is a problem, we also point out that we will be contacting their school’s athletic director and principal in regards to their behavior, so they can determine if any further consequences need to be implemented.

Sortino: Announcements are made at the beginning of a contest and encourage fans – for both teams – to cheer positively and demonstrate respect. We have a no-tolerance policy for fans who yell at players, coaches, officials or other spectators. There are posted signs which highlight this policy.

Question: While you surely cover sportsmanship expectations in preseason meetings with your coaches, what do you do when one of your coaches strays and exhibits unacceptable behavior at a game?

Miyares: If it’s a game that I am attending, I typically will walk over to my head coach on the sideline, dugout or bench and quietly tell them, “That’s enough – It’s not worth the ejection.” Usually interceding with a short quick sentence will get them to at least stop yelling. In the rare case in which a coach is ejected, you escort your coach out. The following day, you have a discussion about the incident and what is needed to improve.

Sortino: There is an open line of communication with our coaches and we constantly talk about expectations. If there was unacceptable behavior at a game, we would meet in private the next day and never during a game in front of student-athletes or fans. It is my job to provide strategies and redirect coaches in a positive supportive manner.

Question: What specific initiatives have you created at your school – and this is beyond embracing your state association model – to improve sportsmanship? And why does it work?

Miyares: After increasing issues with the student section, we assigned an administrator to sit with them at almost every home game. As a means to improve behavior, we selected three to four “Student Section Captains” who met with me on a weekly basis to discuss the week’s upcoming opponents and what their plans were as a student section for each game.

For example, what theme would they be dressing as for the contest? Would this particular idea, topic or genre be off limits? Can we do this? Can we do that? An excellent dialogue was created and it allowed me the opportunity to discuss what we could – and could not – do and why. After the meeting, the captains were able to disseminate the information to the rest of the student body.

If there was an issue with the section, or a particular student, on game nights, all I needed to do was to go over and get the attention of one of our captains to explain the issue and what needed to be done to rectify it. Students became accountable to their peers, and NO ONE wanted to be the guy or gal who was tossed out of the student section and the game. Slowly, we started becoming a very respectable and fun group. The student section eventually opened its own Twitter account to communicate effectively with the entire student body. They created t-shirts and wore them as a badge of honor. It was an AWESOME transformation!

Sortino: Our student leadership group is working with a mentoring program for younger students. While this effort certainly includes all facets of their high school life, there is a significant portion of this approach relating to sportsmanship. This is one more way to get the message out, answer questions and help.

Question: How do you ensure that cheering at games is positive, supportive of your team and not being negative toward your opponent? How do you involve your cheerleaders in this effort?

Miyares: Having your cheerleaders create or implement cheers where the fans can cheer in unison with them always helps. Even the simplest of cheers can bring an entire home or visiting side together. We attempt to engage and involve the crowd as much as possible during games to keep their focus off of the negative or focusing on the opponent.

Luckily, we also have one school administrator who LOVES to get into the stands with the spectators. He starts all kinds of cheers and those in the stands will usually follow along with him. The people generally love his involvement and positively jump on board.

Sortino: Being positive, supportive and staying away from negative behavior, again falls under the direction of our student leader group. Through periodic meetings, we reinforce our expectations and they know that there is a no-tolerance policy. Generally, they do a great job!