This article was written by Duff Gibson and originally published on the Government of Canada website for 2015 is The Year of Sport in Canada.
When you see two kids’ soccer teams shake hands after a game, it’s usually for very simple reasons. It’s the polite thing to do and it may also be the policy of the league. Sportsmanship is encouraged in the same way parents encourage their kids to use their manners. The challenge however, arises when sport becomes more competitive, particularly in the case of contact sports. When young athletes are trained to be tough and aggressive and are constantly receiving messages about the importance of winning, sportsmanship seems less important and even counterintuitive at times.
That’s why it’s important to take a closer look at why we compete in the first place. I believe good sportsmanship is actually a sign of a healthy and ultimately more successful competitive mindset. An immense amount of time, money and expertise goes into sport in an effort to bring home the gold, but as renowned Canadian sport psychologist Dr.Terry Orlick points out, if it were only about winning, athletes would seek out weaker opponents rather than the top competition. As this is rarely the case, what else is at play here?
Being involved in amateur sport in Calgary, where so many national teams are based, has afforded me the opportunity to see first hand that many of the most successful athletes have similar values and/or attitudes about competition. I’ve been around these people enough to see them at their best and also when things don’t go according to plan. You see someone’s true colours when they fail and the best athletes I’ve known are great sportsmen and women when they win and when they don’t win. This suggests that sportsmanship is not a show, but who they are. It’s not just manners - it’s values.
Someone that I think of in this context is a Swiss skeleton slider named Gregor Staehli. Gregor remains the most successful athlete ever in my sport with 10 World and Olympic medals. I’ve had many discussions with him on the subject and would describe his competitive drive as being about the challenge of sport. If there was no challenge, if it was easy, there would be no reward. To Gregor, if he beat you because you had a bad day, there would be no value in it for him either. When he wished you luck, he truly wanted you to have your best race. Then, if you did and he beat you - that meant something. For him, it was no longer about a title or a record and even less so about another medal. It was about being your absolute best and facing great competitors who were also competing at their best.
Racing against Gregor in the environment he created was an honour and a pleasure, and on the few occasions I was able to beat him, he was always very sincere in his congratulations. After my first win internationally, what made the experience even better, was the support and sincere happiness some of my competitors had for my success. Gregor was a big part of that.
Ultimately I learned the greatest joy of sport for me also, lies in the challenge. When you come to this realization, you can wish your competitors well and even help them perform to the best of their abilities and in the end what you’re also doing is adding to your own sense of accomplishment if you are able to come out on top. In other words, sportsmanship isn’t counterintuitive to competition – it welcomes it, it encourages it, and perhaps most significantly, it has no fear of it. As a consequence, when an athlete adopts this mindset, they compete with a clear mind focused entirely on aspects of the sport that are in their control, and in the end, they dramatically improve their likelihood of success.
This article was arranged through a collaboration with the Coaching Association of Canada.
Throughout the Year of Sport, we are working with our Canadian sport partners on a content series that provides a perspective into various themes and topics where the sport community is focusing some of their attention.
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