My 8-year-old son struck out at batting practice the other day. You'd think that wouldn't be such a big deal -- after all, it was only practice -- but the barrage of put-downs thrown his way by teammates was enough to make the "Mob Wives" blush.
And how did my son respond? "Shut up!" Not his best moment, I admit, but in the heat of the moment, it was the first response that came to his mind.
That incident, along with several others among the boys, was enough to make the coach issue an ultimatum to both players and parents: Any kid caught being mouthy, or unsupportive, to fellow players would be benched the next game. His goal, he told me later, was to break the boys of a negative habit that would not only destroy team camaraderie, but possibly discourage kids from playing team sports in the future. I had to agree.
Smack talk usually refers to putting down players on an opposing team. But what about when it happens among kids on the same team?
Young kids aren't always the picture of patience and good sportsmanship when teammates drop balls, make errors or run to the wrong end zone. It takes plenty of training and practice to avoid the knee-jerk "you suck!" response and come up with something more thoughtful to say. Here are some tips:
Watch out for copycats -- Kids will copy what they see and hear. How do you react when your kid screws up a play or misses a ball? If the answer is name-calling, put-downs or other non-supportive remarks, then that's what's going to fly out of your kid's mouth when he sees someone do the same.
Offer choices -- Some kids don't even know how to be supportive. Offer him some suggestions: "Maybe next time," "good try" or "shake it off," are all appropriate responses to give teammates who don't make the mark. Practice the sayings, so they become automatic -- even when everybody in the dugout is ticked off.
Provide consequences, or incentives -- If the coach won't take the lead in curbing un-sportsmanlike behavior, then you'll need to. Some kids respond better to a consequence, like benchwarming after an infraction. Others might do well with an incentive for being a good sport. Either way, help your kid be aware of his behaviors, so he can change them.
Smack talk is certainly nothing new in the world of sports, even at the youth sports level. But constantly putting down one's teammates is not only bad for team morale, it sets a poor precedent on how to be part of a team. Help your athlete succeed by stressing the importance of being a good sport, so he can win in more ways than one.