Sportsmanship and empathy are intricately connected. This is something that adults can readily understand, but kids and teens, especially girls, seem to struggle with. Why is that so common and what can you, the coach, do to help bring these traits out in individual players and infuse them as a culture into your whole team? The answer lays with understanding teen psychology.

According to, “sportsmanship is defined as ethical, appropriate, polite and fair behavior while participating in a game or athletic event. [For instance] When a basketball player plays by the rules, is fair to his opponent and is gracious when he loses, this is an example of sportsmanship.”

Is Sportsmanship Possible in Teen Sports?

TeensHealth has written on this topic, pointing out that the traditional sportsmanship which is supposed to be a mainstay of the world of sports has recently gone by the wayside and teen behavior on and off the court towards opponents, and even teammates has become noticeably worse. This impacts not only the people involved, but can also have negative repercussions on the ability of the team to do well in a season.

In the last few years, taunting, trash-talking, gloating, and cheap shots have become all too common in sports. You've probably seen athletes who take their own successes too seriously, too. They celebrate a goal with a prolonged victory dance or constantly brag about their abilities.

This is the exact opposite of what sportsmanship is all about. This kind of behavior might make you feel tough or intimidating to an opponent, but keep in mind it can also cause you to lose the match. Plenty of games have been lost to penalties gathered from "unsportsmanlike conduct."

If sportsmanship is defined as the ‘golden rule’ in sports, then it means treating others whether they are on your team or another team, the same way that you would like to be treated. This means showing respect for officials, coaches, cheerleaders and families of players on both sides, as well as for yourself. This is a simple explanation that you can provide to all of your players and to use as a team mantra. It is easily understood. Some kids will get it instantly and begin to act that way. If you are lucky the natural leaders on your team will inspire the other players to act this way. However, it isn’t always so easy.

The Teen Brain and Empathy

The fact that teens seem to be drawn to the lowest common denominator of behavior can be a source of huge frustration for coaches. However, it is important to realize that there are real reasons for this behavior and that there are real ways to use your position to help curb it. Rather than automatically assuming that all teens are selfish, or have a total lack of emotional intelligence, focus on the actual development of the adolescent brain.

According to research published in Melbourne Child Psychology,

“Cognitive empathy” and “Affective empathy” are also still developing during the teenage-years.

“Cognitive empathy” can be described as: the ability to mentally think about things from another person’s point of view (otherwise known as perspective-taking).  “Affective empathy” is the ability to recognize and respond to others’ feelings appropriately. These skills help us with social problem-solving, managing our own and other people’s emotions and avoiding conflict.

There are also two separate parts of the brain responsible for Affective and Cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy appears to relate to the medial prefrontal cortex and Affective empathy is grounded in the limbic region of the brain, which regulates emotions.

But the two are linked. A study conducted at the Research Centre for Adolescent Development at Utrecht University in the Netherlands (yet to be published) has found that a child’s Affective empathy predicts their level of cognitive empathy as teenagers.

Published research from the same Utrecht University has found some further interesting things about the development of empathy. Below is a summary of the research findings published in the journal, Developmental Psychology.

In girls: Cognitive empathy begins rising from the age of 13. Affective empathy remains relatively high and stable through adolescence.

In boys: Cognitive empathy begins rising from the age of 15. There is a temporary decline in Affective empathy between the ages of 13 and 16 years of age, but this does recover in the late teens.

This is further explained in Psychology Today:

During the teen years, teenagers are concerned with becoming productive members of their respective communities. In their maturation from childhood, they typically would have come to realize that in order to become valued members of society, that they need to acquire skill sets that [are] valued by their respective communities.

This is what makes the adolescent years turbulent for some people, because belief systems influenced by social values come into play, and some people have a difficult time in picking a skill set and achieving competency. Teenagers typically become self absorbed during their adolescent years, but it is not due to having no empathy - it is because they are going through a process of self discovery and what may seem like an unwillingness to engage may actually be a sign of having little to no confidence to engage on an emotional level.

There is evidence that the amount of time teens spend on social media is changing their view of intimate relationships and may be adjusting their emotional intelligence. More research is needed in this area prior to social media being to blame for what seems to be an increase in bad teenage behavior and a reduction in empathy towards others. (Source). However it is worth being aware that there may be a link between unsportsmanlike behavior that makes its way on-line and the behavior demonstrated court-side.

Achieving Good Sportsmanship

Part of good sportsmanship means that you, the coach, needs to model it. Part of teaching this means putting less pressure on your team to win at all costs. Remind them of the golden rule, and give them these ways they can emulate the behavior you want to see.

  • Learn as much as you can about your sport. Play by its rules. Show up for practice, work hard, and realize that on a team, everyone deserves a chance to play.
  • Talk politely and act courteously toward everyone before, during, and after games and events. That includes your teammates, your opponents, your coaches and their coaches, the officials presiding over the game, and even spectators (who can sometimes be loud about their opinions).
  • Stay cool. Even if others are losing their tempers, it doesn't mean you have to. Remind yourself that no matter how hard you've practiced and played, it is, after all, just a game.
  • Avoid settling disputes with violence. If you're in a difficult situation or someone's threatening you, seek help immediately from your coach or from an official. Remember, too, that if you respond with violence you could get penalized, which could hurt your chances of winning.
  • Cheer your teammates on with positive statements — and avoid trash-talking the other team.
  • Acknowledge and applaud good plays, even when someone on the other team makes them.
  • When officials make a call, accept it gracefully even if it goes against you. Remember that referees may not be right every time — but they're people who are doing their best, just as you are.
  • Whether you win or lose, congratulate your opponents on a game well played. (Source).

Find ways to reward and publicly acknowledge good behavior and remind yourself what stage your player’s brains are in development. Work with that. Communicate with parents and the players and make empathy part of what your team stands for. For more tips and tricks on how to be a great basketball coach follow Hustle.Fitness.