On Sportsmanship

Lev and another boy were fighting over a ball on the playground. The other boy’s parent had the idea to make it into game: when they started fighting, he took the ball away from both kids, and bounced it some distance away so they had to scramble after it. He did this a number of times. He watched them scramble, laughed, and said “hey, look, the kids are playing a game!”

Except they weren’t. Or if they were, it was only technically so; the kids were not showing any signs of enjoying the activity the way people usually enjoy games. When the ball was taken away from them, the screamed and cried heartrendingly, when they scrambled after it they did so grimly, and the one who failed to get the ball was desolate at the loss. Incidentally, it was Lev who almost always lost: he was slightly smaller, and perhaps more importantly, he had no sense of strategy. If someone is about to throw a ball in a random direction, you should watch them closely for hints of which direction they will move — but Lev didn’t do that, mostly because he was too busy crying in outrage at losing the ball and demanding it back imperiously.

“Be A Sport”

In short, the toddler game was utterly devoid of the quality that is sometimes described as “sportsmanship.” I didn’t realize it was something one had to learn until I saw its complete absence. You hear of kids, upset at losing, being told “aw, be a sport.” Lev definitely has a long way to go until he learns to “be a sport.”

I suppose the quality of sportsmanship is actually rather an abstract skill. One has to get the notion that one has two levels of goals: first, an in-game goal, and then secondly, a larger goal to enjoy the game together, which can sometimes supersede or even negate the in-game goal. Then one needs the judgement to choose at each moment which goal is more important.

A Lack of Perspective

Part of the problem may be that one of the premises of sportsmanship is that no one cares that much about the in-game goal except in the context of the game. For instance, normally one wouldn’t pick up a soccer ball and exult in its possession entirely outside of any game involving the ball. But Lev is perfectly capable of doing just that. He is very passionate about the possesion of balls, with no other goal except that they should be his to kick or throw around. He has owned very little in his life, so he is very insecure and defensive about possession of things in general — with some good reason, for things get given to him and taken away quite often, and probably from his point of view, alarmingly arbitrarily.

Bad Playmate?

So it is quite understandable that “sportsmanship” is a concept that eludes Lev. That said, it is one that I am anxious that he should learn sooner or later, and the sooner the better. He has a lot of good qualities: he is active, assertive, and not a bit shy. However, in the absence of any sense of sportsmanship, these qualities make him a terrible playmate – they magnify all the bad qualities of two-year-old interactions. He might even be called a veritable terror in the playspace or playground. But the addition of even a little bit of a sense of sportsmanship would turn his bad qualities into good ones. If he only learned to “be a sport,” even a little bit, I could see him turning into the kid everyone wants to play with.