Middle School

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In search of positive role models for kids in professional sports

Boy tween holding soccer ball - in search of positive role models for kids in professional sports 

I cringed as I witnessed the meltdown. The stomping of baseball cleats. The yelling. The angry throwing of the bat, then the batting helmet. The only thing was, it wasn’t my child behaving this way, but a grown man – a major league baseball player – on TV.

Sensing a teachable moment, I turned to my son and said gravely, “Ohhhhh. Matt is being rude, and now the umpire says he can’t play in the game anymore.” My son – five years old at the time – nodded and tried to act like it didn’t bother him, but I still detected a quiver in his lower lip.

We’re a family of sports fans; we have watched and attended all kinds of games over the years. Increasingly, though, some of the behaviour displayed by professional athletes is highly problematic. In hockey, there are intentionally hurtful hits and fighting. Baseball players are suspended for the use of banned substances such as steroids. Basketball courts are a stage for showboaters displaying a macho, “Look-at-me” attitude. Violence is inherent in the game of football, with the spillover effects of criminal behaviour or domestic assault.

As a parent of two young sports fans, I find myself feeling uneasy. But what do I do when the kids witness an athlete doing something inappropriate? Should I speak up and address it, or change the channel and hope it went over their heads?

Dr. Cal Botterill, a professor of sport psychology who has worked as a consultant with NHL teams and Olympians, says ignoring the undesirable behaviour is the worst thing a parent can do. “Silence on the part of the parent is often perceived as a type of endorsement,” he says. “When we think something is disgusting, we shouldn’t hesitate to show some emotion – otherwise kids might not know we care.”

According to Dr. Botterill, commenting or questioning is a great way to start a dialogue. “Ask things like: ‘What did you think of that behaviour? What do you think the consequences might be? Can you think of a response that might be better?’” Another strategy is to point out a better-behaved athlete as an alternative. Happily, there are some upstanding individuals in pro sports (see sidebar). Also, every two years the Olympics offer inspiring stories of remarkable Canadian athletes motivated not by a professional salary, but by the love of their sport. It’s also a golden opportunity to showcase much-needed female role models, such as curler Jennifer Jones and the Dufour-Lapointe sisters in skiing.

Dr. Botterill suggests finding and actively following “role models who are humble, grateful, respectful, caring, and dedicated. It can be a challenge to promote these attributes in a world often characterized by blatant exhibitionism, disrespect, and arrogance, but young people need to come to realize the drawbacks and limited shelf-life of these behaviours.”

My son is still a devoted sports enthusiast, and recently developed an interest in professional soccer. On New Year’s Eve, he announced: “Mom, July 30th was the worst day of the year.” Bewildered, I asked why. His response: “Because my favourite player, Axel Witsel, got a red card.” It confirmed to me that my kids are in fact paying attention, and that I need to carefully coach them as fans while we wait for some of the grown-up athletes to, well, grow up.

The good guys

When your family tunes in to a game, watch for these successful pro athletes who also demonstrate outstanding values and character.

NHL : Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks.

The Winnipeg native has been the Blackhawks’ team captain since the young age of 20, and his composed demeanour led his teammates to nickname him “Captain Serious”. The two-time Stanley Cup champion and back-to-back Olympic gold medallist is also an ambassador for Canadian Tire Jumpstart, a charity that funds sport participation for underprivileged kids.

NBA: Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers.

While LeBron James naturally dominates the spotlight, the 6-foot-9 Thompson from Brampton, Ont. has established himself as a solid member of the supporting cast. Last year, he and his mother Andrea partnered with Epilepsy Toronto to start the Amari Thompson Fund, named after his younger brother who has epilepsy.

MLB: Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins.

Far from being an average Joe, Mauer’s story is a feel-good one. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, he has played for his hometown Twins since he entered the league in 2004. Such loyalty is rare in today’s business of pro sports, where players frequently change teams in search of lucrative contracts or media attention. The six-time All-Star makes countless appearances at local charity events.


Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, May 2015.

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