When the Whistle Blows: Preparing Good Sports

Do you often feel a strong urge to pull on your tennis shoes and head for your local ward meetinghouse? Then you’re probably well acquainted with Church-sponsored sports and fitness activities that affect hundreds of thousands of Church members (and many nonmembers as well) each year. Scratch the surface of a well-organized sports program and you’ll find stories of successful fellowshipping, reactivation, and missionary work. You’ll find stories of fun times with family members and friends from church.

Unfortunately, however, not all of these programs run as smoothly as they ought. Problems with sportsmanship sometimes arise, problems which hamper the effectiveness of sports activities. Some people shrug these problems off as “just human nature,” which seems to imply that nothing can be done about it. But there are ways to improve sportsmanship in Church sports activities, as many Church leaders have discovered.

“We as a church need to move vigorously to promote every aspect of sportsmanship,” said Clark Thorstenson, director of physical activities for the Church General Activities Committee. “We need to keep in mind that a major purpose of sports programs is the development of character and Christlike qualities. With proper planning and preparation, this can be achieved.

“To help promote sportsmanship, the General Activities Committee has developed a Sports Officiating Manual (PBAC0238) to help train our officials, teach them the rules of play, and help them become better qualified. The Physical Fitness, Sports, and Recreation Manual (PBAC0158) has been revised and now includes a strong section on suggestions and programs for improving sportsmanship. In the yearly auxiliary training programs for ward and stake activities committees, suggestions are given for promoting sportsmanship. And a filmstrip on sportsmanship, A Winning Season (VVOF4112), is available for use in wards, stakes, and regions.

“Sportsmanship is no different from fair play in life. When someone crowds into line at a grocery store, that person is a poor sport. We need to discipline ourselves and control our reactions in similar situations in sports,” said Brother Thorstenson.

Bob Leake, physical fitness and family recreation director on the General Activities Committee, agrees. “While many people play a game for the enjoyment of playing, some people have an appetite for competition and a desire to win that takes precedence over anything else. They’re so occupied with winning that they put their emotions on the front burner, and courtesies go to the back. We need to continually remind team members that a major purpose of the Church sports program is to offer a wholesome opportunity to participate in a wide variety of activities that involve play and competition. While we need to promote a high level of play, we also need to remember we’re not playing professional ball. We can still keep the goal of playing well, and do it gracefully and within the rules.”

How can that be accomplished? Strong priesthood leadership in sports programs, sportsmanship incentive programs, and training capable officiators and teaching players the rules can help set the stage for success in strengthening character and developing qualities patterned after the Savior’s example.

Strong Priesthood Leadership

“The best sports programs always reflect the support of priesthood leadership,” said Gil Tobler, male sports director on the General Activities Committee. “On every level, whether ward, stake, or region, the best programs are found where priesthood leaders are actively involved and supportive. They listen to their sports directors and give them the support they need.”

Many priesthood leaders are becoming directly involved in sports programs, though management styles may differ somewhat. Regional representative Robert Garris of the Albuquerque New Mexico Region relies strongly upon the suggestions of the regional sports director to promote sportsmanship in his region.

The sports director brings his proposals to the regional council meetings, where the proposals are checked to make sure they follow the guidelines given by the Church. The council then makes a decision on the proposals, and the sports director implements them. “Our regional sports directors have been very successful in helping establish good feelings of sportsmanship in our regional tournaments,” says Brother Garris. “Everybody feels good about the games, even those who’ve lost.”

President Lowell Tingey of the Yuba City California Stake, which sponsors another outstanding sports program in the Church, likes to involve his bishops as much as possible in the sports programs.

“Our philosophy is to prevent a problem, not solve it when it comes,” said President Tingey. “To do this, I think bishops and stake presidents have to be involved in decision making for a sports program. I have the stake physical activities director or stake activities committee chairman report every month in our bishop’s council meeting for thirty minutes. Challenges in the sports program and decisions that need to be made are brought to our attention, and we make the decisions right there.

“Bishops interview all players to make sure that they’re worthy to participate in the sports programs and that they understand the rules. Bishops fill out a roster of those who will participate, and the roster is turned in to the stake at our monthly meeting. If a player is ejected from a game for unsportsmanlike conduct, that player needs the approval of his or her bishop and stake president to play in future games.

“We’ve also made it a policy in our region that participants in Church-sponsored sports attend at least two Church meetings per month,” said President Tingey. “That includes nonmembers.”

Each game is opened and closed with prayer in President Tingey’s stake, and each ward has a priesthood representative at each game as an observer. If problems with sportsmanship should arise, the priesthood representative can make the decision to forfeit the game.

To reinforce the concept of good sportsmanship, President Tingey assigns high councilors at the beginning of each year to discuss sportsmanship in sacrament meetings throughout the stake, emphasizing sportsmanship for fans and players.

In President Tingey’s stake, the first three-quarters of a season is similar to intramural play. Although a team may win or lose a game, they are not competing to play in the regional games at this point. The last quarter of play is spent in a double-elimination round robin. “That way the emphasis is on coming out, playing together, and having fun, not on winning or losing. A team member must participate in 80 percent of the games to be able to participate in the round robin.”

To help organize the stake sports program, a stake calendar is printed one year in advance of the games. All games, activities, and due dates for rosters are included on the calendar, which is published with the stake directory.

This program builds on President Tingey’s belief that “the real key to successful sports programs and good sportsmanship is for bishops and stake presidents to get involved. My motto is, if I’m going to be responsible for a decision, I’m going to be involved in it.”

Sportsmanship Incentive Programs

One method that some Church units are using to promote sportsmanship is a system where the responsibility for good feelings lies clearly with each participant. Among these approaches are honor calls, no officials at games, and team scores given for sportsmanship as well as for points earned in a game.

Honor calls take place when a player acknowledges to the game official that he or she has broken a rule of the game—fouls and other infringements of the rules are called by each player on himself or herself. For example, those who use honor calls do not accept a point which was gained as a result of a rule violation missed by an official. These calls have been used for years by the National Association for Girls and Women in Sports, and are now being encouraged in Church sports by the General Activities Committee. (See Physical Fitness, Sports, and Recreation Manual, pp. 19–20.)

The coach’s role in preparing the team for using honor calls is important to the success of the system. He or she needs to take the time to help train the team about the rules, so the team will know which situations are appropriate for honor calls. For example, in volleyball, touching the net or touching a ball before it goes out of bounds is appropriate for the call; in basketball, causing the ball to go out of bounds; in softball, balls and strikes. The coach is also responsible for announcing that honor calls are being used in a game. Officials should recognize honor calls by the players, and may overrule such calls when it is necessary because of circumstances involving other players.

“The coach helps set the mood of good sportsmanship in a game,” said Elaine Michaelis, female sports director on the General Activities Committee and volleyball coach for BYU’s nationally ranked women’s team. “The coach should be complimentary for the achievements of her own players, as well as the opponents. If leadership is strong in ward sports, honor calls can work.”

One reason sportsmanship improves in a game in which players are using honor calls is that players are not blaming the official for calling a foul one time and not another, said Sister Michaelis. Players realize that calling violations is their responsibility, so the responsibility for a fair game is on the player, not the official.

“A good example of honesty in play was at the second national women’s volleyball tournament, which BYU attended. One of my best players hit the ball to the floor in a crucial game, thus giving us the winning point. Then the team member, Brenda Peterson, told the official, ‘I know this was hard for you to see, and I don’t mean to question your ability to officiate, but I did touch the net.’ The official reversed the call. Even though it was a national championship, I don’t remember who won the game. What I remember is Brenda’s honesty.”

The “every player an official” system, where no officials are at the game, take the honor call system a step further. The players call all the fouls and violations on themselves. (See Physical Fitness, Sports, and Recreation Manual, p. 20.)

Generally, a clinic should be held before initiating the “no officials” system, to teach rules of the game as well as principles of the gospel related to integrity, fellowshipping, love, and excellence. Ground rules should be established, such as a team calls infractions on its own team members but not on the opponent’s team. Teams cannot question an opponent’s play or call. If situations arise where there’s not enough background or knowledge to make a decision, the two coaches or captains should discuss the situation and resolve it. If no decision can be reached, they may either consult the tournament director for a decision, or replay the point.

Another system for promoting good sportsmanship has been initiated by the Albuquerque New Mexico Region. It has been extremely successful in creating good feelings among both men and women in regional sports activities.

“We provide incentives for our players to be good sports by giving sportsmanship evaluations as well as game points for each game,” said Robert Reese, regional sports director. “A team must earn a certain number of sportsmanship points to be able to progress in the tournament.”

Five evaluators give each team a sportsmanship evaluation on a scale of one to five, then the high and low evaluations are dropped and the other scores are averaged. A game history is kept for each team, measuring the performance and making it easy to compare the progress of teams for each season of play. The written evaluations of the tournaments are sent to the regional representative, stake presidents, and stake sports directors. At the end of the tournament, awards are given for the team with the best sportsmanship, the most valuable player, and the all-tournament team.

“With this system I think there’s more peer pressure to behave while playing,” said Brother Reese. “Coaches are more conscious of actions of players on the floor, too. If a player loses his or her cool, the coach usually gets that person out pretty fast. Probably the best aspect of this system is the reduction of contention and divisiveness. There’s a proper spirit present so other things can happen that are more important than the game—fellowshipping and applying other gospel principles.”

Brother Garris has seen a great improvement in sportsmanship over the years that the system has been in effect. “There’s been a strong effort by wards and stakes to emphasize sportsmanship, and our problems of the past seem to have disappeared. People really want to get involved now, too, because they know they’ll have a good experience. We have over fifteen hundred participants in Church-sponsored sports in our region.”

The Salem Oregon region is using this “sportsmanship points” system and has found it successful also. “We haven’t seen one technical foul since the system has been in effect,” said regional representative Ronald Jolley. “I heard about the success they’d had in Albuquerque and got more details from the General Activities Committee office. The quality of play has improved radically, along with sportsmanship, and it’s had a positive effect on players, coaches, and officials.”

Training Officials and Learning the Rules

Basic to preparing a solid foundation for good sportsmanship is calling and training the best officials possible. An officials coordinator for the men’s program and another for the women’s program should be called for each level of play sponsored by the Church. The two coordinators may work together in conducting the officials program, or they may administer the program separately. Local priesthood leaders may delegate the responsibility for the officials’ training program for both the priesthood and the women’s programs to one person. Whenever possible, however, women should be encouraged to become trained and officiate at the women’s sports events. Training clinics for officials may be scheduled by stake and region officials coordinators.

The Sports Officiating Manual gives guidelines for training officials, a code of conduct for officials, and includes study guides to teach officials the rules of softball, volleyball, and basketball. Quizzes are included for use at training clinics.

“We’ve found that the most successful sports programs have officials who have been called and set apart and supported by priesthood leaders,” says Brother Tobler of the General Activities Committee. “Selection of coaches is another important factor. The coach has a built-in opportunity to reach young people, as well as some of the older participants.”

In the Yuba City Stake, callings to officials are made on the stake level. A professional official is called as chairman. “We use videotapes put out by the national officials’ association to help with our training sessions on basketball and softball,” said President Tingey. “We also bring the teams in to watch the tapes, so they know what the rules are. And we summarize the rules for a sport on one sheet before any sports season starts. Each participant and priesthood leader gets a copy of those rules.”

Teaching both players and spectators the rules of a game is crucial to promoting sportsmanship, added Sister Michaelis. “I teach officiating at Brigham Young University, and most of my class members think they know the rules thoroughly. When I quiz them on the commonly misunderstood rules, they generally miss about 50 percent. I can cite examples of rules in basketball and volleyball that spectators generally don’t know, so they criticize the official for what they feel is a bad judgment. That’s why I think it’s a good idea to print the ten most commonly misunderstood rules for a particular sport and hand out the rules to the audience.”

But with all of these suggestions for fostering a spirit of good will in Church sports, ultimately the responsibility for playing fairly and with a good attitude rests with the individual.

“The Church can counsel us and give guidelines and direction, but individuals and groups have the responsibility to discipline themselves and each other,” said Brother Thorstenson. “An individual’s character shows itself more readily in the field of competition than in just about any other phase of life. As we commit ourselves to the gospel and its ramifications, we need to consciously remember what we represent. Even though we might be clothed differently in a sacrament meeting than in a sports contest, we’re still the same people, and we still represent the Savior. Our job is to be worthy of that honor, whatever our activities may be.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by G. Allen Garns

Kathleen Lubeck, manager of the Magazine Features Division, Church Public Communications Department, is a member of the Young Women General Board and of the Taylorsville (Utah) Thirty-first Ward.