The Art of Good Sportsmanship

by Nannette Newbury © 2004 AKC Breed Column
“Sports do not build character, they reveal it.”
Heywood Hale Broun

AKC Judge Dr. Harry Smith Jr. was once asked, “What things tend to irritate you when judging?” He responded, “It takes a lot to get me irritated in the ring when I am judging. When I do, it's usually because one of the exhibitors has been a poor sport. None of us are infallible. We do our best to render excellent judgments. When, in the eye of an exhibitor, we do not do what they think is correct, they must be a good sport about it, and go far away from the ring before they explode! Good sportsmanship is the strongest part of our dog show sport.”

The principles of sportsmanship are integrity, fairness and respect; lifetime values that we generally learn as youngsters involved in athletic programs. One of reasons that sports are so encouraged for youngsters is the lifeline lessons and maturity that are developed through competition. Baseball great Mark Macquire once remarked, “If we don’t teach our children the art of good sportsmanship, then how can they effectively learn to manage disappointments in their lives?”

The overt signs of good sportsmanship are showing respect for yourself, your competitors, officials and judges. Good sportsmanship takes courage and maturity. It’s not easy to admit someone else has worked harder than you or has more skills or a better dog than you. Dr. John F. Murray Ph.D. Clinical Psychology feels that, “there are several factors that cause people in competitive communities to display a lack of grace and poor sportsmanship. Immaturity, an obsession with winning and faulty expectations on the part of the competitor may all contribute to this bad behavior. Dr. John says, “Some people are primarily driven to satisfy ego needs by winning at all costs. They are motivated primarily by proving themselves superior to their opponent. This ego-centered perspective is far from ideal in terms of performance and may encourage cheating and other unsportsmanlike behavior. For example, when competing against a similarly skilled opponent, they are most threatened and may do anything to win.”

Good sports are gracious and generous winners. They acknowledge a win without humiliating their competitors. They are humbly proud of their success and still find ways to compliment others in their class. When it comes to losing, people who are good sports immediately and willingly congratulate the winner. They accept the outcome of the class without complaint and without excuses. Most professional athletes rarely adopt a “win at any cost” attitude. More likely you will hear them profess their love of the sport and the personal satisfaction and enjoyment they derive from it. Good sports know how to play fair and have fun while doing it. Good sports lead by example.

Dr. John says, “Contrasted with the ego-centered (competitor) is the person who strives to improve – to raise their skills to the highest level possible – in short, to compete with oneself. This is a much better approach to competition, because it challenges rather than threatens. There is much less fear of failure and when the competition heats up, these players are challenged even more to display higher skill. They have better long-term results and may have to carry much less baggage than the ego-driven (competitors) who develop a reputation of playing dirty. Rather than needing to own every opponent, these skill-focused competitors are driven to perform to their highest level possible. This keeps motivation high and encourages (positive) competitiveness regardless of the challenge.” In fact, by focusing on ourselves, our dogs and our skills as handlers and competitors we may learn to appreciate the fine work of those that we are competing against. Self-observation will also enable us to nip any unsportsmanlike thoughts in the bud, before we express them. As Knute Rockne once proclaimed, “One man practicing good sportsmanship is far better than fifty others preaching it!”

Dog Show Sportsmanship Checklist:
Abide by the rules of the game
Avoid arguments
Give everyone a chance to compete fairly
Always play fair
Follow the directions of the judge
Treat your competitors, officials and judges with respect
Offer encouragement to all
Accept the decision of the judge
Win without gloating
Lose without complaining
Do not participate in Internet bashing
Do not tolerate poor sportsmanship in yourself and others
Exercise self control and lead by example

It seems we may need reminders to maintain our awareness of the importance of preserving the basic human value of sportsmanship, lest sportsmanship become a lost rat. Unless we remind ourselves of the essentials of sportsmanship, they will generally fade, as have other values in our society.