Before his team experiences its first at-bat of the season, Edinburgh Community High School baseball coach Jason Burton emphasizes to his players the importance of good sportsmanship.
After all, playing the game the right way is much more than proper fundamentals. It’s striving to maintain a level of fairness and respect no matter if you are part of the winning or losing team, said the coach, who played Edinburgh baseball himself from 2008-11.
“When I first accepted the job in September, the first thing I wanted to do was change the culture, and that starts with sportsmanship,” said Burton, the Lancers’ fourth head coach in seven years.
“We’re going to respect each other, we’re going to respect our opponents and we’re going to respect the umpires.”
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Now more than ever, Johnson County high schools are working to emphasize the importance of good sportsmanship.
It could be Whiteland attempting to earn what would be its fourth Sportsmanship Award — a distinction presented annually to deserving schools by the IHSAA — since the 2006-07 school year.
Another example is Edinburgh coaches speaking to athletes about sportsmanship prior to the start of a season. The actions of athletes and coaches, after all, are a direct reflection on the school system and community.
The same applies to parents and other supporters of a specific high school. However, athletics directors feel a greater responsibility to work with the student-athletes they see on a daily basis during the school year.
“Unfortunately, it is the negative game behaviors that tend to make the news more frequently. We sometimes need to be reminded that these are kids out there representing our schools and communities,” Center Grove assistant athletic director Scott Knapp said.
“We strive to compete at a very high level athletically. However, we do not begin the quest for athletic success without emphasizing the importance of competing in an honorable, respectful and fair manner. It is our belief that this way of competing begins at the top.”
Coaches, parents and teachers are counted on as role models for sportsmanlike behavior. At Center Grove, athletes as young elementary school begin learning the importance of actions extending beyond what’s achieved on the field of play.
One example is the Junior Trojans (Grades 5 and 6) having an “Honorary Coach of the Week.” Typically, this would be someone in the community who comes in as a guest speaker after a practice to emphasize the importance of sportsmanship and character before, during and after competition.
“In this way, we demonstrate the concept that the continuity of values carries all the way to the high school level,” Knapp said.
At Edinburgh, Burton gathers his baseball players daily for a meeting that precedes the game or practice the Lancers are having that day. Subjects range in topic, depending on what the coach feels needs to be addressed and sometimes include sportsmanship.
“We have had a few points where we had to drive home the point. For the most part, the kids have bought in,” Burton said. “Our athletic director, David Walden, does a great job of saying, ‘These are our expectations.'”
“Good game …”
Fair or otherwise, the most frequently viewed exhibition of sportsmanship takes place following volleyball matches, basketball games and other athletic competitions.
Seconds after a winner is determined, players, coaches and managers instinctively form two lines aimed in opposite directions.
With arms extended to the side, a series of quick hand slaps takes place.
Facial expressions are mostly blank, with only the occasional smile factored into a postgame tradition that typically lasts anywhere from 15 to 20 seconds.
“Good game … good game … good game … good game … good game …” and, well, you know the drill.
Other types of sportsmanship include helping an opposing player up and not attempting to create a distraction when the other team’s player is attempting a free throw in basketball.
At Whiteland, baseball coach Scott Sherry reminds his players to cheer for their teammates, not against the opponent.
Meanwhile, Indian Creek girls basketball coach Dan Burkman broaches the subject when going over team rules prior to the season. “There needs to be respect for your opponents, your teammates and the referees,” Burkman said.
By the book
Sportsmanship at its core is the ability to demonstrate fairness and respect to the opponent while abiding by the rules of that particular sport.
Every year, one page of the Franklin College Student-Athlete Handbook is dedicated to a section entitled “Winning with Class.”
These five paragraphs, paired with a player’s code of conduct, remain essential guidelines for a private Division III school at which 42 percent of the student body are athletes, according to athletic director Kerry Prather.
“Our philosophy is across the board. I think the concept of a level of respect that goes with this opportunity that doesn’t at all come at the expense of competitiveness,” Prather said. “There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things.
“Kids are kids, and kids make mistakes. But you create a culture where you do things the right way, and then winning is more special because you know you did things the right way.”
As Center Grove’s head coach in football and boys track and field, Eric Moore witnesses sportsmanship at its team and individual best.
With the gridiron being the ultimate group effort, Moore is accustomed to exchanging handshakes and even hugs with players and coaches from the opposing team once a game concludes.
However, Moore feels the same basic principles of sportsmanship apply to each.
“You’ve got to condition yourself when things go wrong with a good attitude. The problem with sportsmanship is the media is always showing athletes doing weird things,” Moore said. “We’ve got to get back to teaching to be humble.
“Helping a guy up after you knock him down is probably the best feeling.”
Part of what Moore and his assistant coaches teach is to place the focus on your team’s preparation rather than waste energy disliking a particular opponent.
This, he feels, makes proper behavior during competition easier to attain.
“We always say, ‘Cheer for the Trojans, not against our opponent,’ ” Moore said. “You can’t spend your whole week developing hatred for a team. It’s easier to love your team than hate your opponent. Hate takes too much energy.”
Because the IHSAA takes sportsmanship seriously, it makes instructional resources available to coaches and student-athletes.
Its website, IHSAA.org, devotes an entire page to sportsmanship.
This includes past IHSAA sportsmanship award winners, guidelines established by the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) and the IHSAA, and more.
“The IHSAA places proper sportsmanship at the forefront of our efforts with our member schools and our student-athletes. If education-based athletics is to be distinct from all other levels of sport, a concerted effort to promote good sportsmanship in our contests is necessary,” IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox said.
At Franklin Community High School, each coach took a sportsmanship course provided by the NFHS. While not required by the state, it is required to coach at Franklin both at the middle school and high school levels, athletics director John Regas said.
Prior to each sports season, coaches, athletes and parents meet for a meal and a presentation by the athletics department and sportsmanship is discussed. In his first year at Franklin (2013-14), Regas started a Student-Athlete Leadership Council made up of juniors and seniors which meets monthly. The council meets monthly to discuss various issues, including sportsmanship.
IHSAA Sportsmanship Awards won by Johnson County high schools:
Center Grove: 2009-10
Edinburgh: 2008-09, 2011-12, 2012-13
Greenwood: 2004-05, 2010-11
Greenwood Christian Academy: 2007-08, 2009-10, 2011-12
Indian Creek: 2004-05, 2010-11
Whiteland: 2006-07, 2010-11, 2011-12