Tony Dungy’s retirement from professional football was an important sports story today. Sports writers suggest that the character of Tony Dungy was evident more in how his teams won than in his outstanding record of wins. It is my belief that a good coach can help get your team to the big games–but all coaches need their talented players’ exceptional efforts and a lot of luck to win championships. According to Sporting News Today, Dungy was the first coach to reach the NFL Playoffs 10 Seasons in a row. He certainly did his part to win and according to many sports writers, he did it with class and principle. Sports figures like Tony Dungy give us hope and encouragement that sports continue to have a positive influence on our society.

Acting with class and principle is especially important for all those involved in youth sports. Many believe parents have the most critical role in developing character in young athletes. Their behavior at games and their attitudes towards coaches and referees is important. At sporting events, “overactive” parents may be well intentioned, but often miss the point in terms of rules and sportsmanship. One thing that parents might do is try to understand the principles of play in the sports their children participate in. A better understanding may lead them to understand the actions of the umpires, referees, coaches and officials.

Having been a part of youth soccer for many years, I see many misunderstandings of play and rules on the sidelines during games. One of the more common occurrences of misunderstanding occurs when a soccer player who has control of the ball and is moving the ball towards the opposing goal is fouled. If the player maintains possession, often the referee makes no call. The ref may acknowledge the foul by saying “play on,” but the ref does not stop play. The offensive player is still controlling the ball (and assuming the player is not in physical danger), the “advantage” is still with the offensive player’s team. If the ref calls a foul and stops play, the offense loses their “advantage.” This is a rule that makes sense for soccer, but many parents who are more familiar with basketball or football rules often misunderstand the ref’s actions.

A Second and less common situation is when there is an injury on the field and the referee allows play to continue. Those who are involved in youth soccer with young players understand that players often stop play for any number of reasons. When very young, kids may stop short of a puddle or they may be distracted by something going on outside the field of play. Coaches have to encourage kids to play on until the ref stops play. If one kid is standing looking down at a puddle, he or she is not aware of what’s going and can get hurt.

Kids also have different levels of pain and many “injuries” in youth soccer can occur when a player gets hit by ball. Some kids cry often to things that don’t seem to bother others. In most cases, the injured player has been instructed to sit down, but the referee will not necessarily call time out right away if the ref perceives that the player is not seriously hurt and is not in danger — and if the play on the field is at a critical juncture — like an offensive thrust at goal. A coach may encourage the kids to play on for many reasons. If some kids are playing and others are standing, it could result in a more serious injury than the one already on the field. If the injured player’s team gains advantage by stopped play, immediate stoppage of play upon injury would encourage unsportsmanlike behavior –faked injuries. By using judgment to manage the situation, the referee’s action is appropriate, but parents don’t often see it that way. It is the referee’s job to stop play; it is not the parent’s nor the coach’s role. In some programs all players are instructed to sit down when an injury occurs on the field. If this is the rule of the program, it should be followed. In cases where the program rules may be slightly different from the traditional rules of soccer, the referee will often point such rules out to the children before play begins.

The bottom line is that sportsmanship often has a closer link to the rules than spectators may think. Second guessing the rules or grousing about events on the field one knows little about, is not good sportsmanship.