Guest Column - September 2007
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Self-Control and Sportsmanship

How Sports & Recreation Can Improve Society

By Mitch Lyons

was riding in a school bus on the way back from a bowling outing with an afterschool program of second- and third-graders. One of the girls, Stacey, was blubbering about the fact that Kathy, one of the other little girls, kept singing when she had asked her repeatedly to stop. It was all I could do to contain a laugh. What a wonderful age to be worried about such things! But I found out that Stacey's bowling experience had been ruined by Kathy's constant singing. She sat in the second row, crying, and had never bowled.

I asked her point-blank, "Do you like being so unhappy?" She didn't respond.

"Do you?" I insisted. She shook her head.

"Well you have a choice, you know," I said. "You are thinking all these bad thoughts about Kathy, aren't you?" She nodded.

"Can you remember the last time you laughed?" I asked.

"Never," she responded angrily, making a face.

"C'mon," I chided her, "I have seen you laugh plenty of times. When was the last time?" She refused to answer.

I continued, "Well, I know you remember it right now. If you start to think about that time, and how you felt laughing, and just think of that, you are going to forget about Kathy and think about something that makes you happy instead. Doesn't that sound better than continuing all day with the way you feel now?" She just looked at me, totally expressionless.

When we got off the bus, all the kids went into the playground and Stacey hung around by herself for a few minutes. Then, she suddenly ran into the playground and joined Kathy's group playing four-square, laughing and playing as if nothing had been bothering her for the past hour and a half.

I asked her afterward, "What made you go and play instead of staying in your bad mood?"

"I don't know," she responded. "I thought it would be more fun."

Imagine if that lesson were repeated regularly, with Stacey's conscious knowledge that she was in charge of her own thoughts and could choose her actions.

It is generally accepted that thoughts and feelings lead to changes in performance and behavior. If we can change our thoughts, as Stacey did, we can influence the outcome.

Sport psychology is all about changing thought to improve performance. Cognitive-behavioral psychology treats people by having them recognize their thoughts, evaluate them and then change them.

Of course, nothing is that simple, but you just don't need a doctorate to know some things. One of them is that a lack of self-control is at the heart of many of society's ills, including, but not limited to, most forms of violence, drug and alcohol addiction and eating disorders.

If that is true, why not teach the mental skills that are necessary to exhibit self-control as a national priority?

If each community organized its schools and recreation and sports programming to teach these scientifically proven mental skills, we would have an infinitely better chance of making our society less violent and less impacted by other ills.

A first step would be to create a curriculum that teaches and has kids practice self-control. That's what a proposed piece of legislation in Massachusetts now being passed around the state for evaluation would eventually try to do. Sponsored by Massachusetts State Representative Patricia Haddad, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Education, this legislation would make available to youth and school sports teams, leagues and conferences a curriculum, text and programming to teach and have kids practice mental skills, such as giving all your effort, creating a positive environment for self and others, goal-setting, visualization, task-orientation and replacing harmful thoughts with helpful ones. An advisory board would be created made up of both the athletic community and medical specialists in behavioral and sport psychology to make recommendations concerning the curriculum and the materials given to students. There is also a provision for a public information campaign to encourage communities to adopt this program for their teams.

In the early 1900s, as factories replaced farms as the major employer in the United States, interscholastic sports swept the nation. Their specific purpose was to teach teamwork to a country that valued rugged individualism as way of life. As a part of the cultural change associated with the rise of the factory, people had to learn to work together and subordinate self for the good of the whole. Sport changed our society by teaching that the lineman in the assembly plant and the lineman on the football field could still work for the greater good, even though the owner got most of the money and the quarterback the glory.

Now it is time for us to look at our culture today and see what must be taught. If you agree that greater self-control is a major need in our communities, then see if you can teach the skills that are needed to cope with adversity without frustration and anger. It's really quite simple to understand and can be done as easily as teaching Stacey that she has a choice to be miserable all day or to change her thoughts and have some fun.


Mitch Lyons is president and founder of Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation in Newton, Mass. Lyons writes for several national magazines and pens a regular column, "Coaching Comments," in the Cape Cod Times. He also is coming out with a book, titled "Teaching Self-Control (Sportsmanship) Through Sports." For more information, visit