TrueSport: February 2022 - Sportsmanship & Balance

Why coaches should prioritize their own mental wellness, how athletes know when it's time to take a step back, why and how parents can support referees in youth sport, ways to model good sportsmanship and healthy packed lunches, this month from TrueSport.

Athletes: How athletes know when it’s time to take a step back

As an athlete, you may have grown up with a ‘win at all costs’ mentality, and the idea of quitting anything was frowned upon. Or maybe you feel like leaving a sport will disappoint a parent or coach. If you’re debating your future in a sport or on a team, you’re not alone. Here, Nadia Kyba, MSW, TrueSport expert and president of Now What Facilitation, is sharing some common signs that it might be time to quit or take a step back from sport.

If your love for the game is gone

“When you realize that you don't want to go to practice and you're no longer excited to compete, those are two key signs,” says Kyba. To be clear, everyone has days where practice feels annoying or a competition seems unpleasant. Don’t quit the first time you don’t feel like heading to practice after school. Ask yourself if this is just because of something that’s happening this week—like a disagreement with a teammate—or if this is a feeling that has been there for a while. If that feeling has persisted for a while and every practice or competition feels like a grind, that’s a sign that you may need a break.

“Be kind and really listen to yourself,” says Kyba. And don’t forget: You can usually tell a coach you need to take a week or two off before fully quitting the team. Sometimes, a week or two off will actually re-energize you and bring back your motivation.

It’s also worth investigating if the feeling of not wanting to play continues through practice/games, or if it just happens as you’re heading to practice or getting warmed up. If you end practices and games feeling good, you may not want to quit the sport, but you might need to investigate other areas of your life. Maybe you’re overwhelmed with the combination of schoolwork, other extracurriculars and your sport. Or maybe there’s something else happening in another area of your life that you need to address.

If you're there to please someone else

This is a trap many young athletes fall into, particularly ones who’ve been in sports since a young age and have shown ’natural talent.’ “Staying in a sport just to please your parents or your coaches is not a good reason to do something,” says Kyba. “Young athletes really struggle with not wanting to hurt someone or not wanting to let someone down. Maybe you’re staying in a sport because one of your parents loves it and is excited that you’re in it, or you’re in the sport because you don’t know how to tell your coach that you want to leave. But it’s not healthy to continue in a sport that you’re only in for other people.”

If you feel stuck in your identity as an athlete

“When you’ve been an athlete for a long time, that can become how you self-identify, even if it doesn’t make you happy,” says Kyba. If you’ve grown up being ‘a runner’ or ‘a basketball player,’ it can feel scary to release that identity, even if it no longer fits. But it's okay to let things go. “Picture the next few years,” suggests Kyba. “Imagine sticking with a sport you hate, staying in it all through high school and heading into college. Then, picture what you could do if you quit. It’s so important to understand that sticking with something you don’t like is also keeping you away from things you potentially may enjoy more."

If you feel like you're always anxious

For young athletes, letting go of a sport can be an easy way to relieve anxiety brought on from being overwhelmed and over-scheduled — and it might not be forever, it might just be for a semester. "If you feel like you're always anxious because you just have too much going on, you may need a break,” says Kyba. “It’s a life skill to know when you need to let things go, and to say that you value your mental health.”

If you’re dealing with injuries

In youth sport, often after an injury — a concussion, a fractured wrist or even an illness — the question is usually, ‘How quickly can I get back to playing?’ This is the question that coaches, doctors and parents will typically focus on. But maybe readiness to play is about more than physical clearance.

“It’s understandable that, after having multiple concussions, you don’t feel comfortable going back to that sport,” says Kyba. “Doctors and coaches are assuming that you do want to return to play, but you’re allowed to decide to change sports or stop playing for a while in order to recover both physically and mentally from injury.”

If there’s a values mismatch

Some teams are ultra-competitive, and some are more recreational. “If the team that you're playing for, or the sport that you're involved with, doesn't align with the reason you're there, it may not be the right fit for you,” says Kyba. For instance, if you love to swim recreationally, but your school’s swim team is extremely competitive, you may not enjoy training or racing with that team. In this case, you may want to consider looking for other clubs or teams in your area that are less competitive but will still allow you the chance to swim with teammates.

You may also find that your values don’t align with those of your teammates and coaches: It’s one thing to not agree entirely with a coach or not be best friends with all your teammates, but if the idea of spending time with them makes you unhappy, you may want to look for another team to play on.

If you are facing discrimination

Discrimination of any kind is not okay and should be brought to the attention of the school or governing body and addressed immediately. However, you as the student athlete are not responsible for taking on the role of the person fighting discrimination.

“If you feel as though you are facing discrimination—for your gender, sexuality, race, anything — and you just don't feel like the team is the right fit for you, it is okay for you to leave,” says Kyba. Some athletes may choose to stay on the team and speak up, working to combat that discrimination. But it is your choice entirely, and neither response is wrong.

“It is not an athlete’s responsibility to deal with discrimination,” says Kyba. “To have the people who have been discriminated against be the ones who are constantly educating others is exhausting. It’s up to the leaders in sports to make things better, it’s not a young athlete’s job to have to constantly be fighting that battle.”


As an athlete, you may feel pressure from family, coaches, or even just yourself to stay in a certain sport, especially if you’re talented at it. But it’s okay — and normal — to need to step back from a sport. There are many valid reasons, from feelings of apathy to interest in other activities. If you’re struggling in your sport, talk to your coach or parents about what stepping away could look like for you. You don’t need to ‘tough it out.’

Parents: Why and how parents can support referees in youth sport

Have you ever wanted to yell at a referee during your young athlete’s big game? Maybe you thought the ref made a bad call or has been favoring the other team for the whole game. But as a parent, how you interact with the referee can make a big impact on your athlete.

Dr. Amanda Stanec, who specializes in physical education and youth development through sport, say that one thing she’s noticed, as a parent of three young athletes herself, is that parents need to be more supportive of referees — and the consequences for not supporting the refs can be much worse than you realize.

A recent Washington Post article highlights a disturbing trend: Referees are becoming harder and harder to hire, thanks to the constant stream of abuse that is regularly leveled on them by angry parents. No referees equal no games, unless that behavior changes.

But beyond that, says Stanec, treating referees poorly and leveling abuse at them when you believe they’ve made an incorrect call is sending a bad message to your kids. "How we conduct ourselves really matters, and how we're role modeling behavior to children really matters,” she says.

In addition to treating people with kindness, parents are also in a position to role model how a child can deal with frustration and anger in their life. “The role modeling of self-regulation is absolutely essential,” says Stanec. "Especially since the last two years because, due to COVID, kids have lost many opportunities to practice self-regulation in the sporting arena. So, it's really necessary that we model that excellent behavior. Teaching kids to thank the officials after a game is a great start.”

And of course, referees aren’t just yelled at and abused by adults. Kids can also be disrespectful, especially when things are particularly heated. Stanec suggests running through an exercise with young athletes ahead of the game. Ask them to imagine being in overtime of a very exciting game, and it's a tie. But then, the ref makes a questionable call in favor of the opponent. Imagine how you would react in that moment. “Kids tend to be impulsive, and get upset in those situations,” says Stanec. So do parents! “Ask questions like, 'Would you be okay if that response was filmed and plastered throughout the country? If not, how could you reimagine a behavior that you're okay with being shared throughout the country on the news?”

In the age of social media, we know that it’s possible for a particularly bad reaction to be broadcast virally — so reminding ourselves of that is a great way to inspire more thoughtful reactions. “Give your kids the grace and the opportunity to think about the situation before they're in it,” Stanec says. "It’s not unlike how we should talk to our kids about consuming alcohol at a party: We talk to them about it before they're in that situation, so they can think through their decisions beforehand and be better prepared.” (For coaches reading this, Stanec suggests doing this same exercise with parents at an early season team meeting.)

It’s also important to remember that anytime you’re tempted to yell at a referee, that’s akin to screaming at a restaurant worker or other person in the service industry, one who’s likely not being paid much more than minimum wage — or is even simply refereeing as a volunteer activity! “When you step back and look at the situation of parents yelling at refs, remember that the parents are yelling at people who are stepping up to serve their community, often with little to no pay,” Stanec says.

And as a parent, showing a referee respect and kindness (even when you don’t agree with them) is important because it underscores the reason your athlete should be playing the sport to begin with: because it’s fun and it’s joyful. It isn’t fun and it isn't joyful to have a parent in the stands getting in arguments with the referee — and it creates a hostile environment for the players. “Remember, these young athletes aren't mini-adults. This is not supposed to be about money, it's not supposed to be about the win: It's supposed to be about joy, development, improvement and working together,” Stanec says.

“Remember, if there is a mishap, it is not the end of the world,” says Stanec. “Personally, anytime I hear a coach or athlete say that they would have won a game if the ref hadn’t made a certain call, I like to respond that a game should never come down to a single mistake made by a human, because humans will make mistakes. So, let's execute and try to be successful in a way that won’t come down to one or two mistakes.”

If you do notice that there is an issue with a referee making calls you disagree with regularly, Stanec notes that it’s still not your place as a parent to bring the issue up. "It's usually the coach’s responsibility to respectfully speak to the referee,” she says. “It’s not your job as the parent.”

Lastly, if you notice something happening many times and it seems like the referee doesn’t understand the rules or is favoring the other team, bring it up calmly with the coach a day or so later if you must. But don’t complain about a bad call to your athlete or tell them that the referee ‘caused them to lose.’ Remember, your job as a parent is to role-model good behavior, and showing your young athlete that they can blame others for things going wrong isn’t going to help them later in life.


Without referees, games may be canceled and seasons curtailed, but their numbers are shrinking due to stress caused by parents shouting from the sidelines. Young athletes model their behavior after the way that their parents act, not the things that they say, so showing that referees deserve respect and appreciation is critical.

Coaches: Nine ways to model good sportsmanship from the sidelines

Have you ever stifled the urge to shout at a parent, referee or player during a big game? As a coach, you probably know that it’s important to be a good role model for your young athletes. But what does that look like when you’re on the sidelines at a big game and your stress levels are skyrocketing?

Dr. Amanda Stanec, who specializes in physical education and youth development through sport is a mother of three young athletes in addition to a coach educator. Here’s what she wants coaches to know about modeling good sportsmanship on gameday.

1. Cheer on effort, not just achievement

Rather than focusing on cheering hard when an athlete scores a goal in a game, try to cheer on moments of great effort. That could be when a child tries a new move — even if it doesn’t work out — or passes the ball to a teammate instead of trying to score a shot solo. "We need to really celebrate creativity and healthy risk-taking for athletes, not just moments where things go right and they score,” says Stanec. “We want kids to feel like they can try new things and take those risks. I hear a lot of coaches and parents make audible sighs or frustrated noises when an athlete misses a shot, and that just discourages athletes from trying anything new. There is no place for that on the sideline.”

2. Focus on the psychosocial dynamic

If we focus on encouraging teamwork and community rather than on competition and winning, more young athletes will stay in sport, says Stanec. "I think if every coach went into sport with the goal of having every kid love their sport more at the end of season, that would be great for youth athletics,” says Stanec. “And they’ll like it more if they’re improving, if they’re learning and trying new things, and if they’re encouraged to have a good time while being competitive.” Focusing on a joyful and hardworking environment will undoubtedly lead to more development and wins.

3. Encourage cheering for everyone

As a coach, it’s important to remember to cheer for everyone, not just the star players or your favorite or most dominant personalities on a team. "To me, the golden rule is to give positive feedback to each individual player on your team,” says Stanec. "There's been such an adult model of sport pushed on kids that it seems like now there's a lot of competition and favoritism even within many youth teams.”

4. Be aware of negative language

"I think a great way to model good sportsmanship from the sidelines is not only by giving each player specific positive feedback, but also making it a rule to not criticize any child during the game, ever,” says Stanec. “Every kid knows when they make a mistake once they begin playing at more competitive levels, so whether you’re a coach or a parent, during a game is not the time to bring it up.” If there’s a skill-based technique or tactic that the athlete can work on, a coach can make a note to bring it up in practice, but the heat of the moment during a game isn’t the time to get into it.

5. Cheer for the other team

Coaches (and parents) can influence how your team sees and treats players on opposing teams by cheering for those kids as well. "I like to cheer for the other team when a great play is made,” says Stanec. “Saying things like great shot, great save — those small things can make a big difference in attitudes from the opposing team’s athletes, coaches and parents, while also making games much more fun, even while remaining highly competitive.” And cheering for great plays from the other team as a coach can also cue your own athletes into great tips and tactics that they may not have noticed before. Showing appreciation for the game and all the joy it can bring is something that ought to be celebrated.

6. Coaches should set the tone with parents

“It can be so helpful to have a meeting with parents at the beginning of the season to set standards for what’s appropriate at games,” Stanec says. “Let them know that the only thing you want to hear from them during a game is positive encouragement like 'great hustle,’ or ‘great try.’ No coaching the coaches, no coaching the athletes.” You can even ask the athletes themselves to come up with a Code of Good Sportsmanship that encompasses the team’s positive values for coaches, parents and the athletes themselves. Get everyone to sign this code at the start of the season.

7. Pay attention to your body language

You may not realize that your body language unconsciously is sending negative messages, but if you’re constantly shaking your head, covering your eyes, looking down, gesturing wildly or just showing closed off body language, you may be sending unintentional nonverbal cues to the athletes, says Stanec. If you aren’t sure how you’re appearing at games, consider asking someone to video you for a few minutes, then play the footage back to see how you handle different moments. Focus on positive body language like cheering, smiling, making eye contact and generally keeping your body relaxed and open.

8. Roleplay high-stress scenarios

A great way to model good sportsmanship — and prevent potential emotionally fraught moments in the game — is by role-playing different high-stress situations. Ask yourself, how would you respond if someone does something disrespectful during the game, or makes you angry? Now, picture how your response would look if someone captured it on video and posted it online. Would you be okay with that reaction being posted? If not, what could you do instead? Preparing yourself by ‘rehearsing’ these scenarios can make a big difference to your reactions in the moment. Do this activity with your athletes or just as a personal exercise.

9. Remember that kids absorb everything

The areas that control logic and rational thought are some of the last to receive a circuit update in an adolescent’s brain, says Stanec. That means it may be harder for them to control their emotions, and if they see you engaging in unsportsmanlike behavior, from cursing under your breath at the umpire to shouting at a parent on the opposing team, they begin to emulate that reaction. “These unsportsmanlike behaviors are taught,” says Stanec.


When athletes look at their coach during a game, they should see positivity and encouragement, not frustration or anger. Athletes also shouldn’t see you arguing with referees or exhibiting negative body language. Remember, how you act determines how your athletes act.

Nutrition: Five healthy packed lunches for the busy parent and athlete

Struggling to get lunch packed on hectic mornings? If you have a young athlete on the go, you know providing a good meal for them midday is critical to their ability to get through practice. But it’s tough to make time for meal prep and packing a tasty lunch when you’re already busy.

Here, TrueSport expert Kristen Ziesmer, a registered dietitian and the owner of Elite Nutrition and Performance, shares some tips for packing easy lunches with minimal prep — and these options can feed you as well as your hungry athlete!


We often think of meal prep as something that needs to be done for dinners, but lunches are a great way to utilize a once-a-week hour of meal prep. Alternatively, though, if you’re stretched on time but already are making dinners every night, doubling your dinner recipe and using the leftovers for lunch the next day is an easy way to make packing lunch much simpler. You can combine the idea of meal prep and leftover hacking by making a big batch of brown rice early in the week and using that as the base for the leftover protein and vegetables from each dinner.

Make sure your athlete also has plenty of snacks packed as well. Start each week with a big bag of trail mix with a variety of nuts and dried fruits, as well as options like apples, bananas and clementines. Athletes often need more than just a basic lunch at school — having a second meal for before or after practice will help to ensure good fueling habits.


Oatmeal bowl
Quick oats may not sound like a great lunch option, but if your athlete can bring a bowl with the dry ingredients pre-mixed, plus a thermos of hot water (or the ability to get hot water from the cafeteria), you have a great breakfast-for-lunch option. Oatmeal is a sweet, filling option that’s packed with critical fiber and carbohydrates, and can be boosted with plenty of tasty options suited to every athlete’s preference. But don’t opt for those pre-flavored packets of instant oats, which tend to miss out on protein and overdo the sweeteners. Ideally, you and your athlete share oat preferences and you can make a big gallon Ziplock mixture at the start of the week and scoop out servings each day.

For 10 servings, in a large gallon freezer bag, combine:

  • 5 cups quick oats
  • Add roughly 1/2 a cup of 3-5 toppings
  • Dried fruit: Goji berries, currants, dried cranberries, shredded coconut, raisins, dried apple chunks and even banana chips are great options
  • Fresh fruit: If storing in the refrigerator, feel free to add in fresh fruit like blueberries, raspberries, sliced bananas or diced apples
  • Nuts/Seeds: Chopped pecans, walnuts, peanuts, macadamia nuts, chia seeds
  • Extras (add sparingly): Brown sugar, pinch of sea salt, cocoa powder, cinnamon

Cold quinoa salad
A cold quinoa salad is a slightly elevated take on a pasta salad and, again, can make both you and your athlete happy at lunchtime. Quinoa is packed with healthy carbs and protein, and is a nutty, chewy whole grain that tastes great with veggies, a protein and some seasoning.

  • Make 5-10 servings of quinoa
  • Veggies: Shredded carrots, sliced cucumber, shredded brussel sprouts, kale, chopped onions and peppers, sliced mushrooms, chopped or steamed broccoli
  • Fun toppings: Olives, walnuts, capers, sun dried tomatoes, goat cheese, feta cheese, parmesan
  • Protein: Cubed chicken breasts, baked tofu, extra cheese, canned salmon, or tuna
  • Balsamic vinaigrette: In a jar, combine 1 cup olive oil with 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar plus two tablespoons honey, two tablespoons brown mustard and a sprinkle of sea salt. Shake well before mixing into salad.
  • Allow quinoa to cool, before mixing it together with several veggies, a couple fun extras, and a protein. Combine all the ingredients and toss with a balsamic vinaigrette. Pre-portion into five containers, and you’re ready to eat for a whole week!

Yogurt parfait with granola
A yogurt parfait is a tasty way to pack a big punch of protein, fiber and healthy carbs into a delicious and easy to eat lunch that looks great and can be prepared ahead of time. It’s also a fun activity to do with your young athlete—build your lunch together on Sundays and they’ll learn how to prep a meal!

  • Start with Greek yogurt: Two-percent milk fat Greek yogurt offers a full serving of protein plus some satiating fat. Ideally, choose a plain Greek yogurt, though if you have a picky eater who prefers a flavor, look for a brand with natural flavoring and real sugar or honey as the sweetener. Add around 1 inch of yogurt to each jar.
  • Layer on fruit. Cover the yogurt with a layer of fresh blueberries, raspberries, or strawberries.
  • Drizzle a thin topping of honey or maple syrup.
  • Add a layer of granola. Buy your granola ready-made (look for low sugar options) or bake your own by combining rolled oats with nuts and dried fruit plus a drizzle of honey or maple syrup in a bowl, then spreading on parchment paper and baking in the oven on 300° F for 30 minutes or until crispy (but not burned!).
  • Repeat the layers until the top of the jar.

Leftover inspired burrito (or bowl) Use those leftover veggies and meats lurking in the fridge to create tasty burrito bowls with a few added ingredients. Making one big batch of sautéed veggies and protein at the start of the week allows you to divide out portions with rice and toppings for the whole week. This is a great solution for bigger families as it’s a great meal on a budget and it allows each member to tailor their bowl or burrito to their specific preferences.

  • Make 5-10 servings of brown rice, which is more fiber-rich and filling than white rice.
  • In a big pan, use 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil to sauté ground beef, shredded chicken, black beans or tofu along with whatever vegetables are languishing in the fridge (mushrooms, peppers, shredded cabbage, broccoli, onions, shredded carrot, shredded beets) along with 1-3 tablespoons of chili powder or taco seasoning.
  • Add toppings: avocado slices, tomato chunks, lettuce, arugula, salsa, cilantro, goat cheese or feta cheese and even some different ingredients like kimchi can make for interesting flavor profiles!
  • If your athlete is training hard or always hungry, rather than putting the ingredients into a bowl, get whole grain burrito wraps and make your athlete a burrito. (Folding them can be a challenge: Follow along with this easy video, and consider getting foil that’s backed with parchment paper for more staying power with your wrapping.)

Big kid PB&J
The peanut butter and jelly sandwich has stood the test of time as a lunchtime classic because it’s almost universally loved. But you can put together a more grown-up, nutrient dense version of the staple by making a few simple swaps that capture the best parts of a PB&J while making it more filling and nutritious.

  • Choose a whole grain bread rather than a white bread.
  • Swap peanut butter for almond butter. The flavor is a bit different and the almond butter is higher in healthy fats, iron, Vitamin E, and calcium. Look for a brand that contains only almonds (or almonds and sea salt) and no added sugar.
  • Choose a jam that has a lower sugar content. That means less added sugar (typically in the form of cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup). Most popular brands have a lower sugar option available that tastes remarkably similar.
  • Real fruit: Bulk up your jam by actually adding slices of fresh strawberries or raspberries directly onto the sandwich!


The best healthy lunch is an easy lunch. Avoid making more work for yourself by adding lunch prep to dinner prep or taking time one day per week to prep easy options for the entire week. And don’t underestimate the power of classics like PB&J sandwiches!

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