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When Good Sports Heroes Go Bad: Helping Kids Understand

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A major league baseball pitcher admits to using steroids

An Olympic medal winner for swimming gets arrested for drunk driving and assaults a police officer

A well-known football player is quoted in a magazine article that many players use drugs

Sports are a highly valued form of social interaction in the U. S. and around the world. Major sports events attract millions of viewers and trigger strong opinions. Athletes become heroes; they sign contracts for many millions and their endorsements help sell a lot of sneakers and equipment. Many children and adolescents look up to their favorite sports personalities. But there's a down side to sports heroes as role models.

AboutOurKids talked with Marianne Engle, Ph. D., a noted sports psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at the NYU Child Study Center.

Q: How do kids who follow sports personalities react to these reports of bad behavior?

Dr. Engle: Lots of ways. Some may be disappointed in their idol, some may feel angry or betrayed or disillusioned with sports, some may blame the media for taking advantage of just one event, some may think all athletes behave the same way or some may have not care at all.

Q: What should parents tell the kids who model themselves on sports heroes who behave badly?

Dr. Engle: Parents should help children understand that reaching star level takes a combination of extraordinary physical ability, strong ambition, good opportunities, luck and back-breaking hard work. Very few achieve this degree of prominence, and the process doesn't guarantee that the athlete has developed an admirable character, moral values or strategies to deal with stress. So when talking about the particular athlete, make sure to separate sports ability from character.

Q: What steps can parents take to help kids take a balanced view?

Dr. Engle: Parents can point out that an outstanding athlete can be admired for his performance, but the admiration doesn't have to automatically include his personal decisions. They can emphasize the fact that many star athletes, in addition to being talented, are caring people who contribute their time and money to helping kids.

Q: But the news reports talk more about the ones who get into trouble. What can we do about that?

Dr. Engle: Help children develop their own point of view. Attend or watch games on television together. Point out the plays and strategies of the athlete that make him/her so outstanding. Also notice how he/she deals with success and with failure and how these experiences affect performance.

Q: Are there any life lessons kids can learn from the bad behavior of sports personalities?

Dr. Engle: There are several. The fact that athletes' mistakes are remembered long after their careers are over can open a discussion about the consequences of bad behavior. Parents can also use the opportunity to help kids think more about ways of handling stress and of dealing with success and with failure – which are some of life's toughest challenges.