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Win or lose, spoilsports can ruin the fun for all

By WILLIAM HAGEMAN Chicago Tribune

This article was published August 4, 2014 at 2:36 a.m.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/DUSTY HIGGINS

Softball, volleyball, badminton, horseshoes -- they're among the wonderful ways families and friends can bond and relax.

They're also great opportunities for a relative or pal to ruin everyone's afternoon.

This is the guy who takes recreational competition way too seriously. Perhaps he cheats. Or maybe he just wants to show his athletic skills by whomping a bunch of 7- and 8-year-olds. But overzealous Uncle Bob isn't alone in being able to ruin your day. There's the beloved relative who is truly inept, someone who plays halfheartedly, or the pal who sabotages his play to let the other team win (because it includes his new girlfriend).

Games -- outdoors or in -- are supposed to be taken seriously, but they're also designed to be fun. Players are supposed to be polite. But, as we know about human nature, perfectly nice people like to win. And that can lead to problems.

Understanding why people behave as they do can relieve some of the frustration for the rest of us, and help us keep things -- even spoilsports -- in perspective.


Nicole M. LaVoi, associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport ( at the University of Minnesota, says that those who want to win at any cost are "ego-oriented" in their achievement motivation versus a person with a "mastery orientation," for whom success is based on self-improvement and doing one's best rather than outperforming others.

Ego-oriented people, she says, "derive their self-worth on winning and outperforming others, proving one's ability, being better than others, and they don't care if they act in over- or hyper-competitive ways," LaVoi says. "They are more likely to cheat to win, trash talk, act in inappropriate ways [and exhibit] bad sportsmanship because the focus is on winning and proving they are superior."

She says that the two orientations are developmental and that by adulthood most (though not all) people move to a mastery orientation.

"It is those that get stuck in a strong ego-orientation," LaVoi says, who "usually ruin the backyard-games fun for everyone."

Social psychologist and Marquette University professor Stephen Franzoi says that when we think of spoilsports, the classic Type A individual comes to mind. These people, he says, are always trying to one-up others.

That behavior can lead to success in business, "but when you go to a picnic and they carry it over to friendly baseball games or volleyball games, it becomes problematic," he says. "Certain individuals have trouble turning off a certain personality style that has proved successful in their careers. This personality style permeates all aspects of their lives."


Jim Fannin, author, mental performance coach, life strategist and a former tennis professional, says that self-discipline is one of the markers of being a champion. Wild-eyed Uncle Bob, however, lacks that.

"The best in the world have tremendous self-discipline," Fannin says. "They have reason over emotion."

Uncle Bob and even your good friend Charlene, however, are not the best in the world -- at croquet or any other lawn game.

Fannin, who has coached professional athletes, CEOs and everyone in between (, believes that physical changes can be blamed partly for players' misbehavior. He says that the average person breathes 15 to 17 times per minute. When people start overthinking situations or getting too emotionally involved (even if it's croquet), their breathing rate can climb past 20.

"When you get in a stress situation where you want an outcome, you increase your breathing, increase your heart rate, and if you don't pay attention, frustration, impatience, embarrassment all happen," he says.

That's why Bob and Charlene get carried away. The solution, he says, would be for them to step back, take a deep breath, relax and refocus. (This is information best shared before you start the game, not in the midst of their meltdown.)


Then again, that spoilsport may just be someone who is doing things right.

John Kessel, director of sport development for USA Volleyball (, says that a spoilsport in volleyball is often someone who can play. These people can hit, pass and set, and they recognize the teamwork needed to win.

That's not how family or friends' recreational volleyball is played, however, and conflict can surface.

"How do 90 percent of recreational volleyball players play? They play volleyball tennis, for lack of a better term," Kessel says. "They never really play 'I pass to the setter, the setter picks a hitter and they spike it.' ... It's one [touch] and hit. It certainly isn't the way higher level players play."

So there's a potential conflict between people who just want to "play" and people who want to play.

Knowledgeable volleyball players become frustrated by the "volleyball tennis" approach, and they can be spoilsports. "They just have to lighten up," Kessel says.


If they don't lighten up, you have to deal with them. Brooks Butler Hays, author of Balls on the Lawn: Games to Live By (Chronicle Books, March, $8.96), has some suggestions:

The overzealous competitor: "My advice would be to lead by example and maintain a calm and gentlemanly demeanor," Hays says.

"It's also always good to take someone aside instead of admonishing them in front of a crowd," Hays adds. "Demonstrative people like that don't like to be embarrassed. Calling them out in public would probably make matters worse."

The cheater: This includes not only someone breaking the rules to win, but also the pal tanking his game for a sweetheart on your opponent's team. Your response depends on your relationship with the miscreant.

Hays says he'll call out friends if he catches them fudging. "If you know someone, shame is a pretty good technique [to counteract] cheating."

Another strategy, he says, is to defeat them. "If you can show you can beat them while they're cheating, that's a good way to deal with it. So read the book and learn the rules."


The unsportsmanlike relative can ruin everybody's day at a family outing. But he can also be a parent's best friend by providing The Teaching Moment.

"I can think of plenty of family games we stopped early because someone was over the top," says LaVoi. "People get angry, there are tears, and the games are over. And you don't want that."

If Uncle Bob is a notorious cheater, she suggests priming the pump a little. Before you start, remind the kids that Uncle Bob can get out of control, but encourage them to do their best and have fun. Acknowledge that he will do what he does, but let them know your expectations for them.

"One of the good things about sports is you can teach kids how to win and lose, and how to react to that." LaVoi says.

Another lesson is to give a full effort when competing. "It might not always result in winning, but you know you gave your full effort," she says. "When adults don't give a full effort, as kids get older they'll see that."

Children will also take note of the win-at-all-costs relative, the adult who bends the rules, who is obnoxious, all in the name of winning.

"And that's a bad lesson," she says. "The lesson would be, 'We cheat to win. We act like a bad sport, we heckle, we haze, we throw people off their game so we can win.'"

Instead, LaVoi explains, the lesson should be: "Full effort, play with respect, follow the rules -- and win or lose, you act with grace."

ActiveStyle on 08/04/2014

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