Sportsmanship Is A Struggle

Yesterday, Sawyer participated in his second Special Olympics.

Last year, when my sister asked me if I was interested in letting Sawyer compete, I was nervous. You see, Sawyer is not always the best sport…

Autistic people have trouble processing and expressing emotions.  Where a neurotypical person learns how to express emotion through body movements, facial expressions, and even the sound of your voice, but autistic people have trouble with those things. Sawyer absolutely hates losing.  If he doesn’t win a game he’s playing, whether it’s a sport or a video game, Sawyer gets extremely angry, and can’t regulate his emotions to calm himself down. Sawyer takes offensive moves from other players personally and thinks if someone takes a ball from him or kills his character in a video game that they’re “being mean” to him- especially if it’s a newer game he isn’t good at yet. Sportsmanship is and always has been a struggle in our house, no matter how much we have worked to make Sawyer understand that in most cases the other players aren’t trying to be mean; they just want to win the game.

One time when Sawyer first got his Nintendo Switch, he was playing MarioKart with his cousin. When Sawyer realized his cousin was about to beat him, he got mad and went up and turned the entire console off just before his cousin passed the finish line. We were all shocked; we laughed but were quick to tell Sawyer “No, you can’t do that!”

When Sawyer was 7, he came home from school with a form to play soccer, and begged me to play. I was nervous about it, but he seemed really excited, so I signed him up. He loved it- until the actual games started. When the other players scored, Sawyer would get extremely upset and if his team lost their game, he would cry. One game, an opposing player (who was also a friend of his from school) “stole” the ball from Sawyer. The ball went out of bounds almost immediately, so the play stopped, but Sawyer went up behind the boy who “stole” the ball from him and shoved him as hard as he could. I was mortified, and immediately told his coach to take him out. On our way home, I asked why he shoved his friend, and he said “Because he made me mad. He took the ball from me.” I sternly explained that the whole point of the game is to try to get the ball from the other team and kick it into their goal, and that it was not ok for him to hurt someone just because they took the ball. He was grounded from his tablet for a week.

No matter how much I’ve tried to explain the rules of games and sports to Sawyer, he just doesn’t seem to understand sometimes. So when my sister asked about Sawyer participating in last year’s Special Olympics, I was really hesitant. I didn’t want Sawyer to end up having an epic meltdown because he didn’t win an event, or hurt someone because he got upset. However, when I asked Sawyer about it, he seemed really excited to compete, so I decided we would just have to have a long talk about sportsmanship.

For the week before the Special Olympics, I talked to Sawyer ’til I was blue in the face about why he needed to be a good sport and cheer the other competitors on. Finally,  couple of nights before the event, he asked me why one of the boys in his class couldn’t be in the Special Olympics. He said “________ isn’t going to the Special Olympics. Why not? He’s really fast!” I explained to Sawyer that the Special Olympics were for other kids like him, who were a little different, and needed special help at school and home. I said to him “All the other people who are going to compete in the Special Olympics are like you… Some things are hard for them, so they need extra help sometimes. And just like you, they’re going to be trying their hardest to win their events. So no matter what, even if you don’t win, you need to clap and cheer for everybody.” That seemed to work… A light seemed to turn on behind his eyes and he said “Ohhhh, ok!”

The morning of the Special Olympics, I reminded him on our way to the school “Remember… you have to clap and cheer for everybody, and tell them they did a good job, ok?” He said “I will, Momma.” And sure enough, he did. I will never forget how proud I was when he realized he got silver in his softball throw. At first he looked a little disappointed, but he quickly brushed it off and started clapping for the kid who got the gold. He clapped and said “Good job, buddy!” It warmed my heart and I felt like maybe we were past the days of Sawyer’s meltdowns over losing. In that moment, I was way more proud of him for his sportsmanship than his actual performance in the event.

Sawyer has come a long way as far as sportsmanship goes. Does it mean he doesn’t get mad anymore if he loses at MarioKart, or if a player on Roblox pushes his character off a cliff? No, definitely not; Sawyer still has his moments where he bangs on the computer desk, or throws a controller out of anger and I have to get onto him and remind him to take a deep breath and remember that it’s just a game. Bad sportsmanship is not just “an autism thing”, but teaching Sawyer to win and lose with grace is one of our biggest struggles as an autism family.


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[…] to make sure we always have a backup/escape plan if he can’t handle it. As I’ve touched on before, sportsmanship is something Sawyer has always struggled with, and learning all the rules of a sport […]

[…] sports (and games in general) are touchy for Sawyer because he absolutely cannot stand to lose, and he can be a pretty bad sport sometimes. He gets really upset if he loses anything, and takes things like someone stealing a ball […]

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