Football Therapy: Sportsmanship

Exploring the connections between life skills and fantasy football.

In addition to being a staff writer for Footballguys by night, I’m a therapist by day. No, I don’t put people on the couch like Sigmund does. I spend most of my day educating and empowering my clients to leave my office with fulfillment and purpose. What I’ve learned, and quite by accident might I add, is that many of the life skills that I teach and practice in therapy are actually applicable in the context of playing fantasy football. In these writings, I will seek to show the reader connections between these life skills and those needed to be a successful fantasy owner. My hope is not only to improve your prowess as an owner, but to give you skills that will help you lead a wonderful life.

The Problem of Poor Sportsmanship

A recent incident in a high school football game in Texas gained national attention. A coach became angry about an official making bad calls and instructed several of his players to retaliate against the referee. Two of his players heeded his directives and tackled the man from behind. The coach and his players now face penalties and suspensions that will apply well beyond the football field. It was an extreme case, but this occurrence illustrates how sportsmanship is increasingly under fire in our society. Sportsmanship, as defined by Wikipedia, is, “an aspiration or ethos that a sport or activity will be enjoyed for its own sake, with proper consideration for fairness, ethics, respect, and a sense of fellowship with one's competitors.”

Poor sportsmanship is nothing new. It extends across all sports and all times of human history. The ancient Greeks dealt with bribery of athletes and judges alike in the Olympic games. Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight made headlines in 1985 when he angrily tossed a chair onto the court to protest bad officiating. In 2006, Albert Haynesworth stomped the helmetless head of Andre Gurode after the offensive lineman had intentionally taken a shot at his surgically repaired knee earlier in the game. Performing enhancing substances have become commonplace in all sports. I won’t even bother listing all the football scandals with “ -gate” added to the name. The phrase, “If you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying” has come into popular usage among our athletes today.

What is new is that we have become desensitized to poor sportsmanship. We hardly bat an eye now when a player gets a four-game ban for steroid use. A fine for a dirty hit is easily missed among the other sports happenings. Not shaking hands with an opponent after a game used to be considered a glaring lapse of judgment and decorum, but has now become a mere footnote. Parents getting heated at their children’s sporting events is the norm. Why is poor sportsmanship so prevalent? It is because at its core, poor sportsmanship is a form of selfishness and selfishness is what our culture has come to promote. It is a mindset that conceitedly sneers, “I don’t respect you. I’m better than you. I don’t have to play by the same rules. Winning is everything and you are nothing!” Where pride and winning at all costs are exalted above all else, sportsmanship cannot exist.

It’s not just happening among our athletes. Increasingly, we’re seeing poor displays of sportsmanship in our fantasy games. In leagues where I am commissioner, I have taken away veto power from the owners and placed it solely in my hands. This is because I got tired of seeing innocuous trades vetoed due to jealousy or in an attempt to keep an opponent from improving their team. Message boards meant for fun banter and smack talk are often filled with profanity-laced tirades when tempers flare. Losses to an opponent don’t elicit a “good game,” but instead bring about the “sour grapes” response.

Change the Mind, Change the Heart

Changing the culture of poor sportsmanship requires serious self examination. It’s one thing to be highly competitive and driven to win. It’s another to place the value of winning so high that you neglect the weightier matter of respect of others and personal character takes a back seat. The lines between wanting to win and winning at all costs can be blurred at times. You need to be very honest with yourself. Sure, no one likes to lose a fantasy game, but how do you handle it? Is your response to a loss one of grace or one of anger? Do you bend or break the rules of your league in order to get a competitive edge? Have you been so wrapped up in trying to win that you neglected to build relationships with those against whom you play?

If you recognize any of these as being issues in your life, the only way to overcome them is by changing your attitude. You change your attitude by changing your thinking. In my profession, this is known as a cognitive-behavioral approach. You may not realize it, but at the root of almost all problematic behaviors are faulty core beliefs (also known as automatic thoughts). These both consciously and unconsciously influence your actions. Becoming aware of them and substituting this “stinking thinking” with the truth will help us begin to take steps toward better sportsmanship.

Defective Automatic Thoughts

Below are some automatic thoughts that lead to poor sportsmanship in the context of fantasy football. I have also included a rebuttal for each thought.

Automatic Thought: “If I lose, I’m no good at fantasy football.

This is probably the most common one. Fortunately, it’s also pretty easy to debunk. Think of the best fantasy player you know. Do they win every fantasy game they play? Do they win every fantasy league in which they play? Even “experts” in this industry don’t get it right all the time. Football is a very complex game and there are a lot of moving pieces. That’s what makes it so fascinating. It’s also what makes it so unpredictable, even from week to week. Add to that unpredictable nature the fact that coaches and teams purposefully obscure our view into schemes and player situations for competitive reasons. Losing a game or even an entire season doesn’t make you bad at fantasy, it just means you are mortal!

Automatic ThoughtBending / breaking the rules is excusable because…

The end does not justify the means. Part of the thrill we get from playing fantasy football is how challenging it is to win it all. Cheating devalues the challenge and tarnishes the prize. We need to establish an ethical barrier in our minds. When we become tempted to cross, we must remind ourselves that the consequences of crossing the line outweigh the benefits of doing so.

Automatic Thought: “I’m better than ______.

One of my favorite Bible verses states, "So let the one who thinks he is standing be careful that he does not fall." Pride is like climbing a tall, but very unstable ladder and not realizing the peril you are in. You are above everyone else, but only until something comes along to tip the ladder. It is one thing to be confident in your abilities. It is quite another to be so sure of yourself that you leave no possibility you could be wrong. It is when we lose our humility and become unteachable that we are most susceptible to being brought low.

Automatic ThoughtWinning is more important than my relationships with others.

In life, it’s easy to lose sight of what is truly important. We’ve all heard cautionary tales of the father who spent too many hours at work. He often justified this in his mind by telling himself that he was providing for his family. He found out too late that supplying his family physically was of little use when his emotional neglect left them starving in other ways. Success is only as valuable as those with whom you get to share it. Winning at the cost of alienating those around you defeats the purpose of winning.


We all stumble in the area of sportsmanship from time to time, but the key is to recognize our mistakes and do our best to avoid them going forward. When sportsmanship is correctly practiced, it brings people closer, makes competition more fun, gives a sense of personal well-being, and keeps things in proper perspective.

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