Thursday, November 19, 2015

What is Sport Based Youth Development?

 Don Siegel 

A recent study[1] reports that participating on a sports team can help children, kindergarten to grade 4, to develop healthy dispositions that generalize beyond sports in positive ways, such as by better engaging in classroom activities. The gist of this is that sports involvement, in some way, helps children to develop self-regulation skills, which, in turn, fosters healthy student dispositions. This, along with many other studies over the years, supports the notion that sports have the power to teach kids more than the Xs and Os of a particular game. Unfortunately, such studies are not particularly helpful in providing guidance about the processes within sports that have such an important impact.

In actuality this is another instance of what may be labeled “the mere participation hypothesis”. “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”, or “The way to the boardroom leads through the locker room” are other adages that are representative of the general belief that sports teaches unique lessons to kids that transfer beyond the immediate sports context, and have high value in other contexts such as school or employment. However, for those of us who work with youth in sports, and really wish to maximize the impact that sports have on kid’s lives, we really need to know more about what can be taught and learned in our activities and transferred to other contexts. Mere participation is probably not enough.

A number of years ago sport psychologist Terry Orlick argued that while sport provides a wonderful environment for learning many important life lessons, it also has the potential to be destructive, as he conveyed:

For every positive psychological or social outcome in sports, there are possible negative outcomes. For example, sports can offer a child group membership or group exclusion, acceptance or rejection, positive feedback or negative feedback, a sense of accomplishment or a sense of failure, evidence of self-worth or a lack of evidence of self-worth. Likewise, sports can develop cooperation and a concern for others, but they can also develop intense rivalry and a complete lack of concern for others.

In essence, Orlick is telling us that like most activities in which youth engage, positive or negative outcomes can result. It all depends on what children experience. As with any educational endeavor, positive effects are more likely to ensue in a positive and enriched environment that is overseen by a leader who focuses on and promotes a positive, process-oriented curriculum. But, research has also shown that engaging on teams overseen by irresponsible persons can actually promote moral decay, academic failure and depressed life quality.
In an attempt to provide specifics about the positive attributes that can be taught to youth in sports, and the best strategies for doing so, the Collaborative for Academics, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)[2] provides some excellent guidance. Aggregating the findings from 317 studies involving 324,303 children on the impact of social and emotional learning (SEL) programs, CASEL concluded that programs can and should teach the following:
·  Self-awareness: accurately assessing one’s feelings, interests, values, and strengths; maintaining a well-grounded sense of self-confidence;
·  Self-management: regulating one’s emotions to handle stress, controlling impulses, and persevering in addressing challenges; expressing emotions appropriately; and setting and monitoring progress toward personal and academic goals;
·  Social awareness: being able to take the perspective of and empathize with others; recognizing and appreciating individual and group similarities and differences; and recognizing and making best use of family, school, and community resources;
·  Relationship skills: establishing and maintaining healthy and rewarding relation- ships based on cooperation; resisting inappropriate social pressure; preventing, managing, and resolving interpersonal conflict; and seeking help when needed; and
·  Responsible decision making: making decisions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, appropriate social norms, respect for others, and likely consequences of various actions;
As the report conveys:
Students who appraise themselves and their abilities realistically (self-awareness), regulate their feelings and behaviors appropriately (self-management), interpret social cues accurately (social awareness), resolve interpersonal conflicts effectively (relationship skills), and make good decisions about daily challenges (responsible decision making) are headed on a pathway toward success in school and later life.
Furthermore, CASEL concluded that the most effective youth SEL programs developed these assets when they followed a SAFE pedagogy. That is, they had a curriculum that was:
·  Sequenced: Does the program apply a planned set of activities to develop skills sequentially in a step-by-step fashion?
·  Active: Does the program use active forms of learning such as role-plays and behavioral rehearsal with feedback?
·  Focused: Does the program devote sufficient time exclusively to developing social and emotional skills?
·   Explicit: Does the program target specific social and emotional skills?
What we learn from the CASEL Report is that rather than simply rolling the dice and hoping that something good will come out of kids participating on a sports team, program designers and coaches need to be deliberate about what they wish to teach their players. If they intend to go beyond the Xs and Os and develop their players’ self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationship skills, or capacity to make responsible decisions, then they need to identify and deploy activities that help kids acquire requisite knowledge and develop associated skills. As well, just as coaches teach progressions in technical and tactical skills, they need to be planful about how to teach SEL attributes. For example, if they intend to teach self-management or relationship skills, then they need to be focused and explicit about doing so, and craft progressions that make sense. Surely, the emotional highs and lows occurring within sports are fertile ground for teaching youth techniques to manage emotions better. As well, teaching kids how to be supportive and effective team members, and how to interact in a civil manner with adversaries provide many opportunities for teaching relationship skills. With so many situations and interactions that occur during sports, one would think that it has the power to provide a plethora of teachable moments during which lessons can be repetitively reinforced in meaningful ways. However, as CASEL suggests, there needs to be a degree of explicitness and deliberateness to such teaching if SEL is to occur.

In summary, this is what sport based youth development is all about. Identifying a set of SEL attributes and teaching them in a coherent fashion within the context of sports. As well, if we expect such learning to generalize beyond sports, we need to be explicit about how this can be done.
A wonderful example of this was revealed a few weeks ago by one of our Project Coach 3rd graders who had been having problems fighting with teammates and classmates in school. He was proud to tell our Project Coach director that his teacher had just named him student of the week, as he had been able to stay out of trouble and also get A’s in all of his work. When asked how this came to be he said that his coach had taught players that when they became upset about something, they should take a few deep breaths and then count to 100 to calm themselves. He said that he started to do this in school, and it helped to keep him out of trouble when he became agitated about something. It also helped him to refocus and concentrate on his work. These are the sorts of connections that make sports into something more than recreation or just learning about the Xs and Os. This is sport based youth development at its best.

[1] Piché, G,  Fitzpatrick, C, and  Pagani, L. (2015, Sep-Oct). Associations Between Extracurricular Activity and Self- Regulation: A Longitudinal Study From 5 to 10 Years of Age. American Journal Of Health Promotion Vol. 30 (1), pp. e32-40.
[2] The positive impact of social and emotional learning for kindergarten to eight-grade students: Findings from three scientific reviews, Technical Report, 2008;

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