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Life Skills Through Youth Sport: Be Their Champion


While we know that it is possible for young people to learn valuable life skills through sport, simply playing a sport is not enough. It is important for adults to purposefully create experiences that facilitate young athletes’ growth and practice of life skills, such as emotional control, work ethic, and goal setting. We must be their champions in helping them get the most out of sport. So, how do we do that?

In her TED Talk “Every Kid Needs a Champion,” lifelong educator Rita Pierson stresses the importance of building relationships with youth by doing “a few simple things,” like seeking first to understand as opposed to being understood or apologizing when you make mistakes. While her talk is focused on learning in the classroom, similar principles apply to developing youth athletes. Here are three “simple things” current research suggests coaches (or other adults) can do to build life skills in young people through sports. 

Show Them You Care

Creating a caring climate that is safe, inviting, and supportive for young athletes allows them to feel valued and respected (Fry & Gano-Overway, 2010). In spaces where athletes feel secure and connected to a caring adult, they may be more willing and able to practice and develop positive social skills. These caring climates are created through caring actions, and caring actions (opposed to neutral or less supportive actions) have been linked to more positive developmental gains (Gould & Carson, 2011). Even though you may know that you care for the athletes and their well-being, it is important that they know it, too.

What Caring Actions Look Like:

  • “Checking in” with athletes regularly by asking how they are doing both physically and mentally.
  • Showing interest in the lives of athletes outside of sport by having conversations about their days beyond practice.
  • Verbalizing that you care. The easiest way to let them know is to tell them!

Celebrate Their Learning

If we want youth to gain life skills from sport, then it is crucial that we encourage individual improvement. In order to aid young athletes in their development, adults should promote goal-setting that focuses on mastering physical and/or life skills (e.g., improving their free throw percentage or communicating clearly with coaches) rather than on comparisons (e.g., winning or proving their ability over others). This mastery-oriented climate facilitates higher levels of motivation and can lead to higher levels of achievement (Gould, Flett, & Lauer, 2012).

What a Mastery Orientation Looks Like:

  • Celebrating individual improvements, like an athlete putting in more effort in practice, demonstrating more understanding of a drill, or taking more ownership of his or her role on the team.
  • Focusing on the development and execution of skills as opposed to winning or losing.
  • Working to avoid social comparison by uniquely encouraging each athlete without drawing attention to his or her performance compared to others.

Practice With a Purpose

We hear it all the time: we are good at what we practice. So why would getting “good” at life skills be any different? Sport is a great space for young athletes to practice these skills in an engaging way. It can be especially beneficial when those practice moments happen intentionally (Turnnidge, Côté, & Hancock, 2014). This does not mean that you have to spend significant time at practice or home giving lectures on life skills. In fact, small interactions and discussions can be powerful enough to help young people draw connections between their skills in sport and other areas of their life.

What Intentional Practice Looks Like:

  • Taking advantage of “teachable moments” in practice and competition by using situations athletes face and discussing the use of life skills in them.
  • Setting aside time to talk about life skills and life outside of sport, even if it is just ten minutes before or after practice each week.
  • Making verbal connection of useful skills to other areas of life by relating the life skills they use in sport to school, home life, or future jobs.

By showing youth athletes that we care, celebrating with them when they make improvements, and giving them the chance to practice life skills, we can better develop them as people. We can be their champions in helping them get the most out of sport.


Fry, M. D. & Gano-Overway, L. A. (2010). Exploring the contribution of the caring climate to the youth sport experience. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 22(3), 294-304. doi:10.1080/10413201003776352

Gould, D., & Carson, S. (2011). Young athletes' perceptions of the relationship between coaching behaviors and developmental experiences. International Journal of Coaching Science, 5(2), 3-29.

Gould, D., Flett, R., & Lauer, L. (2012). The relationship between psychosocial developmental and the sports climate experienced by underserved youth. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(1), 80-87. doi:10.1016/j.psychsport.2011.07.005

Turnnidge, J., Côté, J., & Hancock, D. J. (2014). Positive youth development from sport to life: Explicit or implicit transfer? Quest, 66(2), 203-217. doi:10.1080/00336297.2013.867275

photo of Kylee Ault

By Kylee Ault
Michigan State University

Kylee is a doctoral student at Michigan State University working in the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. As a result of her own experiences developing valuable life skills through playing sports her whole life (thanks to her awesome coaches and parents), her work focuses on creating positive developmental experiences in sport for today's youth athletes. She hopes to continue her focus in youth leadership and life skills development as an academic through her PhD and beyond.

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