Professional Help: Using Sports in School to Teach Lessons for Life

Research by psychologist Daniel Gould shows that little league is a prime opportunity for coaches and parents to instill values like hard work and discipline.

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Sports are valuable. Not only do they enable children to develop physically, new research in Psychology of Sport and Exercise shows they can also promote life skills like initiative, discipline, and teamwork.

This week on Professional Help, Michigan State University applied sport psychologist Daniel Gould repurposes his research at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports and shares how coaches and parents can equip children with emotional and social values they can use in and out of the field.


Life skills must be intentionally taught. Our research shows that coaches who are highly effective at developing core values like leadership and discipline are those who believe that sports contribute to positive youth development. For young athletes to be responsible, to work well with others, and to develop a strong work ethic, coaches must actively foster these skills since they are not caught from mere participation.

Coaches should create caring sport climates. Consistent with past research, our latest study has shown that young athletes who report developing the most desirable personal and social attributes have coaches who create sport settings that are inviting, respectful, and physically and psychologically safe. Other research that links negative rapport between coaches and athletes to poor life skills (PDF) also underscore the need for this emotionally supportive environment.

Winning isn't everything. Children report more positive life skills when they play in settings that encourage mastery over the ego. Coaches and parents can provide this motivational climate by focusing on improving children's individual abilities relative to their own standards and not on beating others.

Integrate the teaching of life skills into your total coaching approach. Effective instructors don't just impart these lessons through short pre- or post-practice meetings. They also consistently talk about and look for opportunities during practices and games to reinforce these values. They may, for instance, bring former players back to reflect about what they've learned and provide opportunities for their athletes to make meaningful decisions as a team.

Be careful. Though participation in sports can yield psychosocial gains, it can also harm kids. Evidence shows that sports, when improperly utilized, can lead to stress, a decline in moral development and functioning, a loss in motivation, and even burnout. These negative effects often result when coaches constantly pressure young athletes to win and don't themselves display high moral standards.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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