Can Sport Help Develop Life Skills?

Designing an Effective Training Program July 17, 2013

During the London 2012 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games television viewers will be regaled with stories of how athletes overcame adversity, training setbacks, injury, or even personal tragedy to reach the pinnacle of their sporting careers. We will surely hear about the various ‘life lessons’ these athletes learned through sport. But can sport really help develop life skills?

Researchers have scrutinized and criticized the popular view that ‘sport builds character’ and helps children learn life skills. In fact, there is evidence showing youth sport participation has been associated with negative issues such aggression, breaking rules, adults modeling inappropriate behaviors, and among older adolescent athletes, the misuse of alcohol and illegal drugs. On the other hand, numerous positive developmental indicators have been associated with sport participation, including improved self-esteem, emotional regulation, problem-solving, goal attainment, social skills, and academic performance.

So how can sport produce both positive and negative outcomes? It is because the outcomes of sport arecontingent on the ways in which sport is delivered by parents and coaches and experienced by children. Different types of delivery and experiences will lead to different types of outcomes. Positive outcomes, such as life skills, must be directly taught to young athletes. They do not naturally occur just by playing a sport. As youth sport researchers often say, “life skills are taught, not caught.”

In our own research we have asked people about what and how they have learned through participating in youth sport. For example, we conducted a case study of a high school soccer team. The team had a well-qualified coach and his philosophy focused on building relationships and involving student-athletes in decision-making. We identified issues relating to three life skills (initiative, respect, and teamwork/leadership). The coach provided opportunities for the athletes to show initiative, make decisions, and take responsibility. In terms of respect, there was little direct teaching – rather, the athletes tended to be punished if they failed to demonstrate respect for teammates, opponents, and officials. Interestingly, there was also very little direct instruction of teamwork/leadership – rather, the athletes found ways to work with each other and in this respect were producers of their own experiences.

In a related study we asked 40 university students to reflect on the life skills they learned playing youth sport. We found they learned social skills through interactions with peers in sport contexts and these skills retained meaning in the participants’ adult lives. Second, participants’ parents used sport to reinforce values relating to sportspersonship and work ethics. Third, coaches emphasized hard work and teamwork. Overall, these findings reinforced the idea that sport can provide an educational context for acquiring life skills and highlighted interactions with key social agents (peers, parents, and coaches) are crucial components of how people learn life skills through their involvement in sport.

One of our most recent studies examined ways children attending an elementary school in an inner-city neighborhood learned about life skills through their physical education (PE) classes, intramurals, and sport teams. In PE, the importance of a specialist PE teacher and establishing clear boundaries during lessons while providing children with perceptions of choice were important. Children enjoyed intramural sports, but there were few attempts to create an appropriate developmental atmosphere during these sessions. In fact, intramural sports were associated with negative student interactions because of the absence of direct instruction. However, coaches of the sport teams used techniques to promote social skills and respect. One activity the coaches used was ‘spotlighting’ – whereby at the end of a practice the team forms a circle and each player says one good thing that someone has done that day. Another activity was having players write ‘contracts’ that included expectations for interacting with others and consequences for failing to adhere to the contract. The important aspect of these activities was that while they were initiated by coaches the players were highly involved and had substantial input and control over the process.

For the past couple of years we have been working on a project called Try-Sport. This program is delivered to children during the after-school period in the school gyms using just a few pieces of equipment. We teach three sports – volleyball, basketball, and soccer – because they cover a range of fundamental movement skills (running, jumping, catching, kicking, throwing, etc). We also target three life skills – confidence, leadership, and teamwork – and try to teach these in conjunction with the sport activities. For example, children often need to work together to achieve certain goals, which provides ideal opportunities to teach them about teamwork. We reinforce the particular life skill that was dealt with after each session and ask the children to attempt to use this life skill in school over the next few days. We re-visit the life skill in the next session and ask students for examples of their ‘success stories’ in using the life skill. Our initial findings have provided some promising evidence for the effectiveness of this approach and the extent to which life skills can transfer from sport to school.

Based on the available evidence, here are some suggestions for incorporating life skills training into existing sport programs.

  • For coaches: Coaches should likely prioritize the personal development of their athletes before winning. One way to do this is by creating a ‘task-oriented’ climate, which refers to athletes’ perceptions of contextual cues whereby they perceive high involvement in decision-making, success is defined and evaluated in terms of individual effort and improvement (rather than via an emphasis on performance outcomes) and learning new strategies and skills is encouraged. Within such a structure, coaches may then be able to target specific life skills, such as athletes taking personal responsibility for their preparation, equipment, behavior, and effort. Coaches can also seize teachable moments to reinforce these life skills and discuss how they may transfer from sport to other areas of the athletes’ lives (such as group projects in school).
  • For parents: Research has shown that autonomy-supportive parenting styles are associated with positive outcomes for children. Autonomy-supportive parents provide a clear structure for their children within appropriate boundaries and provide opportunities for children to make decisions within these boundaries. It also important for parents to maintain open channels of communication with their children and reinforce life skills at home.
  • For peers: Peer interactions appear to be the most meaningful aspects of youth sport participation. Interestingly, we are starting to realize that conflict between peers (often teammates) is quite a normal feature of youth sport participation. Findings suggest that some of the most important lessons children can take from sport are based on learning to deal with conflict and finding ways to work with people who are ‘different’ to themselves. Rather than seeking to remove conflict children can be encouraged to find ways to deal with disputes by seeking to understand the other person’s point of view and reaching compromises


So, do children learn life skills by playing sport? The balance of evidence is children can learn life skills by playing sport, but only when sport is delivered in appropriate ways. Research consistently shows the importance of social interactions (with coaches, parents, and peers) for teaching life skills. The emotion-laden context of sport and the excitement and challenge it can provide present ideal ‘teachable moments’ for children to learn in an environment that is so different to the classroom. We should look to seize these moments and use deliberate techniques to teach children life skills. The stories that will be told during the Olympics and Paralympics may provide opportunities and examples for coaches, educators, parents, and children to learn from the travails of Olympians.

Further Reading

Holt, N. L., Tamminen, K. A., Tink, L. N., & Black, D. E. (2009). An interpretive analysis of life skills associated with sport participation.Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, 1(2), 160-175. doi:10.1080/19398440902909017

Holt, N. L., Tink, L. N., Mandigo, J. L. & Fox, K. R. (2008). Do youth learn life skills through their involvement in high school sport?Canadian Journal of Education, 31(2), 281-304. doi:10.2307/20466702

Holt, N. L., Sehn, Z. L., Spence, J. C., Newton, A., & Ball, G. D. C. (2012). Possibilities for positive youth development through physical education and sport programs at an inner city school. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 17, 97-113. doi: 10.1080/17408989.2010.548062