Positive Coaching Alliance: Bringing SEL Training to 400,000 Youth Sports Coaches

More than forty million young people play sports each year. Combining physical activity, play, and collaboration, sports have near-limitless potential to help young athletes develop social and emotional skills like grit, empathy, and teamwork.

But these outcomes are not guaranteed—especially in a youth sports culture that over-values specialization, social comparison, and winning from early ages. Only 38% of kids ages 6-12 played team or individual sports on a regular basis in 2018, down from 45% in 2008.1 To put it simply, kids are burning out.

However, a good coach can make a major difference. Young people who identify at least one supportive adult within their social networks achieve better outcomes across a range of academic, behavioral, and health indicators.2 For kids who play sports, a coach can become that transformational figure.

Beyond building sport-specific skills, coaching requires a nuanced skillset that is developed through ongoing training and professional development. Life lessons are not implicit and youth don’t learn them simply by playing; coaches need training to promote the social and emotional skills that help kids succeed both on and off the field.

Just like teachers and parents, coaches can play a critical role in promoting the skills kids need to thrive. That’s why we’re partnering with Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) to train 400,000 coaches in social and emotional learning and positive youth development by 2023.

PCA’s mission is to create positive, character-building youth sports environments that result in better athletes and better people. With support from SCE, PCA will train coaches across the country in key youth development techniques that are proven to promote SEL skills—leveraging a proven virtual training for the foreseeable future, then transitioning to in-person training once it is safe to do so. They will be making a special effort to invest in places where the need is greatest; 50% of all training will be done in underserved communities. PCA will also invest in their marketing and technology infrastructure, including a data system that will track which coaches are being trained and where.

Through this partnership, PCA will equip a generation of coaches with the skills they need to help millions of young athletes succeed—at a time when those skills are needed most. As our nation’s youth cautiously return to play in the era of COVID-19, they emerge from a period of unprecedented uncertainty. Isolation, virtual schooling, and a childhood interrupted have affected young people’s lives in ways we’re only just beginning to understand. We need to empower coaches with the training they need to help young athletes through this challenging period.

Beyond coach training, we hope this effort jumpstarts a critical conversation about what it really means to be a good coach. We’re grateful to PCA for their partnership and look forward to learning from their work.

Read our joint press release with PCA about this partnership.
Learn more about PCA here.

2019 State of Play, Project Play, The Aspen Institute, https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/reports

2 MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, http://www.mentoring.org/

Photos © Positive Coaching Alliance

Don’t retire, kid: Our four biggest takeaways from the Project Play Summit

Young athletes share their stories at the Project Play Summit.

Don’t retire, kid.

That message anchored the Aspen Institute’s 2019 Project Play Summit, which brought more than 500 leaders in sport and youth development to Detroit this September. Over two days, representatives from national athletics organizations, nonprofit and philanthropic professionals, parents, and kids discussed how we can make sports work for all kids.

There’s a major need for these conversations. A recent study by the Aspen Institute found that most kids “retire” from sports by the age of 12. Just 38% of kids between ages six and 12 play sports regularly—down from 45% in 2008. Sometimes it’s because sports are too expensive; travel and equipment can cost thousands of dollars per year. Sometimes, it’s because sports get too competitive or intense. When sports stop being fun, kids stop playing.

This is a big concern. Kids who don’t play sports miss out on a guaranteed form of physical activity; they’re less likely to get the amount of exercise they need to stay healthy. However, they also miss out on opportunities for social and emotional development. When they’re done right, organized sports can help kids build self-esteem, set goals, learn teamwork, and practice leadership.

At the Susan Crown Exchange, we’re all about preparing kids to thrive. We’re especially interested in social and emotional learning (SEL) – the development of skills like empathy and collaboration, which have been linked to improved academic results and better life outcomes for kids.

Sports certainly aren’t the only way that kids build these skills. But with 45 million kids playing sports each year in the US alone, the potential is huge. We came to this conference with an open mind, excited to hear from a diverse set of experts on how we can make sports better for kids. Here’s what we learned.

The session we co-hosted with the Aspen Institute: How to Coach Social and Emotional Skills

  1. Sports aren’t just physical. We believe that social and emotional skills are critical for a child’s development. As it turns out, we’re not alone. Together with the Aspen Institute, we hosted an interactive session about why these skills matter, how sports can help children build them, and the role of coaches in a young athlete’s development. Nearly 100 people from a variety of backgrounds attended. Our participants gave us invaluable insights into how we can empower coaches to adopt SEL-informed approaches, making sure that the young athletes they support are prepared to thrive.
  2. We need to make sports better for kids. No matter where they came from in the world of sport, it seemed that everyone agreed on this. Parents spoke compellingly about the pressures their children faced from a young age. A panel of children agreed. Nonprofit leaders stressed that some kids can’t access sports at all—kids from low-income homes are half as likely to play sports as their upper-income peers. These are thorny issues, and we need to tackle them from all angles. We think that well-trained coaches will be particularly instrumental in addressing issues like these, and that an SEL-informed approach to coaching can have an outsized impact on the social and emotional development of young athletes.
  3. There’s a lot we’re still figuring out. It seems that everyone agrees that something needs to be done to make youth sports better. What’s less clear is what. Being fairly new to the world of sport, we were fascinated by some of the open questions that came up. Given what we know about the pressure kids are under, what is the role of competition? How can parents promote sports sampling—encouraging kids to try different sports—without overscheduling their children? How can we increase the demand for well trained coaches? These are questions that the field hasn’t answered yet—but it’s white spaces like this that excite us.
  4. Everyone has a role to play. Perhaps our favorite part of the conference was the diversity of perspectives welcomed. A panel of kids shared their experiences with sport. Their parents followed up with their own stories. Athletes with disabilities and their able-bodied teammates spoke candidly about what they each had learned from participating in integrated sports. And civic, philanthropic, and business leaders discussed the large-scale interventions needed to bring sports to more kids on a macro scale. Keynote speaker David Brooks referred to sports as a “social fabric” that can help build a just and kind society; it’s clear that many actors play a part in weaving that fabric together.

Jennifer Lerner of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program introduces the session.

As we explore the connections between sports, SEL, and youth development, we’re excited to keep learning—and to think about how we might play a part. If you know of any great resources or organizations that are also interested in this topic, let us know. We’d love to learn from them.

Learn more about our partnership with the Aspen Institute here.

All photos © Aspen Institute Project Play

New Resources for Coaches to Support Social and Emotional Skills

What if coaches were measured not by wins and losses, but by the personal growth of their athletes?

SCE is pleased to launch new resources that explore the role youth sports can play in developing young people’s social and emotional skills. Through a partnership with The Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program and National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development and guidance from a strategic advisory group of researchers, program providers, coaches, and athletes including young people, we commissioned the EASEL Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to produce a white paper, Coaching Social and Emotional Skills in Youth Sports, which explains the evidence behind effective strategies youth coaches can use to build these skills in their young athletes.

Calls for Coaches: Coaching Social and Emotional Skills in Youth Sports translates the white paper into actionable calls for coaches to implement in after-school and community-based sports leagues. The brief’s goals are to:

  • Help coaches understand why youth sports is a great venue for developing social, emotional and cognitive skills.
  • Provide strategies and best practices for coaches to name, model and create environments for youth athletes to develop and practice these skills.

View a recording of the Calls for Coaches release event here.