By Marisa Schlenker – Sport contributes to positive development. This is a statement that could be unquestionable to many as it is widely perceived that sports inherently leads to encouraging positive outcomes, even outside of the physical benefits. It is thought that participating in sports leads to character development such as higher self esteem and self efficacy, an ability to work on a team, follow rules and to communicate effectively. Think about your own sport experiences and think about what you learn from the moments in training, on the field or with your team. What attributes do you connect to playing sports?

There is a strong discourse in relation to how sport can actually lead to development. In fact, most research is stating that apart from developmental outcomes related to health, sport in fact doesn’t necessarily lead to the desired developmental outcomes. Many researchers believe that it is not simply sports, which achieves possible positive or negative outcomes, but rather it is the way that the sport is provided and experienced. With this approach, sport is seen as a ‘site for socialization experience’ and not a direct cause to socialization outcomes. There are many factors that are involved when sports (socialization experience) take place that also need to be taken into greater account, for example the importance of the coach and the sport leaders.

The study, Sport for Development: The Potential Value and Next Steps (1998-2013), has created a sport for development model based on examining this socialization experience and found that key conditions have to be present for overarching social outcomes to be possible. Within the conditions is the emphasis on coaches and their relationship with the participants. It is thought that the coaches and sports leaders are key factors in determining whether participants develop positive attributes from their sporting experience. It is not just coaches themselves but rather how they are trained (and continue to learn) to be able to deliver their sports programs effectively to the participants. Coaches are vital because they are not just teaching the sport, but also are teaching life skills to the participants. Effective coaches should in fact become mentors for the participants and exemplify the life skills that they are aiming to teach through the sport experience.

Other research is pointing to the importance of connecting life skills learned through the sport (social experience), such as effective communication and teamwork, to real life situations off the field. Participants learn more when skills learned on the pitch can be transferrable to life off the pitch, so that the social experience provided through the sport can lead to character development; all of which is greatly dependent on how the program is designed and delivered by the coach.

When the sport experience is positive for participants and is a safe space for learning and growth, then social capital develops, which can lead to greater outcomes. For example, when looking at a team that works well together with the support from their coach and community, then the social capital of this group would be seen as quite high. Social capital is defined as ‘social networks based on social and group norms, which enable people to trust and cooperate with each other and via which individuals or groups can obtain certain types of advantage (Coalter, 2010) Effective teams have high social capital which leads to strong bonds, trust and cooperation.

More and more in the research in this field of how sport can be used for positive development, the role of the coach or sports leaders is being discussed because it is a very important role that can greatly affect the experience for the participants involved. It is important to remember that the social experience created through sports also involves many other actors, including the players, the community and their family members, and to figure out where you fit in and how you can contribute to a more positive experience for everyone.

What do you think?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.