The Reality of Teaching Life Skills Through Sport

September 17, 2020

Life skill development and positive youth development (PYD) is often tied to youth sport. In this post, I will share the research on PYD in sport and provide some strategies for promoting PYD in your context.

By Dr. Jennifer Roth

We often hear about how sport develops life skills, that sport is a great place for kids to learn important life skills that they can use in other parts of life. While this may be true in some instances, we also see an abundance of examples in which athletes are exposed to negative aspects of sports impeding their personal development. For example, it is not uncommon to see parents and coaches engage in bad sportsmanship behaviors that send the wrong message to the athletes. However, positive youth development (PYD) has become a hot button topic in sport.

As coaches and sport leaders, we want to make sure we give our athletes the best opportunities to develop both individually and athletically. While sport may not inherently promote positive development, it does offer an avenue for PYD if structured and designed purposely. So, what does the research tell us about how to structure the youth sport experience to promote PYD?

The Research

The research on PYD through sport is relatively new but it remains muddy. Often called PYD, life skill development or character development, research lacks a consistent definition of this concept. As framed by sport researchers Dan Gould and Sarah Carson (2008), PYD involves the promotion of desirable competencies that lead to positive developmental outcomes for youth. These positive developmental outcomes include assets both internal (personal skills and values) and external (support surrounding the athletes). A few internal assets include planning and decision-making, self-esteem, or a sense of purpose and some external assets include family support, caring climate, and safety. The Search Institute identifies more than 40 developmental assets important for youth.

Specifically, in sport, the research confirms that positive youth development does not happen automatically through participation, rather it needs to be purposefully included in the sport experience. There are many benefits found as a result of participating in sport such as increases in self-esteem and decreases in stress (Adachi & Willoughby, 2014), positive peer relationships and leadership skills (Wright & Coté, 2003), and increased physical health (Taylor et al., 1985). There are also negative consequences aligned with sport participation such as injuries and eating disorders (Anshel, 2004). Whether an athlete gains positive outcomes from the sport experience depends on how their sport experience is structured.

Four Things You Can Do Today to Promote Positive Youth Development on Your Team

So, what needs to be done to put athletes in the best position to learn valuable life skills and develop positive assets through sport? While there are many components of sport that need to be purposefully designed to promote PYD, I will focus on three key features: Having a PYD focused philosophy, facilitating peer relationships and using PYD specific coaching strategies.

Re-engineer Your Coaching/Leadership Philosophy to Incorporate Activities to Promote Athlete Growth

How does your philosophy prioritize the personal development of the athlete? What activities do you do in your practice time, or outside practice time, that develops the person? Having a priority on personal growth will influence how to interact with athletes, the goals you set for them, and the way you design practices. Develop a philosophy that defines success as personal growth and development and puts emphasis on your role in the athlete’s personal development.

Build Positive Peer Relationships Amongst Athletes

Long-term, inclusive, reciprocal relationships between teammates can aid in PYD. Positive peer relationships provide opportunities for peer leadership and feelings of belongingness, a critical aspect of a caring and support environment. While we may think of peer relationships as an outcome of sport participation, it is also an important feature of programs that promote PYD. As a coach or sport leader, make sure to set aside specific time for athletes to get to know each other and form strong relationships on and off the field.

Reinforce Effort and Frame Mistakes and Challenges as Learning Opportunities

To aid in the positive development of athletes, coaches need to engage in positive coaching behaviors. These include focusing on the power of rewards rather than punishments, rewarding effort and performance rather than only outcomes, holding realistic expectations for the athletes age and skill level and fostering a positive view of mistakes (analyze the mistake, learn from it, and then forget it). A few other coaching strategies that are aligned with PYD include building strong relationships, asking questions, giving effective feedback, and setting effective goals. Check out our blog post about the five principles of giving effective feedback to learn more about the power of rewards.

Food for Thought: Transfer of Life Skills

There are two schools of thought regarding the transfer of life skills from sport. The explicit approach requires coaches/sport leaders to deliberately teach youth how to transfer life skills. This approach involves having discussions with athletes about how to transfer skills, demonstrating transfer, and being a role model for using skills learned in sport in school, work, social or family life. The implicit approach involves primarily facilitating life skills in the sport setting and put onus on the athlete to develop the skills in other contexts. Both approaches are found to be effective in the research on PYD however it is important that with either approach, life skills are purposefully taught and integrated into the sport experience. Think about which approach may work better for you and your athletes.

Continue Learning By Taking an Online Course in Character Development or PYD

Continue learning about how to promote PYD by taking an online course. The National Federation of High Schools (NHFS) offers a free course that focuses on teaching and modeling behavior as a coach. Martin Camiré and School Sport Canada developed a free course designed to give coaches to tools to coach important life skills to student-athletes. Last, the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports here at MSU worked with the NHFS to create the Captain’s Course targeted at developing leadership skills for athletes.

Jennifer Roth (Nalepa) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology.  She works in the graduate programs in sport coaching and leadership and teaches courses in sport psychology, athlete development, and positive youth development.  She conducts research on coach education and athlete development. Jennifer also coordinates the Summer Coaches School, a two day coach education event, at Michigan State University and the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports.


Gould, D., & Carson, S. (2008). Life skills development through sport: Current status and future directions. International review of sport and exercise psychology1(1), 58-78.

  • The authors review and summarize the research on life skills through sport. They provide a heuristic model of coaching life skills and share future research directions for life skill development through sport.

Adachi, P. J., & Willoughby, T. (2014). It’s not how much you play, but how much you enjoy the game: The longitudinal associations between adolescents’ self-esteem and the frequency versus enjoyment of involvement in sports. Journal of youth and adolescen

  • This study found that greater enjoyment of sports predicted higher self-esteem over time. Athletes with high self-esteem also were found to have a greater enjoyment of sport.

Wright, A., & Côté, J. (2003). A retrospective analysis of leadership development through sport. The sport psychologist17(3), 268-291.

  • This study involved in-depth qualitative interviews with leader-athletes that showed leadership development focuses on four components including high skill, strong work ethic, enriched cognitive sport knowledge, and good rapport with people.

Janssen, I., & LeBlanc, A. G. (2010). Systematic review of the health benefits of physical activity and fitness in school-aged children and youth. International journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity7(1), 40.

  • Physical activity was found to be associated with many health benefits. Aerobic-based activities were found to have the greatest health benefit overall with high-impact weight bearing activities having a positive impact on bone health

Anshel, M. H. (2004). Sources of disordered eating patterns between ballet dancers and non-dancers. Journal of sport behavior27(2), 115.

  • The authors showed that dancers are more at risk for developing eating disorders than non-dancers and are more often preoccupied with weight, have body dissatisfaction, and score higher on perfectionism.