School sports are widely recognized as having a positive developmental influence on children. Not only do those students get exercise, have a chance to make new friends, and learn about teamwork, but also they improve their self-confidence as they achieve their goals.
These benefits are often learned implicitly, meaning that children may learn, but it’s without intentionality. While there is explicit instruction regarding sport-specific physical skills, such as where to place your body when you set a pick in basketball, there may be no such corresponding explicit teaching on how to focus or create a positive environment where people learn faster and perform better.
Good coaches may impart this information, but they might not think of it as social and emotional learning (SEL). A focus on SEL within sports and physical education (PE) could give coaches another tool to get the best out of their young athletes.
Aligning our thinking with the Science of Learning and Development (SoLD), pioneered by Richard Lerner, Linda Darling-Hammond, Pamela Cantor, and David Osher, we submit that athletics is exactly the kind of integrated program that can foster learning in activities that address the whole child.
However, unlike other classroom subjects, sports does not have a written curriculum to guide PE teachers and coaches on how to teach those life lessons. While there is some systematic integration of SEL into PE, it’s still far from standard practice.
Written Curriculum Advantages
If what we know about how to achieve in sport and elsewhere through acquiring certain social and emotional skills and mental habits were put into a written curriculum that PE teachers and coaches could use with students both school- and district-wide, it could have dramatic effects.
Students entering teams would have a fundamental skill set from their PE experiences. For coaches, being systematic about SEL would raise their athletes to a higher level and provide a consistency of message on all teams, stabilize team environments, and provide guidelines as to what social and emotional skills could be explicitly expected, taught, and reinforced.
Of the many values of the written word, one is that it lends gravitas and a permanency to whatever the subject is being addressed. In school sports, a written curriculum would allow a sense of community to emerge around shared goals, show sport as an agent for social inclusivity, and allow us to envision sports as a transformative and educational resource.
At the high school level in particular, building blocks exist for a written curriculum that can promote a positive team climate and help PE teachers and coaches broaden their relationships with their students/athletes beyond the mechanics of particular sports and activities.
4 Ways PE Teachers and Coaches Can Advance SEL
1. Promote a positive team climate and essential virtues. Sport psychology and SEL show that teams and individuals who value safe, supportive, encouraging, and inclusive team climates perform better and learn faster. Having a positive team climate includes athletes possessing the psychological safety that allows them to be more collaborative and creative without fear.
Creating a positive, safe, and supportive space is a skill. Many companies in the business community follow this science and have applied the same approach in their operational practices. Codifying these practices in the PE and youth sports context would, if truly implemented, increase the social and emotional benefits that students would get from participation and mitigate much of the abuse that plagues youth sports.
2. Develop skills through thought recognition and relationship building. When adolescents are intentionally taught emotion regulation and focus skills, they are helped when shooting a foul shot with 0.1 seconds left on the clock. Learning how to problem-solve and learning how to make decisions are valuable skills when analyzing one’s own performance and looking to make improvements. Empathy and communication are essential when picking up your teammate when they miss a catch. Knowing and identifying these skills is the first step in having them take root within students’ and athletes’ lives.
Intentionally teaching and practicing metacognition would allow anticipatory defensive players to pierce the passing lane, to find calm through meditation in the middle of a chaotic game, to recognize distracting thoughts in real time to improve concentration. Students who are trained in thinking about what they are thinking about are more likely to be the best version of themselves in any athletic contest.
3. Build student investment and responsibility through student voice. In 21st-century businesses, employee voice is valued because it increases their engagement and empowerment to ask questions, seek help, and try out new skills while providing valuable feedback, decreasing stress, and increasing morale. The employees feel ownership in the business because they contributed to its success.
This same concept applies in athletic activities and sports teams and for the same reasons. Have the participants set the group/team values, rules, and consequences for infractions; let them plan practice and develop game plans; and give them opportunities to provide honest feedback and suggest improvements. This improves autonomy and engagement.
4. Have the coach serve as a facilitator. Of course, for the above to happen, PE teachers and coaches must take on the role of guiding facilitator, mostly by asking pertinent questions of players and giving them the freedom to offer their answers without fear of being judged harshly. Ideally, it means establishing a written problem-solving protocol that is used regularly when difficulties or challenges exist—whether in a PE class or a game context, in preparation as well as in action.
This requires the coach to give up some power, but certainly not during games where split-second decisions must be made by only one person. When students are aware of this new role embraced by their coaches, their relationship changes, and students’ accountability and responsibilities are increased.
Teachers and coaches truly are guides, helping students get to a range of destinations, some expected, some not, in a systematic way. A written curriculum provides a map that allows many to follow it, not just those gifted with a good sense of direction. As Nelson Mandela observed, sport “speaks to youth in a language they understand.” Let’s start a true conversation.