Why Training Park and Recreation Coaches on Social and Emotional Skills is Important

By Jon Solomon | Posted on June 2, 2021

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Park and recreation professionals and their agencies are major providers of both organized and unorganized sports programming across the nation. They offer spaces where kids can play together, build new relationships, and learn about teamwork. They provide programming that serves all community members, including youth from under-resourced neighborhoods.

Yet, while parks and recreation departments provide some coach training to staff and volunteers, there remains a gap in training on social and emotional development – particularly training that incorporates principles of equity and inclusion. According to the National Recreation and Park Association’s 2020 Youth Sports Survey, less than 50 percent of agencies surveyed currently provide coach training on confronting bias and conflict resolution.

Coaches play a vital role in creating a positive sports experience for youth. In addition to keeping kids safe on the field, coaches and other adults in a child’s life significantly impact a child’s social and emotional (SEL) development. Children and teenagers who participate in sports not only grow up more physically active, but also gain social and emotional health benefits that follow them into adulthood.

Despite these benefits, the average child quits sports by age 11, most often because the sport just isn’t fun anymore, according to a survey of youth sports parents by the Aspen Institute and Utah State University. Coaches play a vital role – positive or negative – in whether a child has an enjoyable sports experience.  

Now, more than ever, coaches need to embrace their duty as role models. Research indicates that the atmosphere set by adults, particularly coaches, is a major factor in determining the quality of youth sports experiences. During the return to play, coaches should be intentional and communicate the comprehensive set of skills they hope to develop in their youth athletes. Ideally, skill development goes beyond just the fundamentals of the sport and extends to SEL skills like communication, teamwork, respect and emotional regulation. As leaders on and off the field, coaches should model positive behavior. If you make a mistake, model accountability by taking responsibility for your actions and owning up.

  • Resource suggestions: HowtoCoachKids.org offers free online training courses on the basics of being a youth coach and understanding the needs of youth under the age of 12. The Aspen Institute’s Calls for Coaches initiative, created in collaboration with the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, offers videos and practice checklists about how to coach for social and emotional skills. 

In addition, young athletes need their mental health attended to by coaches. As kids return to practices and games after COVID-19 shutdowns, experts say that intentionally addressing mental health will be critical for youth sports providers. The coronavirus pandemic only heightened this need as millions of children spent the better part of a year isolated from connections. The CDC found that the proportion of mental-health-related, emergency-room visits for children between ages 12 and 17 increased 31 percent from March-October 2020, compared with the same months in 2019.

“We are just at the beginning of a secondary mental health pandemic,” said Rebekah Roulier, chief operating officer of Doc Wayne Youth Services, a sport-based group therapy program based in Boston. “The implications of social isolation and the stress upon us all will continue for years.”

Roulier said unfortunately she talks to many coaches during the pandemic who tell her they feel ill-equipped to handle difficult situations with players. Some coaches have Zoom calls with kids and witness what could be characterized as mild domestic violence, but most coaches and sport-based youth development programs have no idea or protocol for how to handle such a situation. Coaches are not mental health professionals, nor should they be. But given that coaches often have strong social bonds with their athletes, it will be critical to ensure they can support young people and, when necessary, direct them to the appropriate resources.

“We need to have a second wave of public health communication that says, ‘We need you coaches. You are our first line of defense for kids,’” Roulier said. “Then you need to give these coaches very basic education.”

Roulier suggests focusing trainings on how to talk to kids, which she believes is even more important than identifying mental health symptoms. Coaches can learn how to practice reflective listening, as well as how to hold space for kids to talk, and then how to process the information and determine what to do if they hear certain comments.

  • Resource suggestions: Doc Wayne offers weekly group therapy sessions that use sports to promote positive mental health and social-emotional life skills. Also, the U.S. Center for SafeSport training and education platform offers online education on preventing abuse and harassment, plus resources on how to return to play safely during COVID-19.

Coaches can serve as mentors who help youth build values around diversity, equity and inclusion. Research from the University of Toronto shows racism can be learned by children as young as 4, but that exposure to different races at an early age can greatly reduce a child’s bias. Children learn many negative messages about other groups from being surrounded by those with few experiences that challenge those messages. Park and recreation departments can expose children to diverse mentors and new frameworks for thinking.

  • Resource suggestions: Increasingly, organizations exist that provide anti-bias training to sports providers. Examples include: A Long Talk, which offers anti-racism learnings in a sports setting and works with many college athletic departments; RISE, which provides curriculum designed to educate and empower the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations; and Mom of All Capes, which partnered with the U.S. Soccer Foundation on an anti-racist coaching toolkit.

The impact of COVID-19 on youth sports is only just starting to crystalize. It’s already clear many youth are at greater risk of being left behind without physical activity. As discussed in our February blog post, quality, community-based sports will become more important than ever during the recovery from the pandemic – as will the need to train coaches who can support the healthy development of youth.

Jon Solomon is editorial director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, whose main initiative is Project Play. Future stories in this series with the National Recreation and Park Association will explore how park and recreation departments are creatively serving their communities during the pandemic.