The Complete Coach

February 22, 2024, Feature, by Alexandra Reynolds and Nelson Musselman

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How social and emotional learning and DEI training help coaches advance youth sports equity

Youth sports coaches play a pivotal role beyond influencing the scoreboard. Coaches are a major factor in shaping kids’ youth sports experience and remain one of the top reasons why a child may decide to stop playing sports. Beyond keeping children safe on the field and improving athletic skills, well-trained coaches help participants gain self-confidence and build critical skills and attitudes, like leadership and teamwork, self-awareness, appreciation and respect for others, emotional regulation, and responsible decision making. That’s why training coaches to understand and embed social and emotional learning (SEL) and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) best practices alongside safety and injury prevention is critical — that way park and recreation agencies can develop and retain quality coaches who support holistic youth development and encourage children to stick with sports.

A thoughtful and well-rounded approach is required to cultivate coaches and create the sustainable, long-term coaching infrastructure needed to advance positive youth development outcomes through sports. Park and recreation agencies should leverage a multipronged approach to build an equipped and effective coaching program. Addressing barriers expressed by coaches — for example, not feeling qualified to lead a team — along with intentionally fine-tuning recruitment and retention techniques to build a diverse pipeline of coaches must be key areas of focus for park and recreation professionals. As park and recreation professionals seek to develop a youth sports coach training and recruitment strategy, they can look to best practices and key insights from expert voices in the field, including Jason Sacks, president of Positive Coaching Alliance; Katlin Okamoto, Ph.D., director of coach-mentor training at the U.S. Soccer Foundation; and Vince Minjares, Ph.D. (coaching and pedagogy), program manager and lead for the Project Play coaching portfolio.

Coaching With Intention

While many youth sports coaches want to create positive experiences for youth, they may not have the foundational skills and competencies needed to confidently promote youth development. For example, the LiFEsports initiative at Ohio State University recently completed a survey of 10,000 youth sports coaches and found that coaches are fairly confident in traditional coaching practices but reported limited skills related to behaviors that support mental well-being and positive youth development. Coaches want and need more support, and they’re interested in training focused on relationship building, motivational techniques, team dynamics and supporting youth mental health. Park and recreation agencies can prepare their coaches to lead a team of young people by training them in SEL and DEI core competencies, like self-management, conflict resolution, cultural humility and decision making.

Sacks says, “There is an old adage that ‘Sports builds character,’ which should be modified to ‘Sports can build character.’ The key to unlocking the many benefits that sports provide, such as skill development, resiliency, leadership [and] teamwork…is an intentional, consistent and supportive coach.” When coaches are properly trained, they are more likely to create a positive sports experience for athletes that encourages learning, acceptance, growth and connection.

Alongside relationship building, Sacks emphasizes the importance of empathy, an intentional approach and mindset, consistency, and positive support. “Empathy, the ability to understand someone’s perspective without judgment, allows coaches to acknowledge their athletes as individuals, believe the perspectives of their athletes and further build understanding,” he says.

Clear, empathetic feedback helps participants focus on areas for improvement while celebrating successes. “Positive support does not entail aimless positivity, but detailed, specific encouragement that helps athletes develop skills. The more supported a player feels, the more likely they are to take risks…try new skills and be receptive to constructive feedback,” notes Sacks. Having empathy also helps coaches prioritize well-being over athletic performance. For example, empathetic coaches recognize that a young person’s behaviors, actions, attitudes and performance on the court may be influenced by challenges and life experiences they are navigating off the court.

Okamoto agrees that relationships are key to successful coaching. “The ability to make positive connections with youth, navigate challenging behaviors with empathy and be intentional about relationship building throughout a season allow[s] coaches to build trust and more investment from the youth participants,” she shares. Okamoto’s comment echoes the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s approach to the coaching relationship, which is grounded in the notion that coaches serve as mentors, influential figures responsible for creating a safe, inclusive sports experience.

Establishing Training Norms

“A coach who has training in youth development is better able to meet the needs of the youth they serve because of their increased understanding of the young person’s holistic experience and a developed skill set to intentionally meet those needs in ways that build healthy relationships and reinforce a positive team culture,” says Okamoto.

What’s more, by educating coaches on DEI skills, such as practicing self-awareness, recognizing and confronting unconscious bias, and understanding, respecting and valuing others, park and recreation agencies can equip coaches with the skills needed to create inclusive environments.

Minjares describes good coaching as creating a “fun, challenging and supportive” environment. “However, many [mistakenly assume] that every coach knows how to do this well and that their motivation and background will translate to effective support or positive experiences for kids,” he says. “For example, a recent national coach survey of 10,000 youth sports coaches found that while 82 [percent] were motivated to develop young people in their community, just 20 [percent] of recreational coaches felt confident in their ability to help athletes regulate their emotions.”

Research shows DEI and SEL training can help coaches gain the confidence to lead their teams and nurture inclusive environments that support social and emotional well-being for all team members — providing benefits that extend beyond the sports field or court. The national coach survey also found that “85 [percent] of coaches with SEL training felt they had a moderate to high impact on youth persisting in educational settings, compared to 69 [percent] of coaches without SEL training,” says Minjares.

Establishing a well-rounded training program that includes SEL and DEI training for coaches, staff and other adults interested in volunteering in youth sports programs offered by park and recreation agencies is a key factor in advancing youth development outcomes and youth sports equity. Okamoto emphasizes the importance of ensuring that all involved in youth sports administration, from coaches to those who select and hire them, complete DEI and SEL training.

Under-represented and under-resourced groups will benefit most from these practices, as they “often have fewer opportunities and increased barriers to sport participation,” she says.

Investing in SEL and DEI training for coaches becomes an imperative step toward creating a positive, inclusive and impactful youth sports culture. Park and recreation professionals have many options for developing a holistic coach training and recruitment strategy, including high-quality, no-cost coach training resources. When park and recreation agencies focus on building the foundational skills and knowledge needed to center well-being, inclusivity and positive youth development, communities benefit.

Focusing Coach Pipeline Efforts

In recent years, park and recreation agencies have faced challenges recruiting and retaining coaches. While training is one strategy to support coaching staff, agencies also should employ an intentional approach to coach recruitment efforts, ensuring coaches reflect the communities and youth they serve. “We know the importance of having coaches who come from the communities that they coach in,” says Sacks. “No one can better relate to or understand the perspectives and experiences of their athletes than someone who is from their community.”

Assessing coach demographics, including race, ethnicity, ability and gender identity, and comparing them to the demographics of the community served is an important first step in creating inclusive and diverse representation among coaches. Agencies can take action to increase diversity and representation among coaches by developing a DEI-focused coach recruitment plan. “Coach recruitment and retention are major concerns across the youth sports landscape,” says Minjares. “We need more women, coaches of color, LGBTQIA+ and coaches of all abilities, particularly in underserved communities.”

Recruitment Strategies

Developing and implementing a comprehensive recruitment plan is paramount to enhancing diversity and representation among coaches. After identifying gaps in representation, establish clear, measurable recruitment goals. Develop a compelling message, articulate key talking points and create a recruitment package that outlines expectations and addresses frequently asked questions. Ensure the materials incorporate diverse images and inclusive language.

Effectively market coaching opportunities by leveraging community partners to disseminate information, utilizing a variety of channels for promotion, weaving impactful stories into the narrative and actively engaging current coaches to serve as advocates. Further visibility can be achieved by participating in community gatherings and local events, as well as hosting dedicated recruitment events. Any coach recruitment plan must ensure that recruitment efforts focus on building long-term, authentic and equitable relationships with under-represented populations.

“Use as many avenues as you can to get the word out about coaching opportunities,” says Sacks. “Make sure that any flyers, emails, etc., use diverse images of coaches and athletes. If someone doesn’t see themself in the advertisement, they may be less willing to coach.”

When interfacing with potential coaches, communicate the coaching program’s requirements and time commitment, but offer flexibility in scheduling and ample resources for support to attract new coaches and encourage diversity among coaches, says Minjares. “This is particularly important for women. [A] recent study found that flexible scheduling, supportive employers and welcoming environments helped women feel comfortable balancing coaching with family and work.” He recommends pairs or teams of coaches when needed.

Okamoto suggests encouraging former youth sports participants to consider coaching roles. “Inviting [former participants] to assistant coach and receive training in coaching can be an ideal way to create more available coaches….” These individuals already are familiar with the organization’s values and mission and can act as young adult mentors and role models for youth, she says. This approach not only attracts a diverse pool of potential coaches, but also contributes to the overall inclusivity and success of youth sports programs.

When recruiting coaches, be sure to “…consider what you’re looking for in a coaching résumé versus what can be trained,” says Minjares. “It can be easy to overestimate the importance of sports knowledge or coaching experience and overlook individuals who have great rapport with kids, understand the community and would be willing learners….”

Retention Strategies

Equally important to recruitment is coach retention. By valuing coaches and giving them the tools needed for success, park and recreation agencies can maintain a strong pool of quality coaches and reduce turnover. Retention strategies include fostering a supportive environment, recognizing and celebrating coaches’ contributions, offering training opportunities, clearly communicating expectations via a signed coaching agreement or handbook, and asking for coaches’ feedback and making improvements based on their input.

Park and recreation professionals should establish expectations for coaches around the environment and experience they want to offer youth sports participants, says Minjares. He recommends hosting a pre-season coaching orientation and being intentional about fostering community among coaches, as “[c]oaching can be isolating with few interactions between coaches to talk, share, mentor or help.”

Sacks encourages park and recreation agencies to listen to coaches and encourage their feedback, show appreciation for their efforts, celebrate their diversity, offer opportunities for professional development, and provide support. He adds, “Consider spending some time with new coaches to help them get used to the facilities, expectations and roles of everyone involved at the center. The more coaches know what to expect and who to contact in a time of need, the more likely they’ll be to continue on.”

A challenge to coach retention can be the stress of negative parent behavior, says Minjares. “Agencies should have strategies in place for managing parent conduct, while also supporting coaches with parent management, including guidance around parent communication, leading a pre-season parent meeting, setting healthy boundaries with parents and managing conflict situations.”

Okamoto says, “There will always be some turnover [of] coaches, but being generous in showing and telling coaches you value their time and energy can be really impactful.”

Through intentional efforts and a commitment to youth development, park and recreation agencies can leverage coaches to create a transformative impact on the lives of youth in their programs. “At its core, youth sports coaching is about how we make kids feel — confident, connected and empowered,” says Minjares.

This spring, NRPA will partner with several coach training providers to offer no-cost training programs to park and recreation agencies nationwide as part of the Million Coaches Challenge initiative. Reach out to with questions.

Alexandra Reynolds is Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine. Nelson Musselman is an NRPA Program Specialist