Developing Executive Functions and Social Emotional Learning through Sport
Wednesday, May 8, 2019 - 09:00
This blog was adapted from a SIRCuit article written by Dr. Vicki Harber. For the full article, click here.
Within Canada, there is some concern that an ethos of “winning at all costs” has infiltrated youth sport, degrading the quality of the sport experience resulting in reduced participation (Brenner, 2016) and increased injury (Jayanthi et al., 2013). Building psychological, cognitive, social and emotional skills are largely ignored, yet these are essential ingredients for successful high performance athletes, particularly for our developing athletes (Bailey, 2012).
Many members of the Canadian sport system are engaged in dialogue about the ways we develop our younger athletes, particularly in the first three stages of Canada’s Long-Term Athlete Development Pathway (Active Start, FUNdamentals and Learn to Train). It is during these stages that sport can play a role in developing athletes’ executive functions and social and emotional learning skills – the foundations for “human development.”
What are Executive Functions?
Success in school and in one’s career requires “creativity, flexibility, self-control and discipline” (Diamond 2016). Underlying these attributes are executive functions (EFs) – a family of mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions or rules, see things from a different perspective, respond to novel or unpredictable circumstances, and juggle multiple tasks successfully (Diamond 2013).
The parts of the brain that develop these EFs are often compared to an air traffic control system. Busy airports have a duty to safely manage arrivals and departures for many airplanes using many runways, all at the same time. Similarly, our brain needs to operate like an air traffic control tower, seeing and managing distractions, establishing priorities for tasks, setting and achieving goals, while controlling impulsive words and actions (Centre on the Developing Child, Harvard University).
These functions are highly interrelated, and the successful application of EFs in real world situations requires them to properly orchestrate their operations with each other. It is generally agreed that there are 3 core functions:
Working memory governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.
Mental flexibility helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.
Self-control enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses. (CDC, Harvard University)
Developing Executive Functions through Sport
Diamond (2015) reviews the effects of physical exercise on EFs and identifies preferred types of activity that promote positive impact. These include cognitively-engaging exercise, activities requiring bimanual coordination and eye-hand coordination (e.g. social circus), and activities that require frequently crossing the midline and/or rhythmic movement, such as dance or drumming, particularly when moving with others. Our knowledge about the mechanisms that underlie improved executive functions is growing and includes both structural and functional changes to specific regions of the brain (Cotman et al 2007). While our understanding advances, Diamond (2015) further postulates that executive functions are improved by activities promoting physical fitness, but also those that “(a) train and challenge diverse motor and EF skills, (b) bring joy, pride, and self-confidence, and (c) provide a sense of social belonging (e.g., group or team membership).”
What is social and emotional learning?
Establishing a foundation of EFs permits the subsequent development of social and emotional learning skills (Diamond 2013). These include self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness.
“Social and emotional learning is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
Developing SEL through Sport
While much of the work on EFs and SEL has been led by the education sector, we could easily substitute “athlete” for “student” and “coach” for “teacher” and explore the possibilities for community recreation program and sport clubs.
Most coaches would agree that self-management, self-respect, respect of others, an emphasis on effort, and strong decision-making and goal setting skills would be favourable attributes from a competitive sport perspective. Programs that cultivate these values would find their athletes enjoying sport and maintaining their participation over time. Effective implementation of this approach requires “prioritizing the athlete over wins and losses, emphasizing relationships, taking a holistic approach to developing athletes, and understanding that the model is a ‘way of being’, and not just a set of techniques to be followed” (Balague & Fink, 2016).
There are many different ways that this approach can be integrated into the sport environment; one recommended process is described below:
A pre-season discussion with athletes about the kind of culture the team wishes to create. Some questions to help guide this discussion include “What are the things that define us?” or “How do we want to be seen by others?” This can also include season goals for individuals as well as the entire team.
Allow the team to create their own means by which they gather and decide on consequences for players that do not meet the agreed upon standards.
An awareness talk begins each training session to identify the personal and group goals that target the SEL components. For example, the focus might be on Relationship Skills – during the awareness talk, ask the athletes to describe what this looks like in both sport and non-sport situations. This helps to establish ownership and accountability for the practice session.
At the end of each training session, there is a rapid check-in with players to reflect on their contributions and how this might look in other parts of their life. Using the Relationship Skills from point #3, athletes can identify how they managed these skills during the training session, what did they do or say to promote relationship building or what might they do differently next time.
While coaches will facilitate the above, they need to honour and respect the athlete voices by supporting their choices. For example, during training, the coach must integrate athlete ideas from the opening awareness talk.
For more information about teaching life skills through sport, check out this SIRC blog series on positive youth development.
Bailey R (2012) What is Developmentally Appropriate Sport? Active & Healthy Magazine 19(2):21-24.
Balague G, Fink C (2016) Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility in competitive sport. Active & Healthy 23:51-54.
Brenner, J. S. (2016). Sports specialization and intensive training in young athletes. Pediatrics 138(3), e20162148. doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2148
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
Cotman CW, Berchtold NC, Christie LA (2007) Exercise builds brain health: key roles of growth factor cascades and inflammation. Trends in Neurosciences 3:464-472.
Diamond, A. (2013) Executive functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 135-168.
Diamond, A. (2015) Effects of physical exercise on executive functions: Going beyond simply moving to moving with thought. Annals of Sports Medicine and Research, 2(2), 1011-1015.
Diamond (2016) Executive Function in Preschool-Age Children: lntegrating Measurement, Neurodevelopment and Translational Research, J. A. Griffin, P. McCardle, L. S. Freund (Editors) American Psychological Association.
Jayanthi, N., Pinkham, C., Dugas, L., Patrick, B., LaBella, C. (2013) Sports specialization in young athletes. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 5(3), 251-257. doi:10.1177/1941738112464626