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Many coaches in youth sport understand the positive benefits of sport participation, in helping youth adopt social relationships, perseverance, and building life skills. However, it isn’t enough to simply thrust a child into sport and hope they develop character. It is necessary for coaches to provide intentional opportunities for youth engagement and empowerment to help optimize the achievement of positive developmental outcomes for youth. A powerful strategy to achieve this is through the use of a tri-level mentoring model (Deutsch, 2008).

Tri-Level Mentoring Model

A tri-level mentoring model involves coaches, youth leaders, and the youth leaders’ peer or younger participants. Through the model, coaches provide leadership opportunities and mentoring to youth, and those youth in turn adopt mentoring relationships with their peers or younger youth. Leadership is a powerful mechanism in helping empower youth to fulfill their potential and positively influence others (Martinek & Hellison, 2009). These roles can help youth attain benefits such as meaningful relationships with peers and staff, greater sense of belonging, increased motivation and engagement, increased confidence to manage groups, and the development of life skills such as interpersonal communication, organization, and time management (Hoffman, Vargas, & Santos, 2008; Shook & Keup, 2012). In turn, peers who are exposed to these youth leaders develop a stronger sense of community, more confidence to pursue their interests, greater involvement in academic activities (e.g., homework, attending classes), greater sense of belonging, and a rich network of resources useful for their success (Hoffman et al., 2008; Shook & Keup, 2012). However, youth leadership needs to be nurtured by coaches to enhance the success of the tri-level mentoring model in achieving these positive outcomes for both youth leaders and their peers. As such, it is important for coaches to understand the processes of leadership development, and strategies they could implement to foster successful youth leadership in their programming.

Stages of Youth Leadership Development

Youth leadership development has been conceptualized as a process that occurs over time, rather than one that occurs “overnight” once one assumes a leadership role. Current models of youth leadership development have visualized the process as a set of stages that youth progress through as they perform leadership tasks and attain leadership-related skills (see Fertman & van Linden, 1999; Martinek & Hellison, 2009). These models are consolidated and summarized below.

The early stages: Taking responsibility and leadership awareness

  • Youth leaders learn what it means to be a leader through observation of role models from various facets of their lives (e.g., current and past adult and peer leaders in sport, at home, in school, in the media)
  • Youth leaders develop an initial awareness of their own concept of leadership and their potential as leaders as they take on various responsibilities (e.g., assisting staff members, leading a warm-up)
  • Youth leaders adopt self-responsibility (e.g., taking charge of one’s own participation, demonstrating willingness to engage, positive cooperation with others)

The middle stages: Interaction and cross-age leadership

  • Youth leaders fulfill the duties and responsibilities of their role
  • Youth leaders interact with younger peers through leading games and activities, providing mentorship and emotional support, and teaching program content (Cross-age leadership; Karcher, 2014)
  • Youth leaders learn by doing: a trial and error process in actions to see what works and what doesn’t in leadership, and learning from those experiences (Voelker, Gould, & Crawford, 2011)
  • With guidance from supportive coaches, youth leaders practice and learn life skills such as communication with others (e.g., listening and assertiveness), decision-making (e.g., exploring alternatives and consequences), and stress management (e.g., managing time, keeping a schedule, adopting coping and emotional regulation strategies; Kouzes & Posner, 2006)

The later stages: Mastery and self-actualized leadership

  • Youth leaders adopt a formidable skillset, knowledge, and experiences related to leadership
  • Youth leaders routinely practice high levels of decision-making, managing stress, goal setting, and expressing thoughts and feelings effectively
  • Youth leaders internalize an identity about being a leader (Martinek & Hellison, 2009; Martinek, Schilling, & Hellison, 2006)
  • Focus of development turns inward and reciprocal teaching processes play a large role, in which youth leaders are learning and building skills by teaching others (Martinek & Hellison, 2009; Mosston & Ashworth, 2008)

Coaches can use this process model to identify the current stages of leadership development of their youth, providing insight on their current state of readiness to take on elevated leadership responsibilities, and the strategies, guidance, and support necessary to help youth continue to develop their leadership skills.

Strategies to Help Youth Leaders Progress

All youth have the potential to succeed and become leaders. However, youth leadership needs to be nurtured by coaches as opposed to relying solely on natural leadership “traits” or abilities to emerge in youth. Martinek & Hellison (2009) suggest four strategies that coaches can use to foster youth leadership development:

01. Power sharing

This strategy involves having youth take on developmentally appropriate decision-making power. Through power sharing, coaches give up some control, providing youth leaders with experiential learning opportunities in program planning and implementation. The provision of developmentally appropriate opportunities ensure youth aren’t thrust into leadership opportunities without adequate training or personal skills (e.g. self-responsibility). A “scaffolding” approach starts youth with small responsibilities and high guidance (e.g., assisting with lesson planning through providing suggestions and feedback), progressing to more significant responsibilities with less guidance as the youth gain competency in fulfilling responsibilities and demonstrate good work ethic (e.g., leading program activities, taking on captaincy roles). Coaches should be prepared to hold youth accountable by reducing/removing responsibilities if they are demonstrating less capability to fulfill responsibilities, or exhibiting low effort (e.g., slacking off).

02. Self-reflection

This strategy involves getting youth to monitor their leadership actions and recognize areas of strength or weakness. Self-reflection engages youth leaders in assessing and directing their own development. Effective self-reflection strategies make the process simple but engaging.

Debriefing sessions can be facilitated by coaches at the end of a program session or team event (i.e., practice or game) during which youth discuss their performance as leaders. This can be guided by the coach asking questions (e.g., “How well do you feel that you fulfilled your responsibilities?”), providing his or her own feedback, and helping set goals together on areas for improvement. This could start with youth simply rating their experiences on a scale of 1 to 5 for each question proposed, and then elaborating on their ratings. Over time, with regular and planned practice, this could advance into more specific or thought-provoking discussions as youth develop their self-reflection abilities.

Journal writing provides an opportunity for youth to reflect on their experiences in writing during or after each session to promote ongoing, continuous reflection. Workbooks could be created by coaches and include prompts that encourage youth leaders to write about their general experiences, areas of strengths and improvements, and main take-aways or lessons learned from a session they helped facilitate.

03. Relationship development

Coach-athlete relationships are identified as one of the strongest influences of positive outcomes in a youth’s life (Theokas & Lerner, 2006). Coach support of youth through caring, emotional support, and allowing youth to voice their concerns has been associated with satisfaction of youth’s needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness, which in turn is associated with more motivation to participate in programming (Bean, Harlow, & Kendellen,

2017). For this reason, the relationships cultivated in these sport contexts need to build trust and mutual respect between adults and youth in order to enhance youth motivation to engage in self-reflective practices and fulfill responsibilities. This can be facilitated by developing familiarity with youth (e.g., getting to know their personal interests, school and family life, personal goals), being available to youth, and engaging in positive mentoring behaviours.

04. Transfer

Youth have the capacity to extend their leadership and related skills beyond sport into other areas of life (e.g., at home, at school, in their neighbourhoods and communities). To help achieve this, coaches need to guide youth in understanding how they can apply themselves beyond sport, as well as providing them opportunities to contribute externally. To teach transfer within sport, debriefing sessions can include opportunities for youth to discuss how their experiences in sport may be similar to experiences in other contexts, and how they could use skills learned in sport (e.g., time management, emotional regulation, decision-making) in these other contexts. Coaches could also take the next step to involve community organizations, volunteer groups, and schools/teachers, in providing youth opportunities (referrals) to contribute in these contexts.

In sum, coaches can utilize their understanding of youth leadership processes to identify which stages of development youth fall in, and what strategies could be implemented to help youth foster leadership-related skills, a process which can also serve beneficial for the peers that they lead. It is best practice to integrate the above stated strategies together, as the co-existence of these strategies is important to optimize youth leadership development. In addition to the implementation of these strategies, coaches could also consider formal training opportunities for youth leaders to broaden their knowledge of different practices for effective leadership (Shanahan, 2015). Tri-level mentoring can be a fruitful model for influencing positive developmental outcomes for youth throughout sport and in their personal lives, and lead to youth contributing actively in their schools, neighbourhoods, and communities.

About the Author(s)

Maji Shaikh is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Ottawa. Prior to pursuing his education in the area of positive youth development through sport, Maji worked as a facilitator of youth sport and exercise programming in the Greater Toronto Area, where he developed a passion for the field through his work with at-risk youth. A focus of his research interests involves knowledge translation activities to share research findings and promising practices to enhance professional practice.


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