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Swimmers talking to each other after practice

This blog is the second in a series by the authors on positive youth development in sport. If this is your first visit to this series, considering taking a few minutes to read the other two posts: Tips on How to Deliver a Quality Youth Sport Program and Supporting the Transfer and Application of Life Skills Beyond Sport

Sport is often celebrated as a platform through which to develop life skills, such as communication, teamwork, and respect. Approaches to develop these skills fall into two categories:

  1. Implicit approaches – where the inherent dynamics of sport (e.g., competition, team environments) provide opportunities for practicing life skills; and
  2. Explicit approaches – where intentional program designs and coaching practices provide opportunities for practicing life skills (Turnnidge et al., 2014).

Research has supported the explicit approach as an effective approach to teaching life skills, where youth are more likely to develop life skills if coaches are intentional in their approach (Bean & Forneris, 2016). Teaching life skills works alongside other good coaching practices, including building strong coach-athlete relationships and gaining athletes’ respect and trust (e.g., Petitpas et al., 2005). Further, a coaching philosophy (i.e., principles that drive your coaching) that prioritizes the development of both sport skills and life skills provides an important foundation for success. These foundational elements can help facilitate the seamless integration of life skills into programming, in conjunction with physical, technical, and tactical coaching.

Below are five strategies that can be used by coaches to intentionally teach life skills through sport.

  1. Teaching life skills by design. Reflect on what type of life skills you want your athletes to develop through sport and how you can help facilitate their positive development. When designing your coaching plan and articulating your philosophy, ask yourself “What are my goals and intended outcomes related to life skills development for the program?” and “How can these goals and outcomes be communicated to my team?” The following strategies will help you integrate these into your practice.
  2. Focus on one life skill per session. Introduce one life skill per session to maximize understanding and not overwhelm athletes (Kendellen et al., 2017). Facilitate a discussion with athletes about the skill and its perceived importance for their development. For example, if the life skill for the session is ‘focus’, coaches can facilitate discussion with athletes by asking: ‘Why is it important to focus during practices/games?’, ‘How do you try to focus before practices/games?’, and ‘What would you do if you were struggling to focus during practices/games?’.
  3. Use teachable moments. Use teaching moments to draw athletes’ focus to life skills development. This could include informal or spontaneous opportunities (e.g. when you witness athletes putting life skills into practice by mentoring another athlete or working to manage their emotions). Coaches should be aware of and look for opportunities for teachable moments for both negative and positive behaviours.
  4. Draw connections. Athletes may not be aware of the connections between life skills learned in sport and skills needed beyond sport (Danish et al., 2002). Coaches could enable this by creating elements within the sport context that are similar to other domains (Jacobs & Wright, 2018). Coaches can also discuss and draw connections between sport and youth’s school, home, or work environments. For example, coaches can ask athletes how they prepare for a big presentation at school and discuss how similar processes may be beneficial in preparing before competition.
  5. Debrief throughout and at the end of programming. By including moments to debrief throughout a session, coaches can encourage youth to reflect on life skills development experiences in real time. Intentional efforts will allow coaches and athletes to discuss how the practicing of life skills is perceived, provide recommendations for including other life skills into sessions, identify what strategies worked/did not work while practicing life skills, and engage in reflection after the session ends (Kendellen et al., 2017). For example, if your life skill for the session is “communication”, coaches can ask athletes the following questions to facilitate a debrief: “How did you communicate with your teammates during the practice?”, “Did anyone have difficulty communicating?”, and “What are some tips you can share with your teammates on how to effectively communicate with others?”.

Life skills development is a process for youth, but can also be a process for coaches. It will take time to adopt this explicit approach, and will include effort, trial and error, and learning from and adapting your coaching behaviours over time. We encourage coaches to find ways to explicitly teach life skills that best fit with their own coaching philosophy and practices and the athletes with which they work. The Implicit/Explicit Life Skills Continuum may be used as a tool to help coaches identify their current level of explicitness and identify what level they wish to achieve.

About the Author(s)

Sara Kramers is a doctoral student at the University of Ottawa within the School of Human Kinetics. Her research examines the teaching and development of life skills within the youth sport context, coaching education, as well as the evaluation and quality of youth sport programming.

Dr. Corliss Bean is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia Okanagan within the School of Health and Exercise Sciences. She is also the Research and Evaluation Specialist at Youth Research and Evaluation eXchange at York University. Her research has focused on program evaluation within youth sport programs. Corliss is heavily involved in research within the community and has worked with organizations at the local and national levels to develop curriculum and evaluate programs.


Bean, C., & Forneris, T. (2016). Examining the importance of intentionally structuring the youth sport context to facilitate positive youth development. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 28, 410-425. doi:10.1080/10413200.2016.1164764

Bean, C., Kramers, S., Forneris, T., & Camiré, M. (2018). The implicit/explicit continuum of life skills development and transfer. Quest, 1-15. doi:10.1080/00336297.2018.1451348

Danish, S. J., Fazio, R. J., Nellen, V. C., & Owens, S. S. (2002). Teaching life skills through sport: Community-based programs to enhance adolescent development. In J. L. Van Raalte & B. W. Brewer (Eds.), Exploring sport and exercise psychology (pp. 269-288). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Jacobs, J. M., & Wright, P. M. (2018). Transfer of life skills in sport-based youth development programs: A conceptual framework bridging learning to application. Quest, 70(1), 81-99. doi:10.1080/00336297.2017.1348304

Kendellen, K., Camiré, M., Bean, C., Forneris, T., & Thompson, J. (2017). Integrating life skills into Golf Canada’s youth programs: Insights into a successful research to practice partnership. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 8, 34-46. doi:10.1080/21520704.2016.1205699

Petitpas, A. J., Cornelius, A. E., Van Raalte, J. L., & Jones, T. (2005). A framework for planning youth sport programs that foster psychosocial development. The Sport Psychologist, 19(1), 63-80. doi:10.1123/tsp.19.1.63

Turnnidge, J., Côté, J., & Hancock, D. J. (2014). Positive youth development from sport to life: Explicit or implicit transfer? Quest, 66, 203-217. doi:10.1080/00336297.2013.867275

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.