Using life skills to promote social justice: Youth sport as a vehicle for social changeFebruary 1, 2023
As youth sport researchers, we seek to understand how youth develop and transfer life skills. In recent years, cultural issues have urged us to evolve our understanding of life skills. For instance, the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements continue to raise awareness of inequities within sport and beyond. Additionally, the climate change movement has helped to illustrate the disproportional impacts on Indigenous populations. As such, over the past few years, we have intentionally and critically challenged what life skills are commonly believed to be.
Being mindful of historic and ongoing systems of oppression, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, among others, we believe that life skills can be so much more than traditional concepts like self-control, effort, and teamwork. As scholar-activists, if our work reflects the diversity of lived experiences and dynamic environments in which youth live, we can reimagine not only life skills, but also positive youth development (PYD), as an approach to promote social change.
An important step in evolving life skills involves creating alignment between how athletes learn and use life skills, and how these skills are understood in the context of social movements.
Three ways of evolving life skills through a social justice lens
1. Expand the meaning of life skills
When we think of life skills, we often think of “traditional” life skills, including teamwork, communication, or leadership. However, we can extend our understanding to consider teamwork as a critical skill needed to engage with individuals and groups that may differ culturally, or hold different belief systems.
Similarly, through a social justice lens, leadership can consist of advocating for change and working toward a socially just society, which can involve coaches, captains or other informal leaders taking part in a peaceful protest or standing up for a teammate harassed because of their racial or ethnic background, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
2. See life skills through a sociopolitical lens
We should also consider how certain life skills may unintentionally uphold inequities. For instance, some life skills, such as resilience and grit, may be loaded concepts that perpetuate the notion that youth who face barriers must navigate environmental stressors and challenges that youth from more privileged backgrounds may not have to navigate. As a sport system, can we work to change the odds, instead of asking youth facing barriers to continuously work to beat the odds?
3. Teach life skills that address youth’s social realities
Youth are more likely to develop and transfer life skills if they can relate to them. As such, we must ensure life skills are culturally relevant and based on youth’s social realities. Life skills mean different things to different people, in different situations. However, how a specific life skill is valued, learned, and ultimately exhibited may be different for youth living in upper-middle class households compared to youth living in low-income public housing or for girl-identifying youth compared to boy-identifying youth.
The youth sport landscape has tremendous potential to be a vehicle for positive change. Below we make calls to action for three stakeholder groups to help support both top-down and bottom-up changes (Spaaij et al., 2020):
What you can do if you’re a sport administrator:
- Ensure that evidence-informed professional development opportunities are available for coaches and other sport staff to help them identify abuse, prevent inappropriate behaviours and become aware of how unintentional actions may harm some athletes (Tam et al., 2021)
- Create equitable policies, organizational processes and hiring practices. For instance, pay and compensation should be reflective of the job duties, not the gender of the candidate
- When possible, make coach education compulsory, particularly educational opportunities that integrates youth development and social justice content (for example, anti-racism training)
- Pursue collaborative opportunities with community-based social justice organizations that represent the diversity of youth athletes within your programming (Jones et al., 2020)
What you can do if you’re a coach:
- Consider what social injustices are prevalent throughout your community and impact the youth athletes on your team (Camiré et al., 2022)
- Reflect on your coaching philosophy to ensure that your approach allows for the deliberate discussion and practice of life skills development and transfer (Bean et al., 2018)
- Teach life skills in ways that reflect a deliberate commitment to equity rather than upholding the status quo. This requires a focus on seeking out diversity, promoting inclusivity, and ensuring all athletes have equitable opportunities (Camiré, 2022)
- Make sure your coaching practices are relayed in a culturally competent manner (this means that you respect and can thoughtfully engage with cultures and backgrounds other than your own). Similarly, demonstrate cultural humility (this means it’s okay that you may not fully understand the lived experiences of all athletes on your team, as long as you respect it)
- Collaborate with sport administrators, other coaches, athletes, and caregivers to foster a welcoming environment for everyone. Create space for athletes to share experiences and advocate for issues that are important to them. Build community connections as you collectively decide what is relevant to your team or organization in terms of social justice efforts
What you can do if you’re an athlete:
- Look out for the needs of teammates, particularly those who may be underrepresented on your team
- Seek out opportunities to get involved in community-based efforts to promote social justice or challenge social injustices (Checkoway, 2009)
- Develop relationships with athletes from other sport teams and learn about each other’s unique cultural traditions and values
- Be a leader and mentor for other athletes, especially for new members of your team
Sport can serve as a setting for addressing social justice. By expanding the meaning of life skills, seeing life skills through a sociopolitical lens, and teaching life skills that address youth’s social realities all stakeholders in the sport system can work together to progress the positive development of youth and evolve life skills.
About the Author(s)
Corliss Bean, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Brock University. She’s the co-director of the Centre for Healthy Youth Development through Sport and a member of YouthREX‘s Provincial Academic Network. Her research involves working with youth-serving community sport organizations to develop, implement, and evaluate quality programming that fosters life skills development.
Tarkington J. Newman, Ph.D., MSW, MS is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Work and an Affiliate Assistant Professor in the Department of Education at the University of New Hampshire. Through their Sport Social Work Research Lab, Dr. Newman is committed to serving youth populations who are recognized as being socially vulnerable (for example, youth of color, LGBTQ+ youth). Specifically, Dr. Newman’s research focuses on promoting development and transfer of normative life skills (e.g., emotional regulation, teamwork) and social justice life skills (for example, antiracism, LGBTQ+ allyship) through sport.
Martin Camiré, Ph.D., is a Professor in the School of Human Kinetics at the University of Ottawa. Prof. Camiré’s research explores the evolving dynamics of development in sport, with externally-funded projects focused on mental health and social justice in the context of high school sport. In terms of teaching, Prof. Camiré offers courses examining the interplay of physical activity and health, the ethics of recreational and competitive sport, as well as the changing landscape of qualitative inquiry.
Leisha Strachan, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management at the University of Manitoba. She is one of the co-creators of Project SCORE (www.projectscore.ca). Her research is focused on positive youth development through sport and how the 4 Cs (competence, confidence, connection, character) could be incorporated to promote positive youth sport spaces through coaching delivery and parent behaviors. Further, Dr. Strachan was part of a research team exploring anti-racism policies and practices in Winnipeg and the sport experiences of newcomers in the community.
Bean, C., Kramers, S., Forneris, T., & Camiré, M. (2018). The implicit/explicit continuum of life skills development and transfer. Quest, 70(4), 456-470.https://doi.org/10.1080/00336297.2018.1451348
Camiré, M., Newman, T. J., Bean, C., & Strachan, L. (2022). Reimagining positive youth development and life skills in sport through a social justice lens. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 34(6), 1058-1076. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10413200.2021.1958954
Camiré, M. (2022). The two continua model for life skills teaching. Sport, Education and Society. https://doi.org/10.1080/13573322.2022.2073438
Checkoway, B. (2009). Youth civic engagement for dialogue and diversity at the metropolitan level. The Foundation Review, 1(2), 41–50. https://doi.org/10.4087/FOUNDATIONREVIEW-D-09-00015
Jones, G., Edwards, M., Bocarro, J., Svensson, P., & Misener, K. (2020). A community capacity building approach to sport-based youth development. Sport Management Review, 23(4), 563–575. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smr.2019.09.001
Spaaij, R., Knoppers, A., Jeanes, R. (2020). “We want more diversity but…”: Resisting diversityin recreational sports clubs. Sport Management Review, 23(3), 363–373. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smr.2019.05.007
Tam, A., Kerr, G., & Stirling, A. (2021). Influence of the #MeToo movement on coaches’ practices and relations with athletes. International Sport Coaching Journal, 8(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1123/iscj.2019-0081
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