Positive outcomes from sports participation cannot be assumed. This article explores the current evidence from Developmental Psychology on the right environment for positive youth development and discusses how the research recommendations from Developmental Psychology could be applied to sport sessions.

Sport is often assigned mythological status in society. Politicians utilize sport to bring nations together and solve mass social problems. Educators try to re-engage ‘bad kids’ through sport and community programs use sport to mould young people into contributing members of society (Sandford, Armour, & Warmington, 2006).  There is no doubt that sport can be used as a vehicle to promote life skills and psychological assets (Danish & Nellen, 1997; Harwood, 2008). However, a common belief exists within coaches, educators and policy makers that it is sports participation alone that instigates positive change in individuals. It’s true that sports participation has been associated with positive outcomes such as increased confidence, lower levels of risky behaviours, and higher levels of pro-social behaviour. However, decreased self-esteem, burnout and increased aggression have also been associated with sports participation. This apparent contradiction has led sport psychologists to contest that simply participating in sport has a positive impact on an individual.

Researchers are now investigating what factors instigate positive development in sport. The main focus of this research area is on youth development. This is because the life period of youth is viewed as a critical time for development (Holt, 2008). The current article will not cover the debate around conceptualizing positive youth development (see King et al., 2005) and defines positive youth development as the engagement of positive, functional behaviours (defined by culture) and the avoidance of behaviours that are harmful to the individual’s wellbeing and future (adapted from Roth, Brooks-Gunn, Murray, & Foster, 1998; Robinson, 2010). In this article I aim to look at how positive youth development can be promoted through the coaching environment you create.

Promoting Positive Youth Development

Positive youth development research in sport is largely still in its infancy. The current recommendations are taken from Developmental Psychology where there is a wealth of research and information on positive youth development (Lerner et al., 2006). The National Research Council Institute of Medicine (NRCIM, 2002) examined various youth projects and suggested eight features about the environment that should be present in order to instigate positive youth development. Listed below are those features and some suggestions on how to meet these criterions as a sports coach.

  1. Physical and psychological safety.

The majority of coach education programmes include physical safety elements in their training. However, coaches often do not consider the psychological safety of their sessions. Ensuring that peer interactions are respectful and your own behaviour is supportive (Côté, Strachan, & Fraser-Thomas, 2008) will go some way to ensuring the climate is psychologically safe.

  1. Appropriate structure.

This does not refer to session planning, but the rules and boundaries that need to be set for your athletes. Introducing a few simple rules for behaviour ensures that your athletes are aware of the boundaries and your expectations of them.

  1. Supportive Relationships

The relationship between the coach and athletes is key to creating positive developmental experiences. Hellison (2011) recommends that coaches should make a determined effort to interact positively with every one of their athletes during the session. Likewise, Sandford et al (2006) advocates small group sizes to encourage support.

  1. Opportunities to belong

Using team building and social activities outside of the sports sessions are good ways for coaches to encourage belonging and friendship within the group. Some individuals also advocate team training kit, wrist bands or hats to promote a physical sense of belonging.

  1. Positive social norms

This is obviously heavily linked with providing appropriate structure for behaviour. Additionally, coaches should aspire to be positive role models and encourage the development of moral behaviours such as, fair play, sportsmanship and self-regulation if they want their sessions to be positive developmental experiences.

  1. Empower athletes

Allowing your athletes to exercise autonomy and independent decision making promotes positive youth development. In sport psychology research, this is often referred to as autonomy-supportive coaching and can be promoted by providing choice, acknowledging athletes’ feeling and minimize the use of pressures (Black & Deci, 2000; see Amorose, 2007 for further insight).

  1. Opportunities for skill building

Of course this criterion is easy to meet in regards to physical and sport skill building. However, the coaching environment can also be used to offer opportunities for life skills development. Coaches should also consider how their sessions could be adapted to promote skills like communication, teamwork and respect.

  1. Integration of family, school and community efforts

As a coach, there is a limited amount of integration you could or would want to do. One key element of youth sport is the behaviour of the parents (Holt & Sehn, 2008). Several governing bodies have attempted to tackle maladaptive parental behaviour through the introduction of parent codes. The most recent example would be the FA’s respect campaign (see www.thefa.com/respectguide). Introducing a requirement for parents to conduct themselves in line with a code would be a great way of ensuring that your hard work to promote positive youth development isn’t undone by maladaptive parental behaviour.


The current article has presented a number of features that coaches could use to promote positive youth development within their sports sessions. Sport-specific research on these features is limited. However, these recommendations are gaining increasing support within youth sport research (Fraser-Thomas, Côté, & Deakin, 2005; Holt, 2008).

ReferencesShow all

Amorose, A. J. (2007). Coaching effectiveness: Exploring the relationship between coaching behaviour and motivation from a self-determination theory perspective. In N. Chatzisarantis & M.S. Hagger (Eds.), Self-determination in sport and exercise (pp. 209-227). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Black, A. E., & Deci, E. L. (2000). The effects of instructors’ autonomy support and students’ autonomous motivation on learning organic chemistry: A self-determination theory perspective. Science Education, 84, 740–756.

Danish, S. J., & Nellen, V. C. (1997). New Roles for Sport Psychologists: Teaching Life Skills Through Sport to At-Risk Youth. QUEST, 49, 100–113.

Fraser-Thomas, J. L., Côté, J., & Deakin, J. (2005). Youth sport programs: An avenue to foster positive youth development. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 10(1), 19-40.

Harwood, C. (2008). Developmental consulting in a professional football academy: The 5Cs coaching efficacy program. The Sport Psychologist, 22, 109–133.

Hellison, D. R. (2011). Teaching personal and social responsibility through physical activity. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Holt, N. L. (2008). Positive Youth Development Through Sport. New York, USA: Routledge

Holt, N. L., & Sehn, Z. L. (2008). Processes associated with positive youth development and participation in competitive youth sport. In N. L. Holt (Ed.), Positive Youth Development (pp. 9–23). London: Routledge.

King, P. E., Schultz, W., Muller, R. A., Dowling, E. M., Osborn, P., & Dickerson, E. (2005). Positive youth development : is there a nomological network of concepts used in the adolescent development literature? Applied Developmental Science, 9, 216–28.

Lerner, R. M., Lerner, J. V., Almer, J., Theokas, C., Phelps, E., Naudeau, S.,...von Eye, A. (2006). Towards a new vision and vocabularly about adolscence: Theoretical, empirical, and applied bases of a “positive youth development” perspective. In L. Balter & C. S. Tamis-LeMonda (Eds.), Child Psychology: A handbook of contemporary issues. New York: Psychology Press/ Taylor & Francis.

National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (NRCIM). (2002). Community Programs to Promote Youth Development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Roth, J. L, Brooks-Gunn, J., Murray, L., & Foster, W. ( 1998). Promoting healthy adolescents: Synthesis of youth development program evaluations. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 8,423-459.

Sandford, R. A., Armour, K. M., & Warmington, P. C. (2006). Re-engaging disaffected youth through physical activity programmes. British Educational Research Journal, 32(2), 251-271. doi: 10.1080/01411920600569164

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