Stewart Vella, Lindsay Oades, and Trevor Crowe

The Big Idea

For nearly a century youth organizations having anything to do with sports have claimed various and sundry positive outcomes as a result of such play.  Besides just keeping children occupied and out of the work force, it was generally believed that playing sports were character-building experiences.  The authors of this study are fully aware of this history.  They update the reader on the status of the current research on what is called positive youth development.  It is their view that not much headway can be made on the fact-or-fiction of this important social problem unless there is focus on the lynch pin for all positive youth development sport programs:  the coaches.  The researchers ask:  To what extent do coaches believe they have responsibility for positive youth development within the practical reality of coaching practice?  Do coaches desire life success outcomes for their adolescent athletes beyond on-field success?  Do coaches who desire life success outcomes incorporate strategies usually associated with positive youth development?


  • For better and for worse, there is on-going debate about the legitimacy of claiming youth sports can foster positive character development.
  • In the literature review, there are promising lines of research tipping toward supporting the popularity of believing that there are positive values inherently embedded in youth sport.
  • But it is the coaching population in particular that is in the unique position of conducting programs that either facilitate or eliminate the possibilities for positive youth development.
  • By way of semi-structured interviews, 22 youth sport participation coaches were invited to respond to seven open-ended questions covering leadership, desired outcomes of their coaching, and coaching philosophy.
  • After the responses were coded and analysed, eight consistently reported outcome themes were found: character, life skills, competence, positive affect, confidence, climate, connection, and psychological capacities.
  • The discussion concludes that these 22 coaches do see themselves responsible for positive youth development.
  • But despite the responsible role the coaches assume, survey literature reveals that coaching needs in this area are not being met by coaching accreditation and education courses.

The Research

The last couple of decades have produced a growing research base giving qualified support to the historically popular belief that youth sport participation is good for developing positive life skills.  For example, the “Five Cs,” as they have come to be known, conceptualise the developmental areas of programs for positive youth development (PYD):  competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring.

There is little question that youth coaches play a critical role in whether or not positive developmental outcomes are facilitated.  This study is focused on the coach’s role.  The authors are sensitive to the criticism by coaches themselves as to how or even whether such lofty positive youth development goals can be achieved in practice.  The authors acknowledge that this is a messy situation, but also point out that recent studies show such goals are attainable for adequately trained coaches.

These authors ask:  If it is in theory a responsibility of coaches to facilitate PYD, then to what extent do coaches desire such outcomes for their adolescent athletes?  To do this, the researchers conducted a qualitative study; that is, they decided to talk to coaches themselves in semi-structured interviews.  Twenty-two participation coaches in Sydney, Australia volunteered to be interviewed.  Participation coaches do not emphasise competition or performance.  Instead they promote enjoyment, health-related outcomes, and short-term goals.  The coaches represented soccer, netball, softball, cricket, and basketball.  There were 11 coaches of male-only teams, and 11 of female only teams (16 male and 6 female coaches).  The athletes were between the ages of 11 and 19.

Seven questions were asked of the coaches covering leadership, desired outcomes of their coaching, and coaching philosophy.  The bulk of the conversations focused on individual and team desired outcomes.  The interviews lasted between 45 and 75 minutes.  All interviews were recorded, transcribed, and coded.

As a result of the interview analysis, the researchers generated eight distinct themes and 69 different codes.  The themes, in the order of response frequency were:  character, life skills, competence, positive affect (enjoyment), confidence, climate (team morale, harmony, and cohesion), connection (positive individual friendships), and psychological capacities (optimism, perseverance, forgiveness).

It most certainly was clear from the coding of the interviews that these participation youth sport coaches do see themselves responsible for PYD.  Their views support the idea that they believe they are responsible for many of the positive outcomes previously found to be associated with competence, confidence, connection, and character.  It is apparent that they accept the responsibility for developing a wide range of holistic and diverse sport-specific and non-sport specific competencies normally associate with PYD.  These coaches also added components not previously found the literature, namely facilitating life-skills, positive climate, positive affect, and positive psychological capacities.

However, the rub comes in when we learn that most coaching accreditation courses lack substantive knowledge or training in PYD.  The accreditation courses are devoted to performance enhancement with heavy emphasis on technical and tactical knowledge.  This may be why, when coaching practitioners are surveyed, they report coaching education courses are irrelevant and unnecessary.  The course content is often weak in quality, relevancy, and applicability.  The courses are not typically keeping up with the modern role of coaching with regard to PYD responsibilities.  Besides just learning ways to deliver PYD characteristics, educational courses need to explore ways to transfer sport-specific skills to other domains in life.

Finally, these researchers also emphasise some limitations of their study.  First, it is possible that given the social and popular media desirability of serving up PYD in sport programs, these coaches may have been influenced to adopt the role rather than being voluntary advocates of the role.  Second, with regard to the credibility of the interview responses, actual coaching behaviours were not witnessed.  There is need in further studies to link narratives with actual coaching practices.  Third, there are inherent limits to the transferability of these results to other contexts.  These were participation coaches only.  Their athletes were from medium-to-high socio-economic status families.  In addition, these were team sport coaches.

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