“The world of sport is not separate from the rest of the world. Sport breaks down barriers, promotes self-esteem, and can teach life skills and healthy behavior.”
(Jacques Rogge, former president of the International Olympic Committee)
As this quote by Rogge shows, the value of sport as a trigger for personal development has been recognized in the high ranks of the international sport world. But what are these so-called life skills that Rogge is referring to? In 1994, Danish and colleagues defined life skills as “skills that enable individuals to succeed in the different environments in which they live, such as school, home and in their neighborhoods”. An implicit assumption in this definition is that life skills help a person not only excel in his or her sport, but also benefit the individual once he or she transfers the skills to non-sport settings. Examples for life skills that can be acquired and perfected in the sport context are coping with success and failure, being self-disciplined, performing under pressure, managing thoughts and emotions, being able to manage one´s time efficiently and being able to work and excel within a team context. These proficiencies are invaluable for most sport disciplines, but they also help athletes to succeed in their studies or school work, to qualify for a working career and to build and maintain healthy and satisfying personal relationships.
The interest in life skills development through sport clearly exists today, with most contemporary sport organizations declaring “the social-emotional development” of their athletes to be one of their primary goals. However, up to this date, programs which directly aim at the personal development of athletes are predominantly executed in the USA and the UK. Thus it is of great importance to introduce this concept to other countries in which sport participation among youth, adolescents and adults is widespread. It is obvious that sport can serve as a powerful tool for teaching life skills to athletes as it is an activity in which it is the norm to practice skills. So why not use this fruitful environment?
A major challenge for those interested in developing life skills in the sport context is the prevailing myth held by many coaches and parents that sport automatically teaches athletes life skills. However, researchers in the field highlight that life skills are indeed skills, but like physical skills, they are taught through demonstration, modeling and practice. Or in Gould and Carson´s words, “life skills are taught and not caught”. That is why they must intentionally be acquired, practiced and perfected throughout the athletic experience and outside the sport arena. But how can we encourage coaches and athletes to include even more tasks to their already demanding and jam-packed practice-schedules? Well, let me give you some reasons. Being equipped with life skills will not only improve the athletes` current athletic experience, satisfaction and performance, but these skills will inevitably have a positive effect on their school-, private- and working lives. It further needs to be emphasized that being an athlete is not an occupation that will last a life time, and thus it is essential to equip athletes with skills that will enable them to eventually move on to another career.
If these arguments did not convince you yet, it is important to point out that most sport organizations are equipped with an annual financial budget that is reserved for the so-called corporate social responsibility (CSR). This budget needs to be spent on activities which have a positive impact on social welfare. Developing successful, mature, content and versatile individuals would do just that…
More sport organizations need to jump on the bandwagon of the USA and the UK and start planning and implementing life skills development programs for their athletes. If you are part of a sport organization, encourage the decision makers to use your organization´s CSR-budget to invest in the personal growth of your athletes. If you are not exactly sure how to design and execute such a program, consult a qualified (sport) psychologist who can support you in this endeavor. If you want to start small, as a coach for example, you can already help your athletes by making them aware of the concept of life skills and the benefits of developing them. The team could dedicate one training session to discuss which mental skills are invaluable for the respective sport and together collect ideas of how these proficiencies can be improved and eventually transferred to other life areas. And if you are an athlete who is really interested in developing certain life skills, how could you personally take action? If you are a football player, for instance, who is doing a great job coping with the pressure and the team´s expectations before executing penalty shots by (maybe even unconsciously) using relaxation techniques, make the effort to apply these exact techniques during an important exam in school or before a job interview. There is so much that we can do to facilitate our own and/or our athletes´ personal development, we just have to take action!
I want to conclude this article with a quote by Plato who understood long ago that “the moral value of exercise and sports far outweighs the physical value.” And who can argue with Plato?!
Danish, S., Taylor, T., Hodge, K., & Heke, I. (2004). Enhancing youth development through sport. World Leisure Journal, 43(3), 38–49.
Gould, D., & Carson, S. (2008). Life skills development through sport: current status and future directions. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1(1), 58–78.