By: Peter C. Scales, Ph.D., Senior Fellow

School sports have been cut back or eliminated in hundreds of districts in recent years, especially in urban schools serving families of low socioeconomic status and schools with more females. The evidence suggests this is a short-sighted move.

The research is overwhelmingly consistent: Sports are good for students. Student athletes have better attendance, grades, test scores, graduation rates, college aspirations, and college enrollment—with the effects often greater for students of color, disadvantaged students, and girls.

Furthermore, the National Federation of State High School Associations says the great majority of high school coaches are not formally trained or certified, and rarely get the training that matters most for the nearly 8 million high school student-athletes.

Yet, one of the most powerful ways to boost the payoff from school sports could be helping coaches build developmental relationships with their student-athletes. The coaching, mentoring, and positive team experiences provided by sports are fuel for nurturing academic and character strengths. Even students competing as individuals, such as a singles tennis player or a diver on the swim team, are not alone—they are in relationships with teammates and coaches.

Student-athletes (and all students) need to experience five essential actions of developmental relationships that Search Institute identified through national research: being cared about, being challenged to stretch and grow, being provided with support, having their possibilities expanded, and getting chances to share power, influence, and decision making.

Here are some examples of what coaches can do to build developmental relationships, adapted from Gould and Carson (2010), Rieke et al. (2008), the President’s Council on Fitness, Sport, and Nutrition (Gould, 2013), and Scales et al., (2010).

How Coaches Can Promote Developmental Relationships with Student-Athletes*

Developmental Relationship Essential Action

How Coaches Can Promote

Express Care: Show that you like me and want the best for me.  

  • Get to know students as people beyond the sport
  • Strive to understand and show sensitivity to others’ feelings
  • Build a positive rapport with students: Listen to them, give feedback that is encouraging, give them recognition, and make sure they are having fun
  • Be dependable—do what you say you will do, and keep your promises
Provide Support: Help me complete tasks and achieve goals.  

  • Be enthusiastic
  • Emphasize rewarding what students do correctly
  • Minimize punishment and controlling behaviors
  • Provide constructive feedback about undesirable performances
  • Provide advice about how to stay confident and perform under pressure
Challenge Growth: Insist that I try to continuously improve.  

  • Focus on self-improvement goals more than on competitive outcomes
  • Teach students that mistakes are necessary to improve
  • Reward effort as much as outcome
  • Reward correct performance technique, not just the outcome of a skill
  • Help students set short-term learning goals that are attainable but require some stretch
Share Power: Hear my voice and let me share in making decisions.  

  • Give students choices within rules and safety limits
  • Allow students to work independently and to take initiative
  • Ask for students’ input on team-related decisions
  • Emphasize the building of community and serving one another as teammates and members of the school community
Expand Possibility: Expand my horizons and connect me to opportunities.  

  • Create environments that reduce fear of failure, where trying new skills is emotionally safe and enjoyable
  • Talk about how sport lessons are related to school and life
  • Model good sportsmanship
  • Connect students with other coaches, sport camps, and sources of learning

The crucial coaching relationship

The best way to improve the academic and developmental bang we get for the sports buck—which can have positive influence school-wide—is by making sure that all of our sports programs are about creating and maintaining, not just positive relationships, but truly developmental relationships with our student-athletes.

Interested in learning more about coaching and developmental relationships? Read Dr. Scales article The Crucial Coaching Relationship in the May 2016 “Sports in School” issue of Phi Delta Kappan >>

*Adapted from “The crucial coaching relationship,” by Peter C. Scales, May 2016, Phi Delta Kappan, 97 (8), 19-23. Adapted with permission.

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