Bridging the Mentoring Gap in Sports-Based Youth Development

Posted by Janis Kupersmidt on September 3, 2015

I recently had an opportunity to present to and participate in the U.S. Soccer Foundation’s ninth annual Urban Soccer Symposium in Washington, D.C.

The symposium is a three-day forum for national soccer coaches and program administrators to share best-practices for improving the field of sports-based youth development. I was honored to be part of a distinguished panel which discussed the role that sports-based youth development programs can play in bridging the mentorship gap and ways in which to leverage the role of a coach to provide youth with positive mentoring relationships.

In the United States alone, more than 35 million children between the ages of 8 and 19 participate in some form of youth sports. Another 5 million engage on an occasional basis, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association annual survey of households.

Youth coaches have a tremendous responsibility and opportunity to train young athletes through the drills that help hone their skills. More importantly, coaches also have the responsibility and opportunity to develop these players into not just great athletes, but healthier and more satisfied people, too.

Coaching relationships are based on shared interests and attend to the social, emotional, and physical needs of youth, elevating coaches and athletic administrators to prime mentor candidates, allowing them significant potential to meet and exceed the impact of traditional mentorships.

Every word uttered and every action taken by youth coaches can have a huge impact in the lives of these players, both positively and negatively. Athletes are constantly faced with moments of success and failure, and with calls from officials both good and bad. The words and actions of coaches in in these situations can stick with these players forever.

With proper mentoring from a coach, a young person can potentially absorb some of the most valuable life lessons on the athletic field. Youth coaches can exemplify the importance of hard work and what it takes to be a champion. They can teach about failure, and how to respond with resilience, grit, and an attitude that fuels a determination to succeed, gaining valuable self-confidence in the process.

The countless hours that youth spend with their sports coaches can have tremendous impact on youth during an impressionable phase of their lives. By observing and communicating with coaches, young people can be effected not only as an athlete, but as a career professional, adult, and contributing member of society.

One conclusion we can draw from the research on coaching and youth sports is that coaches shouldn’t be focused solely on winning and losing, and need to focus on the whole person while they also provide feedback on skills development. We need coaches who want to serve as change agents in the lives of youth by integrating a stronger mentoring perspective into the approaches that coaches take in working with youth. They have a tremendous potential to guide children, build their self-confidence, and ingrain positive values and sportsmanship, while also highlighting the importance of education, good sportsmanship, and physical fitness to get youth on an overall path to success in life.

The benefits of organized sports on youth can’t be ignored. Whether it’s preventing obesity, improving graduation rates, reducing the risks of youth violence or substance use, inspiring confidence and mental health, research shows sports positively affect all of these. Coaches may have winning on their minds, but it is those who nurture positive youth development that end up with players who succeed in life. In the end, although it may just be a game, the benefits of participation and of coaches approaching their job from a mentoring perspective are endless.