The Value of Sports and Social Emotional Learning

February 28, 2021

Dear Friends,
Now, more than ever, we need to recognize that there is arguably no better “classroom environment” than participation in sports for teaching and learning social and emotional skills.

Bad temper. Zero empathy for others. Lousy teammate. Constantly breaks team rules. Thinks they can do wrong. No one objectively would want a player like this on their team. And yet I still come across way too many coaches and programs who don’t value social emotional learning and/or tolerate parents whose behaviors mirror those of the traits of the child described above. 

I spend a lot of time tying my work as a counselor to the work I do in the Physical Literacy development space. I think we can all agree that we’ve moved well past Social Emotional Learning (SEL) from being just a buzz term to something we see being fully integrated into our schools and programs. But, like a lot of initiatives, some schools/programs are better at implementation than others.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) suggests there are 5 core competencies that we should focus on. They are: 

Self Management

Self Awareness

Social Awareness

Responsible Decision Making

Relationship Skills 

One of the many reasons I am so saddened by the extraordinary decline in youth sport participation is that I strongly believe there is literally no better place for children to develop these skills than in a sport setting. And let’s be clear – these are skills! And like any skill, you need the opportunity to “try things out”, get feedback and then try again. Yes – in the same way we encourage kids to sample sports to discover where they might be best suited, children need the opportunity to try out self regulation skills and learn through trial and error when learning responsible decisions and building relationships.

Let’s break each of the CASEL core competencies down in a youth sport context as way of discussion.

Self Awareness – part of the growing up process is identifying our own personal strengths and weaknesses. And, sadly, in today’s social media saturated world, children and adolescents are unfortunately more keenly aware of perceived personal shortcomings than they are in recognizing (and owning) their strengths. Giving a child the opportunity to try out a variety of sports, free from pressure allows them to not only discover how their own physical make-up impacts what they might enjoy and be good at, but also how their personality traits impact how they navigate the world.  Skills developed: Identifying emotions, Self confidence, Ability to recognize strengths and weaknesses.

Self Management  – Ask any adolescent how they’re feeling, and a likely answer you will get is “STRESSED!!” The beauty of sport is that it safely simulates stress on a regular basis, putting kids in situations where they need to work collaboratively, work hard and often under a time constraint (the clock is running in many sports – or you’re trying to do things faster than an opponent). It also mimics the symptoms of anxiety. When we get anxious, our heart races, we get short of breath and we sweat. That happens a lot in sport as well. If we can teach kids to self-regulate when exercise induced play brings on the symptoms, then they can better handle the symptoms when life’s inevitable anxiety and stress bring them on.   Skills developed: Impulse control, Stress management, Self-discipline, Self-motivation, Goal-setting, Organizational skills

Social Awareness – One of our most basic needs is the one to belong. Being part of a sports team fulfills that need and immediately puts children in a safe place to navigate the challenges of being part of social groups that happen when everyone on your team is working towards a common goal. It often forces children to work with others who don’t think like them or look like them, but because of the shared experience develops bonds that are hard to reproduce in other youth settings. Skills developed: Perspective-taking, Empathy, Appreciating diversity, Respect for others

Relationship Skills – It’s one thing to be aware of others and to be conscious of where/how you fit into that social construct, it’s another thing to effectively interact and build trust and friendship with others. The added bonus of doing this as part of a sports team is that children get to work on relationships with multiple other children in their age group, but hopefully get to develop relationship skills with a caring adult (their coach) as well. It moves children from a self-centered construct to one of helping others reach their goals as well. Skills developed: Communication, Social engagement, Relationship-building, Teamwork

Responsible Decision Making – I am a huge believer that we do our best learning through failure. I will argue here again, that under the right coach and right conditions, being on a team and involved in sports allows children the benefits of making good choices, and learning the potential detriment of making poor choices. There is the great expression that “Integrity is what you do when no one else is watching”, but as kids navigate right from wrong, there is no better setting to try out right from wrong than under the tutelage of a caring coach and with others who are learning these lessons right alongside you.  Skills developed: Identifying problems, Analyzing situations, Solving problems, Evaluating, Reflecting, Ethical responsibility

If your child (or teen for that matter) is part of a program where you feel the coaches and/or administrators don’t really care about any of the above, I would ask you to assess what it is you really want your kids to get out of sports. If it is only to develop those physical traits that you think will make them attractive to college coaches, then I will ask you this – Do you think that a college coach really wants a player who is not self aware, who is socially clueless, cant get along with teammates, can’t control their emotions and constantly makes poor choices? Sure – there sadly might be a few out there who are selfish enough and share those traits themselves that might say yes – but is that really what you’re looking for. 

I apologize that this piece may have been a bit more “heady” than my typical ones, but I think the reason I’ve always been so drawn to sports is because of the core social emotional competencies inherit in them. It’s why I believe that if schools are really serious about developing Social and Emotional Learning Skills then every child should have the opportunity to regularly participate in sports – at least through middle school, Developing healthy children – both physically and emotionally – depends on it! 


About Steve Boyle

Steve Boyle is a visionary leader and advocate for youth sports and physical literacy. As the Executive Director of 2-4-1 CARE, Inc. and Co-Founder/Director of 2-4-1 Sports, Steve stands at the forefront of the movement to transform the youth sports paradigm. His forward-thinking anti-specialization approach has garnered acclaim from esteemed institutions like the Aspen Institute. At the helm of 2-4-1, Steve has skillfully guided its expansion from its flagship location in West Hartford, Connecticut, to a range of locations across the U.S., Canada, and Africa. His leadership has not only scaled the program but also redefined the standards of youth sports Beyond the scope of 2-4-1 Sports, Steve’s influence extended to developing the National Association of Physical Literacy, where his insights as Advisory Board Chair were pivotal. His tenure as Global Lead on Physical Literacy and Athletics for Whittle School & Studios marked a significant contribution to the global community, shaping the athletic and physical education frameworks across campuses in Shenzhen and Washington, D.C. Steve is equally known for merging his expertise in counseling with his coaching acumen to create the TOP Self social-emotional learning platform. This innovative endeavor leverages sports to impart essential social-emotional learning skills, cementing Steve’s status as a national authority in physical literacy development.