Life skills automatically result from mere participation. True or false?

“The moral value of exercises and sports far outweigh the physical value” was attributed to the philosopher Plato.    Sport has been seen to contribute to “moral value” and life skills for thousands of years and has become a key word in recent times.   But current research is questioning whether this happens automatically or is only applicable in certain circumstances.

You can call it “athlete services”, “capacity-building”, “developing people’s potential”, “performance lifestyle” or anything else but it won’t and certainly, for the sake of our sport, shouldn’t go away!   What are life skills?   Who needs them?  Are they automatically transferred through participation?   These are questions frequently asked and often the answers are inadequate as it is a fairly new “buzzword” in our sporting society.

Having focused on this subject for the past ten years, I will attempt to address the issues.

What are life skills?

Edna Rooth in her publication “Life skills” defines life skills as “the skills necessary for successful living and learning.   Life skills are coping skills that can enhance the quality of life and prevent dysfunction behaviour”.   Athletes must deal with social etiquette, media training, financial skills, respecting differences, ethics and values as well as the “traditional” goal setting, self image, leadership (followership is in vogue now!) and conflict resolution, to name a few.   And, you will be relieved to know, these are not challenges specific to South Africa!   The challenge of life skills training for athletes is a worldwide phenomenon.

For too long, coaches have focused on the physical performance of athletes with the result that they are given little or no coping mechanisms to manage issues during and after their competitive phase.   What happens “on the field” is concentrated on and “off the field” is ignored.   The fact that research proves that the two were inextricably linked is scoffed at!

“Who needs life skills?

These quotes will be familiar to you from your experiences and the media:

“Sport is wonderful and is worth going for – but take a tip – don’t forget there’s another side to life that you must organize”.   Matthew Beevers, member of the Australian World Hockey Team.

“Professional players face tremendous pressures when they are thrust from obscurity into the limelight”.   Morne du Plessis, Cape Times.

“I tend to think what would have happened if the likes of (player’s name) and all those guys who had problems playing and ended up drinking somewhere when their team was playing the big game. If they had life skills taught prior to this what would have happened?”   Premier Soccer League Player

“Sometimes you find young players coming from nowhere, maybe 18, 19 years old, get into a big team but he doesn’t know how to handle the fame…maybe he get mixed up with the wrong friends and they tell him, do this, do that – but it’s not good for him.”  Premier Soccer League Coach.

They all ring true, don’t they?   The glib answer to “Who needs life skills?” is .. “everyone”!   We need to put as much accent on life skills for our “off field team” as our “on the field team” or who will counsel and mentor our athletes?

Are life skills automatically transferred through mere participation?

Research conducted by D.Gould and S.Carson: Michigan State University 2008 shows that Plato’s concept of sport has been eclipsed by “…a professionalized approach to youth sports,
in which success and the attainment of extrinsic outcomes are the primary focus of involvement, diminish the likelihood of life skill development through the sport experience.”

Winning at all costs has become the focus of coaches/teachers/parents.  It is the trophy, prize, prestige that is of paramount importance. Concepts such as camaraderie, enjoyment, respect for officials and opponents and sportsmanship are negated.

In a recent study of a Sports Science Institute life skills programme for soccer players the following comments were extracted:

“I think with the self esteem as well, the coaches play a role, a big role as well…just congratulating the team…It gives you the morale, the confidence to say, oh, well, coach smiled at me today so it means I can do better. You know, things like that – not that all the time the coach is on your case, shouting at you and all of that.”  Banyana Banyana player

“…for the coaches it’s just important for whoever is playing to come…They don’t care about issues. Sometimes they forget about the players, they’re just thinking, no, we want to move forward, and they forget about the player’s happiness and what’s important for the players…that’s important because at least I’ll feel secure.”   Premier Soccer League player.

“All we do is play soccer, come train and go home, that’s all we do now. So what we actually need is like a team building day so that the team can come together…there was one time when we were always fighting amongst each other, so we need to come together as a team.” Player – Women’s Division)

The study of 1300 players concluded:

  • If something is a life skill, efforts need to be made to have the competency to transfer to other life situations.
  • If life skills are “skills”, then like physical skills they are taught through demonstration, modeling and practice.

If educators and parents are to assist in the formal and sustainable transference of life skills through participation, the pyramid below must be followed.

Level 1: There is compelling evidence that participation in sport during teenage years, on “free” afternoons and weekends, promotes positive skill development.

Level 2: Impressionable youth benefit from exposure to positive adult role models.

Level 3: The more influential level of influence involves the intentional teaching of life skills by coaches who specifically design activities to teach life skills (in addition to keeping youth involved in a productive activity and serve as a positive role model).

Level 4: The highest level of life skills development builds on the first three levels and focuses on specifically teaching for transfer.   Consequently, the coach/parent not only teaches skills for use in sport but works with the athlete to transfer these skills beyond sport.

Transference of life skills is not automatic.   What example will you be to your children?

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” – Albert Schweitzer


“If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” – Catherine Aird

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