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How Sports and Coaching Influence Social Emotional Learning in Young People


Sports provide a place for young people to grow, learn, and enhance their physical skills, but, with the help of good coaches, they will learn more than how to throw a pitch or perfect a layup.

On this episode of Critical Window (audio link below) a podcast by the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed), Jennifer Brown Lerner, deputy director for Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, explores how sports and coaching influence the social, emotional, and academic development of students, and what educators and coaches can learn from one another.

Building Student Agency on the Field

“While sports might be a unique arena, it’s part of a broad array of places in which young people learn, grow, and develop,” explains Brown Lerner. “There’s unbelievable opportunity to think about sports as a place in which young people can take ownership of their own learning.”

Into early adolescence, students have “a unique opportunity for voice and choice on the sports field that they don’t have in the classroom,” says Brown Lerner. This space, outside of the traditional learning environment, “is really allowing them to come into their own.”

Sports as the “Ultimate Performance Assessment”

“You could view sports as the ultimate performance assessment,” says Brown Lerner. “Every game, every practice is really an opportunity for young people to put on display a core set of physical skills and social-emotional skills that they’re learning.”

Not only are players demonstrating their skills, they are also receiving real-time responses of their performance. “There’s instantaneous feedback right there, a win or a loss.”

Coaches as Role Models

Coaches play a significant role in modeling the skills they hope to see exemplified by their players.

“Sports are a critical space in which [kids] get to both see modeled, and practice, this core set of competencies across the social, emotional, and cognitive domains,” explains Brown Lerner. “It’s a really important opportunity in which young people can get, and create, a continuous feedback loop with their coaches and with other athletes.”

A large part of this learning opportunity is dependent on relationships between coaches and their players. “One thing that great coaches do is really focus in on that individual relationship with each player,” explains Brown Lerner. “They also create a space and environment and a culture that honors the relationship that other players have with each other.”

What Can Teachers Learn from Coaches, and Vice Versa?

“If we truly believe that learning happens in relationships, we need to give all educators in the classroom, and on the sports field, the time, the tools, and the opportunity to cultivate the fire and passion within each student, which only happens when you have the opportunity to build a relationship,” says Brown Lerner.

“There’s a real opportunity to build a bridge between what educators do really well in terms of planning and articulating for young people, and how coaches create relationships and environments which are truly young people centered.” With this combined effort, “we can just see an explosion of growth of these core skills across all the places and spaces young people learn.”

Listen to more from Brown Lerner in the episode below.

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Critical Window is a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and parents. 

Subscribe to Critical Window on Apple MusicStitcher or wherever you find podcasts.

To learn more about the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, visit: