Gold medals are not the only reason to get youth involved in sport

Written by Paul Wright, Lane/Zimmerman Endowed Professor

The 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil have given us the opportunity to marvel at the heights of human potential. We have been able to watch amazing displays of athleticism and skill from the most elite competitors on the planet. As inspiring as these athletes and their performances are, they represent an extremely small fraction of the number of people involved in sport around the world.

The vast majority of youth who get involved in sport will never compete for Olympic gold. In fact, many will never compete outside of their surrounding community. So what other reasons are there for youth to become involved in sport? The benefits are too numerous to mention, but include physical fitness, motor skill development, positive social interaction, mental toughness, communication skills, and confidence.

Dr. Paul Wright and his colleagues in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KNPE) are interested in ways that youth sport programs can be intentionally designed to promote positive youth development and social change. In particular, how can sport be used to teach life skills (such as leadership and goal setting) that youth can use in other areas of their lives? Research shows sport programs that have this sort of focus help youth to reach their potential in life and to develop a greater sense of social responsibility.

In addition to supporting youth programs locally (including Chicago), Dr. Wright and his colleagues are involved at the international level with youth sport research and program development. For example, in early August, Dr. Wright was in Finland working with collaborators to design a training program for coaches who run after-school sport programs. In June, Drs. Steve Howell, Jenn Jacobs, and Jim Ressler, were in Belize consulting on a three-year project the KNPE team has been operating with funding from the US Department of State. This project has involved training coaches and administrators from over 20 youth sport programs and the formation of the Belizean Youth Sport Coalition (BYSC). Also this summer, Dr. Wright was featured in the British Council’s online magazine, Voices. The British Council supports sport for development programming around the globe and invited Dr. Wright to contribute a piece discussing the importance of social and emotional learning, highlighting ways it can be fostered through sport.

The collaborations noted above and related activities are organized under the Physical Activity and Life Skills (PALS) Group that Dr. Wright and his colleagues operate through the KNPE department. Through research, outreach and academic programming, the PALS Group is committed to bridging the gap between theory and practice to make sure youth sport programs live up to their potential in terms of supporting the positive, healthy development of youth and their communities. While this aspect of youth sport does not receive the same level of media attention as the Olympics, the impact it can have on individuals and communities around the globe is felt every day.

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