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The importance of developing life skills in young people

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Ceri Bowley

ConnectedCoaches Content Champion  Ceri Bowley gives coaches some expert insight into how to integrate life skills into their coaching practice, explaining how building psychological and social skills in young people can positively impact on their lives outside of sport as well as enrich their sporting experience.

  • Coaches may think they already develop life skills, but often the element of ‘transfer’ is crucially missing: that is, helping support athletes to actually transfer these skills away from sport and into other environments of their life.
  • Embedding cognitive learning patterns will help participants ‘connect the dots’ and boost their understanding, so that a behavioural skill developed in a session becomes an ingrained trait in their everyday lives.
  • A coach, then, acts as the bridge connecting the parallel learning pathways of an individual.

‘It is the coach that makes the difference, not the sport itself,’ said UK Coaching chief executive Mark Gannon in his opening address to delegates at this year’s UK Coaching Conference in Northern Ireland.

It was a catchy line, made all the more memorable because it resonated so deeply with the audience – 200 senior leaders from organisations that support those who coach sport and physical activity, and from wider organisations including education, health and local authorities.

The sentiment of that sound bite – that a great coach can impact massively on so many aspects of their participants’ lives, not just on the transfer of sporting skills – was encapsulated perfectly in Dr Ceri Bowley’s presentation on the importance of building life skills in young people.

ConnectedCoaches member Ceri believes passionately in the idea that coaches have a wider responsibility to their athletes beyond tactical and technical instruction – a ‘person before player’ philosophy that epitomises the new broader definition of coaching.

A lecturer in Sport Development and Coaching at the University of South Wales, and former FA Regional Coach Mentor, he presented a convincing argument for why coaches must place more value on life skills in their coaching practice by learning to coach the player and the person simultaneously.

Life skills: a definition

In his presentation, Ceri first conceptualised what life skills are, their benefits in the sporting arena and on people’s lives outside of sport, before addressing what this all looks like in practice, the implications for session design, and some suggested strategies for coaches to implement.

Kicking off with the definition. Life skills help you adapt and cope with the different challenges you face in life. In a sporting context, they are a range of behavioural and cognitive skills that can be developed in sport and subsequently transferred and applied in non-sport settings. (Gould & Carson, 2008)

Coaches may think their sessions are already geared towards establishing and developing such psychological and social skills as:

But there is a catch. A subtle but central catch.

‘Quite often the things we are doing in coaching are indeed working towards developing life skills, but we often miss the transfer element,’ says Ceri. ‘We don’t help support the athletes we work with to actually transfer these skills away from sport and into other environments of their life.

‘So if we look to develop social skills in a rugby session or communications skills in a hockey session, they become sport skills rather than life skills because the element of transfer is missing.’

It is important to understand that the ‘transfer’ element is a process and not an outcome, explains Ceri.

‘This often gets forgotten or neglected and so prevents participants completing their journey.’

Recognising that life skills are not automatically developed through participating in sport is an important first step for coaches.

They must, says Ceri, be taught and fostered through the experience of sport.

There is, then, a blend of implicit and explicit learning at play, with the explicit element coming first.

‘It’s working with the individual while they are developing the skill rather than making the skill the main focus that is important,’ he adds. ‘That will enable the participant to build a connection with the life skill and become more self-aware of what they are learning.’

Spot the difference

Ceri Bowley slide

Sounds straightforward so far, but the whole process is complicated by the fact that life throws up new challenges all the time, as a result of the different contexts and environments we work in and the different people we work with.

You may think you have developed a newfound skill, but in reality, your ability to cope, adapt and manage in an environment outside the one you have honed your skill in renders it ineffective in the outside world.

‘It is vital then that, after identifying the outcomes you want, the coach knows how to change or adapt their practice to fit the characteristics of the people or group they work with.’

And that is not as straightforward.

Getting coaches to accept that tactical and technical instruction – while of course important –is less important than you think, and that what is more important is finding out the reasons players turn up to your sessions and what their motivations and expectations are, was a key starting point of Ceri’s PhD intervention study on developing life skills in young footballers.

We shall move on to specific session strategies and models Ceri recommends coaches utilise to help them facilitate the successful transfer of life skills shortly.

But first a brief synopsis of his research.

Ceri, and the team of coaches, coach educators and academics he enlisted to help him in the study, conducted a series of focus groups with key stakeholders of grass-roots football in south Wales, including players, parents, teachers and educators.

Three models for coaching life skills in young people were delivered, with a follow-up study undertaken that involved structured observations to gain deeper insight into the impact the changes coaches were making were having on participants.

‘We want coaches and practitioners to think about their role, and how using the model generated from the research could help them become key educators of life skills in young players,’ says Ceri. ‘We were trying to change in some cases the way coach education was being delivered.’

And change it he did. The study would go on to have a significant impact, leading to a restructure of some modules on the Welsh Football Trust’s coach education courses (Level 2 and Level 3) – which were subsequently endorsed by UEFA.

A significant impact and a significant reach too. To date, 2,000 coaches have received the education which, taking into account the average squad size in Welsh grass-roots football for the 11 to 15-year age range, had, says Ceri, the potential to affect 32,000 young footballers. This number will continue to rise with each season as coaches continue their education on the FAW UEFA-endorsed coach education pathway. 

The transfer system explained

So what strategies does Ceri suggest coaches utilise in their session design once they have a: familiarised themselves with the wide-ranging benefits of developing psychological and social skills in young people; b: accepted life skills are not automatically developed through playing sport; and, c: understood the importance of the ‘transfer’ element to completing the process of explicit and implicit learning?

Stage one is to discuss the life skill outcomes with your participants at the start of the session.

‘Ask them: “If you get better at communicating, how is that going to help you as a footballer”,’ says Ceri. ‘Quite often you are pleasantly surprised at what the kids come up with. They might link communication skills developed in an exercise to how they might interact better with friends at school, for example.

‘And don’t worry if they don’t get it immediately, or struggle to know how they are going to translate this into another environment. It’s about them starting to make that link between why it is important in their sport and why it could be important elsewhere.’

Stage two is to give careful thought to how you structure your session.

‘The timing of when you intervene in a session is important,’ says Ceri.

Sometimes, it may be better to call individual players to one side to allow the session to continue rather than interrupt the whole group. Other times, depending on the outcome intention, you may want to work with small-sided groups. And then at other times if, say, the group appears nonplussed by your motives or get the task execution wrong, it may be wise to stop the session en masse in order to accelerate the learning.

‘Alternatively, if you see an example of the learning happening in the session, and a person has displayed the life skill you want, then get them to demonstrate that to the group. Their self-esteem will go through the roof and it will makes them feel a million dollars.’

Pick a card… any card

Ceri asks his players to pick from a selection of cards at the start of an exercise, each containing a separate challenge.

'This allows you as a coach to work with them specifically around their challenge. They tend to start discussions in their team, how their challenge is going to affect what their team-mates are trying to achieve and how they might support each other in the way they play to succeed.’

The upshot of this, says Ceri, is that he is starting to see players take more responsibility in matches rather than rely on input from the coaches on the touchline on how to manage certain in-game situations.

Finally, stage three is to bring everyone together at the end of the session to go through the learning and make that transfer explicit.

‘The aim is to try and get them to reflect on the ideas behind the exercises so they have that focus in their mind in future sessions,’ says Ceri.

‘One of the simplest ways of doing that is to get each player to think about what they are going to do for the week ahead. They have just developed their skills of how to cope with mistakes and challenges, so where are they now going to try those skills out?’

It is important to document the individual learning outcomes from the reflective feedback discussions and to then have a review at the start of the next session.

And remember that you are constructing learning journeys for every individual, not a single team. Building a strong evidence base from witness statements (teachers, parents, friends, other coaches) to add to your own notes will help you build a clearer picture of each person’s progress.

The percentage game

Some great advice then from Ceri that coaches of any sport can use to nurture emotional and social competence in their participants. 

We started with a sound bite, so let’s finish with one. Coaching is about helping people become the best that they can be, as performers and people.

And this irrefutable fact is exemplified in the stand-out quote from Ceri’s presentation, which neatly sums up the important role of the coach in sculpting athletes into decent human beings by developing those behavioural skills they will need to be successful in life.

‘A grassroots footballer has a 0.0017% chance of playing in the English Premier League, however a grass-roots footballer has a 100% chance of being a better person.’

Do you agree that coaches should be coaching individuals to become better people as well as better at sport? Please leave a comment below.

If you enjoyed this you can find all Ceri’s ConnectedCoaches blogs here.

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Comments (1)


I've bookmarked this to read later but this is an integral part of my coaching philosophy. I take pride in knowing that a pupil's participation in sport can shape their future lives and develop the skills needed for life away from the ice :)

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