How U of A sport researchers are helping kids in Philadelphia learn life skills in practice

Youth sports organization reaches out to PhD student to help coaches build life skills development into community programs.


University of Alberta research examining how to use sport to develop youth beyond the athlete is making its way from academic journals into coaches’ playbooks.

The Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative—which supports 27 youth sport and activity organizations serving a population of 1.6 million residents in the greater Philadelphia region—reached out to Kurtis Pankow, a kinesiology PhD student who works in Nick Holt’s Child and Adolescent Sport and Activity Lab, after his research was published.

His study showed that landmark research by Holt and youth sport research colleagues across Canada suggesting youth sport should be about building the whole person needs to be more accessible if it is to find its way into the world’s highest sport bodies.

“The research shows that most coaches want to help foster positive development. They think it’s part of their job but they don’t know how,” explained Pankow.

He said a story about the study ended up in a news alert that landed in the mailbox of Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative CEO Beth Devine.

“She sent me a note saying that she is essentially trying to provide resources to sport organizations in Philadelphia to make sure their programs are providing more than just sport opportunities for the kids to grow and develop,” Pankow said.

He introduced Devine to the inner workings of the pan-Canadian Positive Youth Development Sport Network, which was designed to improve the experiences of youth sport by connecting coaches and association administrators with research and researchers.

“At the end of the day, the reason the Philadelphia group reached out was because it’s pretty easy to go teach kids how to shoot a basketball or kick a soccer ball. But how do you coach to facilitate life skills development?”

What Holt and his colleagues believe is that sport provides a vehicle to teach life skills because that’s where the kids are and the lessons learned in sport reach across into real life.

“Not only are sports a venue where we can reach kids,” explained Holt, “sport comes with unique demands and stresses that make it like an accelerated microcosm of life.”

Novel approach

The novel approach, borne out of Holt’s research done on inner-city community sport programs, introduces a life skill into a practice.

For instance, Pankow said a coach might start off practice with a conversation with the kids about the importance of communication, both on and off the field of play. The back-and-forth would eventually give way to a skills practice featuring team-oriented drills that would encourage young athletes to practise communicating.

“As a coach, you want to focus on teachable moments like when someone does a good job of calling out for a pass. You want to highlight and talk about the good pass—as well as the good job the players did in communicating,” said Pankow.

At the end of the session, players and coaches reflect on what was learned, and the kids are asked to practise their communication skills at home and at school.

“The next time the team comes together, coaches do a quick recap and ask, ‘Can anyone tell me when they got to use their communication skills at home or at school?’ Then, the next life skill is introduced for the day,” said Pankow.

Connecting with community

With help from researchers at Philadelphia’s Temple University and Holt’s team, the Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative has now completed a population survey and is taking direction from the U of A on creating a Coaching for Positive Youth Development program.

“This will be the first North American program, if not global program, to offer a certificate in coaching for positive youth development,” said Pankow. “Canada doesn’t have much on the psychosocial aspects of coaching youth, so this is a really cool opportunity to connect with a group that is really on the leading edge of making a difference in practice.”

A little closer to home, Pankow teamed up with master’s student and Pandas basketball coach Isabel Ormond to help CK Hockey Academy in Edmonton create an evidence-based workshop series to teach players a range of mental and life skills that would help not only in their hockey development, but also their life development.

“What we did was a knowledge translation program where we took a bunch of the existing research and packaged it in a way that would be relevant and meaningful,” said Pankow. “Connecting with community organizations is a big thing for us.”

As well, PhD candidate Colin Deal connected with Free Footie, a free soccer league in Edmonton, to provide them with an evidence-based survey to understand whether their programming is providing opportunities for positive youth development to underserved youth in the Edmonton community.

Pankow will also be introducing aspects of positive youth development into the Golden Bears flag football league next year.