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Put simply, sports can help kids thrive both in and out of the classroom. But these outcomes are not guaranteed—especially in a sports culture that over-values specialization, social comparison, and winning from early ages. Only 38% of kids ages 6-12 played team or individual sports on a regular basis in 2018, down from 45% in 2008. Kids are burning out—and parents report that coaches can be the highest source of pressure.

Much like a teacher inside a classroom, a coach plays a vital role in a child’s experience. Research demonstrates that adults significantly influence children’s social and emotional development. Young people who identify at least one supportive adult within their social networks achieve better outcomes across a range of academic, behavioral, and health indicators. For kids who play sports, a good coach can be a transformational figure.

However, being a caring adult is not enough. Beyond building sport-specific skills, coaching requires a nuanced skillset that is developed through ongoing training and professional development. When coaches do not have appropriate training, it can have dire consequences. For instance, a 1992 seminal study found that when coaches received training in effective communication with kids, only 5% of children chose not to play the sport again, as compared to a 26% attrition rate with untrained coaches.

Life lessons are not implicit and youth don’t learn them simply by playing. Coaches must know how to embed those lessons into the activities that engage youth where they are.