The role of friendships in youth sports

The role of friendships in youth sports


By: Dr. Julie Partridge, Asst. Professor, Dept. of Kinesiology
Southern Illinois University

With National Girls and Women in Sports Day being today, it’s a good time to stop to think about what sport participation means for females. Sometimes, it is easy to focus on some of the “bad stories” that come out of youth sport – coaches or parents fighting, verbal abuse of players, a focus on winning at the expense of teaching skills – but sport has the opportunity to bring a great deal of positives into the lives of kids who choose to play. Some of the best outcomes are tied to the social relationships that can be developed when playing sports, especially for girls.

Playing a sport in order to spend time with old friends, or to make new friends, is one of the most common motives for participating in sports for all children. One of the greatest feelings in sports is getting to hang out with friends, share the experience of working hard and competing together against others.

The relationships that kids develop during sport can lead to a lot of different outcomes. For example, when kids feel accepted by their peers, they report higher levels of self-esteem, more enjoyment of activities and are less likely to want to avoid participating.

Many developmental experts believe that sport friendships are unique compared to other friendships that kids have. Kids want their friends in sport to help reinforce their egos and give them preferential treatment (e.g., warming up together, etc.).  Unfortunately, there are also more recent findings that girls can also have a lot of negative peer experiences with one another in sport. In particular, girls can be likely to socially isolate other girls (start rumors, ignore one another or refuse to pass the ball to one another).

It’s important to remember that girls place a great deal of importance on their social relationships, so finding ways to encourage positive bonding is an important part of coaching/working with girls.

Some possibilities for encouraging positive bonding among female athletes include:

Teambuilding activities: These can be especially important for teams where many of the members don't know each other very well. Team building can happen at the beginning, middle or end of practices, and should be something fun to let the girls connect with each other (e.g., human knot, pass the Hula Hoop). There are a lot of simple team building activities online, or you can get creative and make your own.

Establish team rules for how to treat each other: Although this might seem unnecessary, many coaches of girls' teams report that by laying out the ground rules for how to treat one another they avoid a lot of hurt feelings later on. Even a rule as basic as "leave your disagreements outside the field," can help establish positive relationships.

Cheer for everyone: Something as simple as cheering for every member of the team can help everyone feel accepted and valued as a team member, leading to better peer relationships; so encourage cheering and be sure to model that behavior to your players!

Encouraging girls to develop friendships with one another in sport can be a simple way to turn a good experience into a great one.

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