Dan Howald of the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), shares insights on developing the whole child through soccer.
Watching children engage in soccer is a very fulfilling experience for recreation providers. The physical benefits, introduction to teamwork in a fun and recreation-first environment, and the sheer enjoyment of watching them play validates all the effort, investment and planning to get these programs up and running.
Soccer provides a great pathway to physical literacy, which the Aspen Institute’s seminal “Project Play” initiative identifies as a key outcome of recreational sport for youth players, giving them the foundation to pursue any number of other sports or activities, including soccer. Yet, there’s much more we can do to benefit children in addition to the physical aspects.
Benefits to Children
For example, progressive youth soccer organizations have developed and rallied around curriculum that is more intentional about how they incorporate social and emotional learning (SEL) into their programs. In this way, soccer programs can align with schools, rec centers and other youth-based community development organizations in helping develop the whole child.
SEL-based soccer programs reach beyond the physical and tactical aspects of sport, integrating SEL tools within session training, game management plans and — perhaps most importantly — into coaching education programs. Giving youth coaches an understanding of how to use soccer activities more intentionally as a vehicle to support the nonphysical aspects of child development is not just a value-add, it’s a game changer. Players learn new life skills and the coaches themselves can tap into a motivation that goes beyond specific sport acumen.
Backed by Research
More than a nice idea, SEL-based soccer is an outcomes-focused approach with evidence to show it can work. A study published in the Journal of Amateur Sport Vol. 6, Issue 1, documented the implementation of an SEL-based youth soccer curriculum and the benefits gained through participant behaviors in areas such as cooperation, leading, encouraging and helping others.
Enriching children’s lives by helping them develop competencies such as self-awareness and relationship skills have been shown to be correlated to academic success and overall well-being. Using the great game of soccer as a platform to help our children develop within a well-designed SEL framework — in addition to giving them the opportunity to develop sport-specific skills — is a worthy and achievable goal for recreation program providers everywhere.