Professional Development

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Empathy Matters

Youth workers continuously shift focus and learn new skills to accommodate the latest trends in youth development research.

As a training provider, Coaching Corps is sensitive to these trends and always exploring how we, as an industry, can use research to improve outcomes for the kids we serve—those faced with the systemic disadvantages of poverty.

Coaching Corps was founded nearly 20 years ago with the mission of creating an equitable landscape for youth sport participation. Since then, we've been devoted to developing trauma-informed coach education curriculum that translates the research into simple tools and skills coaches can use to create an optimal practice environment. Our work has always been centered on one core value: empathy.

Empathy as an organizational value sets the tone for everything we do—from hiring practices and staff culture, to attributes considered when recruiting coaches, to program partners criteria. We believe equity and empathy are essential to one another, making empathy a necessary component at every level of Coaching Corps; there is something inherently empathetic about wanting to create equitable opportunities.

While empathy may fit naturally into Coaching Corps' organizational ethos, the same is not necessarily true for all youth sports. From an early age, the focus is competition—winners and losers, us versus them. It's the competitive nature of the game that makes our involvement so exciting; it's why we buy tickets to cheer on our home team or wear certain colors on game days.

So, the question we're faced with is: How can we emphasize empathy in youth sports without losing a piece of what makes kids, and parents, love the game?

We focus on the coaches. At Coaching Corps, the heart of training is not the drills and sports skills, but the importance of the environment it all takes place in. Starting with the Five S's, Coaching Corps developed curriculum consistent with The Science of Learning and Development, teaching coaches how to create an environment conducive to the social-emotional development of their players.

Strong relationships, Safety, Self-determination, Skill development and Significance: The Five S's represent everything kids need to effectively learn and develop. Based on our knowledge of trauma and stress response, the importance of a safe environment created by a caring and consistent adult cannot be overstated. Especially for youth living with the collective traumas of poverty, a coach's ability to understand their players' reality—and to create structure and trust—will decide whether the experience has any lasting value on their health and development.

Coaches working in low-income communities may often feel challenged to connect with and lead their players if their own experiences don't allow them to immediately relate to the players' hardships and daily struggles. Coaching with empathy forges transformative relationships, despite absence of shared experience, so long as the coach is capable of truly listening to players' emotions and experiences with the intention of understanding their perspectives.

While coaches cannot control what happens outside the playing field, empathy enables them to consider the environmental context that impacts young people's behavior in Coaching Corps programs. Our Empathy Framework promotes curiosity and perspective, having coaches frame their interactions with players with three questions:

1. What emotion is being expressed?
2. What will I do in the moment to demonstrate I understand?
3. How will this inform my understanding of them?

Now more than ever, there is extreme value in youth workers' ability to model and deliberately teach kids to recognize and associate with others' feelings. As we prepare to reopen facilities in a post-crisis world, we can take this moment to focus on the promising practices of youth development. Empathy as a key tenant in youth sports is not the norm—but it can be.

We do this work because we believe in our power to make a difference. Our practices, starting from the top of organizational structures, should follow the research that promises the best results. An environment where coaches and players feel safe and understood can unlock the myriad benefits of sports participation—without losing the fun of competition. Coaching through the framework of empathy doesn't negate the trials and stakes of team play; it simply puts them second to the potential for social-emotional growth.

Coaches play a tremendous role in their players' lives. At the end of the day, the lessons they teach and the impact they've made should carry far beyond the game.

Written by Suzanne Sillett, Director of Education, Coaching Corps, and Monica Santos, Director of Coach Experience, Coaching Corps. Assisted by Sabrina Schaefer, Development Writing Specialist, Coaching Corps.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of AfterSchool Today.