Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.

Nelson Mandela speaking in 2000 

Just Do It?

We are accustomed to hearing claims about the impact of sporting participation on social, national, global and personal development. Such claims are not a recent phenomenon; for example, the idea that playing organised sport might be an antidote to anti-social behaviour has been apparent in British government policy for at least 100 years. Without critically reflecting on assumptions that have become taken for granted, we may inadvertently repeat suboptimal policies or delivery methods and fail to achieve the lofty outcomes we often associate with sporting participation.

One such outcome is that participation in sport can be transformative; not only can sport foster a lifelong love for physical activity, but it is also suggested that taking part in sport leads to enhanced social, emotional and cognitive skills, and that these transfer into a participant’s personal and professional lives. Rather like the early childhood education mantra of ‘learning through play’, sporting participation is sometimes held up as a simple, before and after endeavour. ‘Just do it!’ as a certain shoe manufacturer once said – and all the benefits will follow.  

However, just as the best play-based nursery school settings are facilitated by skilful and knowledgeable practitioners, transformation through sport can only be achieved when opportunity to take part is coupled with deliberate and skilful interventions by a coach, and/or other professionals. Children and young people do not necessarily learn to engage positively with others, to solve problems, to be creative or to listen effectively by simply taking part in sport; it is critical that those who are planning and delivering sessions understand how to best utilise the sporting environment to support and enhance development. The most impactful coaches consider a variety of possible approaches and go beyond a pedagogy that assumes that merely providing the opportunity to play sports is sufficient to achieve a range of desired, tangible, enduring, and transformative outcomes.

Transformative coaching

Some researchers have sought to steer coaches towards deeper consideration of the impact of social, cultural and political factors on the lives of those taking part in sport. We are encouraged to shift our attention towards empowering practice that intentionally seeks to transform the lives of participants. The approach of each coach is crucial, and coaching behaviours and actions are of utmost importance.  In 1970, Paulo Freire foregrounded the attributes of what he described as the ‘liberating educator’ – humility, courage, decisiveness, and tolerance. I wonder how often these behaviours are starting points for discussion and reflection in national governing body courses that aim to prepare coaches for their work in today’s social contexts.

The adoption of Freire-inspired ‘critical pedagogy’ does not negate the need for technical training or deny participants the knowledge they need to succeed at the task in hand. After all, without an opportunity to learn and practise new skills in the sporting domain, how can we participate and maintain motivation to take part, and then benefit from life enhancing skills acquired, through the sporting domain? The activities within a rugby session plan may well be centred on passing or tackling skills, execution of a 2 versus 1, or scrummage technique, yet transformative and parallel learning outcomes – a guiding focus for the transformative coach – may well be positioned within the social, cognitive, or affective developmental domains.

Let's Get Liminal

Transformation implies a ‘before’ and ‘after’ effect of participation, and we may be tempted to think that this is a linear, A leads to B, leads to C phenomenon. The process of coaching and being coached is of course much more complex than this, and it is helpful to consider how we might operate in this betwixt and between, or liminal space. Cultural Anthropologist Victor Turner described liminality as the in-between time and place in the process of transformation. In this space, we have seen (in university-based studies focused on the student experience) that learners can experience identity transformations and the opening up of a new, previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. Learning through these liminal spaces is believed to be highly transformative, resulting in a significant and enduring change in one's perception of the world. Acknowledging this potential for transformation is a key step for coaches seeking to transform through their work; it is also crucial to accept that taking learners through such transformation can be problematic and challenging and that it necessitates a heightened awareness of the lived experiences of participants.

An image about liminal spaces

Trauma Informed Approaches

The possibilities for transformative practice may be greatest when we work with those who have experienced significant challenges in their lives. As Dr Michael Mellick pointed out so powerfully in a previous Think Tank article, we have seen significant increases in mental ill-health experiences of school-aged children, and it is now likely that coaches working in all school and club settings regularly work with children and young people impacted by trauma. It is equally likely that those working with adults will be working with those who are impacted by adverse experiences earlier in their lives.  Researchers have begun to draw our attention to evidenced-based approaches that can be utilised in physical education and sport settings, including frameworks and principles to assist coaches in their day-to-day practice. I am particularly interested in the framework proposed by Thomas Quarmby and his colleagues, which emphasises safety and well-being, strengths and self-belief, positive relationships and a sense of belonging, routines and structures, and the empowerment of youth voice. I encourage all those involved with coaching – and developing courses to support coaches – to reflect on practice across these themes.

Let's Do It

My intention here is not to deter those who are passionate advocates for the role of sport in transforming the lives of individuals and society at large. Many of us who have experienced life-enhancing opportunities through sporting journeys are naturally keen to reproduce these opportunities for others. However, I am encouraging all those working in and through sport to critically reflect and move practice beyond the ‘just do it’ assumptions, and to focus on bringing about meaningful transformation through deeply reflective practice. As a coach, your work can be powerfully empowering; you provide new opportunities, catalysing deep shifts in participants’ understanding of their world, helping the realisation of human potential.

Ian Pickup is a former teacher, rugby player, development officer and coach who has worked in education for over 30 years. He is currently Pro Vice Chancellor (Students) and Professor of the Student Experience in Higher Education at The Open University.