With spring in full bloom and pandemic restrictions loosened, it’s been fun to see the local parks and fields teeming with kids playing sports. At the Utah Women & Leadership Project, we know that girls’ participation in sports is a widely recognized pathway to leadership, improved grades, health and self-confidence. Coaches are in an ideal position to positively influence their athletes. In 2019, we convened a “think tank” with athletic coaches and focused on how they can first lead by example and then work to support girls’ personal development and resilience.

We quickly found that coaches understand their role as an example in educating, molding and inspiring their athletes. One of the most effective methods is modeling the behavior they want to see. Successful coaches set a clear “tone from the top” about accountability and responsibility on a team. This includes preparedness, punctuality, communication, goal setting, sportsmanship, having a clear plan and exceeding expectations. They ensure girls see a love for the sport. Important decisions are explained, everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and favoritism is avoided. When high expectations are balanced with high levels of support and caring, it creates an environment in which girls can be stretched and challenged in a healthy way and achieve more than they thought possible.

Participating in sports provides the opportunity for girls and young women to grow in many ways beyond athletic skills and fitness. Coaches can provide a myriad of opportunities for personal development in their athletes. One way is to follow age-appropriate models for the life lessons players should learn from being on a team, with younger girls focusing on inclusivity and fun and older girls developing teamwork, responsibility, and understanding strengths and weaknesses. When they create an environment that focuses on skills development, not just on game-time performance, girls learn discipline that can be carried to other areas. And when they take a customized approach to coaching girls, it helps bring out the best in each one and ensures team members know they are cared about as individuals, not just athletes.

Sports provide an ideal training ground for developing strength of character as well as resilience in times of struggle. Coaches can assist their players in nurturing resilience by emphasizing a growth mindset and the notion of progress, not perfection. They can help girls overcome their fear of performance by encouraging them to identify and focus on the factors under their control and reinforce the idea that mistakes are a critical part of the learning process and athletes should feel empowered to try and possibly fail. Girls need to be reminded that their sport is what they do, not who they are, and they can use the lessons they learn in sports to be better at every other role. Coaches are uniquely poised to help girls navigate a wide range of emotions and teach them they can be passionate without losing control.

More girls and young women in Utah are participating in a wide variety of sports at all levels of play. From improved physical and mental health to increased confidence, resilience and developing leadership skills, involvement in sports brings benefits that last a lifetime. As informed coaches influence their athletes in positive and powerful ways, they will help train and mentor the next generation of strong women leaders in Utah.

Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.

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