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Sports and Physical Recreation Settings

Tailored experience for youth-serving professionals in sports and physical recreation settings

Reaching Teens Portal for Sports and Physical Recreation Settings

Kim McWilliams, Jr., M Ed

Chief Officer of Family, School, and Community Partnerships, Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation

Chris Renjilian, MD, MBE

Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics, Perelman School of Medicine of the University
of Pennsylvania; Attending Physician, Connections Clinic at Covenant House Pennsylvania, Craig-Dalsimer Division of Adolescent Medicine, and Division of Orthop aedics, Sports Medicine and Performance Center, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia


Greetings, and welcome to Reaching Teens! This online portal is specifically designed for athletic coaches and youth sports professionals to help them get the most out of the Reaching Teens toolkit. In this, the second edition of Reaching Teens, we chose to develop a portal for professionals like you because we recognize that your work is so often at the center of the lives of young people. It is through your work, on your playing fields, and with your support, that so many young people confront weaknesses, develop strengths, and cultivate the building blocks of resilience—a process that is really at the heart of Reaching Teens.

If you are at all like us, you chose to become a coach or youth sports professional because you know that sports and physically active recreation can be positive and transformative for young people.

As a society, we have long recognized that exercise and physical activity can help young people to build strong hearts, muscles, and bones. Over the past few decades, scientific research has also shown that the potent and positive effects of exercise reliably extend to our brain cells, our metabolic system, and even our genetic codes. The health benefits of exercise are being revealed in increasingly stunning depth and detail as time marches onward. As humans, we are biologically wired to thrive when our bodies are put into motion with regularity and intention. When adults bring physically active play and athletics into the lives of young people, they engage young people in endeavors that are good for their health and development, and also help them to develop healthy habits that can last a lifetime.

Grounded in this wisdom, we, as a community of leaders in youth sports and physically active recreation, can confidently guide our communities to shift from asking which of our youth are natural-born athletes to embracing the idea that all of our young people are natural-born athletes—and we have a collective responsibility to support youth in fulfilling this element of who they are.

While celebrating the benefits of exercise, many of us have also seen or experienced firsthand that physical activity in the form of sport can build even more: character, competence, confidence, and connection. These, and other “intangible” assets cultivated on the playing field, are the components of resilience.

Again, if you are anything like us, you find that seeing young people earn these rewards is itself the kind of reward that helps you to get up in the morning. It is here that we want to underscore a crucial point: More than just a passionate observer, you are an essential player in this kind of growth. As an athletic coach or youth sports professional, you create a context in which young people can flourish. Because of you, young people are able to trust in the promise of another practice, a practice:

  • That occurs reliably at the same time and place
  • Where the expectations are clear and likely high
  • Where perfection is never the goal, but continued improvement is the expectation
  • Where, in fact, errors are expected and accepted in efforts to achieve mastery
  • Where young people receive guidance focused on the process of developing new skills, rather than shallow praise or condemnation for their most obvious traits, talents, or faults

In this context, young people can develop the earned sense of security that empowers them to take measured risks, reach for new challenges, and expand their own definitions of who they are. If young people are lucky, they find that they thrive at home and at school. Because of you, these young people have the opportunity to discover new strengths and new attributes of themselves, in a third setting. For these young people, sports can add depth and new dimensions to the personal development they’ve started in home and academic lives.

For some youth, your gymnasium or playing field may be the first setting in which they are able to experience this kind of self-discovery. A sport may be their first lived experience with the truths that hard work can be fun, that confronting a challenge can be empowering, that effort can yield rewards. Because of you, young people have at least one caring adult in their lives who shows up, who holds them to high expectations, who guides them in a shared endeavor, and who is a witness to their growth. For some youth, you may be the first adult to see them for who they really are. In our experience, this is when our contributions to the lives of young people have the greatest potential to be transformative—even life-saving.

In summary, you are essential to this movement focused on reaching teens and guiding them in developing their own resilience. If we are very lucky, our sports and programs provide us with opportunities to build teams around us, teams of other adults—coaches, referees, administrators, athletic trainers and allied health professionals, parents, and others—who are caring, effective, and additive in this important work.


Why Reaching Teens?

Chances are, you’ve heard stories from young people or from your colleagues about how a sport changed their lives for the better. These stories can be common enough that we might start to believe that the positive power of sports is almost automatic. But chances are, you can also point to a few examples of when things didn’t go so well—times when a young person’s experience in sports did not add real value to their life, fell short of being positive, or, worse, contributed to real harm. In reality, sports and physical recreation do have the power to be wonderfully transformative, and we have the power to be wonderfully transformative. These powers are not automatic. If we approach the process passively and assume benefits will come through affiliation alone, we can’t trust that we—or our partners—will run the kinds of programs or become the kinds of adults that young people really need.

We do our best work when we do it with intention (in this case, being explicit that our aim is to connect with young people so that we can support them in developing their strengths and prepare them to become the resilient and caring adults that we need to lead our world in the future) and when we are clear-eyed about the key issues and considerations involved in getting the job done. In this effort, it can be helpful to have a guide. Reaching Teens guides us to be the kind of adults young people deserve in their lives as they work towards being physically, emotionally, and behaviorally healthy and strong.


Selected Chapters for Sports and Physical Recreation Settings

In this portal, we hope to guide you, as a professional who works in sports and physical recreation, in how to get the most out of this toolkit with the smallest investment of your time. However, the entire Reaching Teens toolkit remains available for your use and we genuinely hope that after you have followed this tailored pathway, you’ll find the time to explore all that Reaching Teens offers. For this pathway, we have selected key chapters and grouped them into several categories. These categories are:

  • Why Sports and Physical Education Can Make a Difference
  • Understanding Adolescent Development
  • Core Communication Strategies
  • Creating a Real Team
  • Team Discipline
  • Supporting a Young Person Who May Be in Trouble
  • Guiding a Young Person to Get the Support They Deserve

You will notice that some chapters are included in several categories. This gives you the opportunity to reinforce key concepts and grasp how each category is, in fact, interrelated. Some of the best learning will come through the discussions you have with colleagues about how key concepts apply to your team, activity, or center.

We are honored and grateful that you have chosen to enrich your life’s work through this resource, and we hope you enjoy the process that you are about to begin.


Case Examples for Group Learning and Discussion/Personal Reflection

Each chapter offers group learning and discussion and/or personal reflection exercises to help develop specific skill sets. Knowing the broader context of young people's lives makes the difference in our ability to build on their strengths and support them to overcome their challenges. This is so central to our work that we should routinely consider youths' environmental contexts, strengths, and challenges as a first step to addressing any issue. Rather than having you need to go through this process with new youth in each chapter, we want you to be able to focus on the chapter-specific skill-set. Therefore, we suggest you get to know the youth described below and use them as consistent case examples. You may choose instead to substitute in actual cases if it helps you and your colleagues better learn the material.

Youth 1

Mark is a 16-year-old male who currently lives with his mother, older brother. and younger sister. Mark and his family have lived in multiple subsidized housing units his entire life, moving 4 times within the last 5 years. Mark’s mother is currently unemployed, and his older brother by three years dropped out of high school and is currently incarcerated for drug-trafficking violations. His younger sister still lives in the house and will be entering high school. Mark is outgoing and friendly, but his speech impediment makes him uncomfortable with speaking in front of strangers. He aspires to remain academically eligible and become a Division 1 football player, while his primary focus remains to financially support his mother and care for his younger sister.

Strengths: Mark is incredibly athletic and has positive mentors in his life. He is listening and acting upon their advice. Mark is the most respected player on his multiple sports teams, who leads by example. His athletic coaches have observed Mark’s positive demeanor at school and practice, yet his mother is concerned about his emotional well-being at home.

Challenges: Mark has experienced unstable living conditions and dangerous neighborhood activities throughout his childhood. His mother never speaks of his father. Mark has never met or developed a relationship with his father over the past 16 years. The only information he is aware of about his father is that he was once in prison. His social peer group within the neighborhood are suggesting Mark join them in becoming financially stable by conducting illegal activity.

Youth 2

Joe is a 12-year-old male who is in the 6th grade at his middle school. He struggled throughout elementary school with his grades and this continues in middle school. He is often thought of by his peers as funny and as being the class clown while capturing everyone's attention. He is being raised by his maternal grandmother and continually pushes the boundaries within the home. His one goal in life is to be a professional baseball player. He finds great success on the community baseball team and shows promise in his dedication.

Strengths: Joe thrives in the sport/recreation setting. He has a protector’s brain and is a great teammate who looks after every one of his teammates on the baseball team. He respects his coaches on the field, following their instructions and coaching techniques.

Challenges: Joe’s grades in middle school have his teachers and grandmother concerned. He will not be able to participate in sports if his grades do not improve to his grandmother’s satisfaction. He often feels defeated in the education and home settings. Joe has begun disrespecting his grandmother.

Youth 3

Melody is a 15-year-old female who excels in golf as well as track and field. Her father played golf collegiately and has had Melody taking individual lessons since she was 6 years old. Melody's father has always pushed her athletically and continues to mention the realism of Melody earning a Division 1 golf scholarship to his alma mater. Melody’s parents recently divorced and her parents have joint custody of her. Over the summer she suffered a concussion and was seen by a specialist for three visits. One month after her injury, the specialist deemed her recovery complete. Several months later, she still complains about occasional headaches and feeling like she is not quite herself. Her golf instructor has noticed how Melody seems to be more down on herself recently and appears more withdrawn.

Strengths: Melody is typically bright and is enrolled in advanced-level courses her freshman year of high school. She has always been engaged and a well-respected teammate by her peers.

Challenges: Melody’s performance on the golf course has changed. She no longer is the top golfer on her team and is self-critical of her declining performance. While she still is attending the individual lessons her father takes her to weekly, she has told her mother she’s not sure if she wants to continue playing golf.

Youth 4

Reggie is a 17-year-old who enjoys every sport he has ever played growing up. Reggie’s mother played professional soccer and his father played Division 2 lacrosse. Reggie has two older sisters. One is currently playing softball at the Division 1 level and his other sister is a Division 1 gymnast. Reggie has joined his high school’s rowing team and is the only black team member.

Strengths: Reggie is an outgoing young man who routinely seeks advice from his mother regarding his sports team endeavors. Reggie is a straight-A student who has many friends in school and his previous sports teams.

Challenges: Reggie is the only young man of color on the rowing team. While his athleticism is a benefit to the team, he recognizes that he is not being included in social gatherings outside of practice with his other teammates. The coach has pointed out to the team that the addition of Reggie could propel them to 1st in their division. Reggie senses the other teammates are not putting forth their best during the first competition, but they blame him, the new person, for their loss.    

Youth 5

Lee is a 15-year-old female who swims and dives for her community’s sports/recreation club team. Her parents and grandparents are at every practice and swim meet cheering her on. Lee is an only child and spends most of her time around her adult family members. During Lee’s swim and dive practice she performs well, but during her swim and dive meets she does not swim and dive to her ability.

Strengths: Lee is a happy child and is involved in multiple community volunteering organizations. Lee seems to get along with the other swimmers on her team and tries to meet the coaches’ expectations.

Challenges: Lee is worried about perfect performance and pleasing her family. Before each of her individual events she has belly pain. Lee’s parents have unknowingly placed pressure on Lee to be perfect in all events. 

Youth 6

Dani is a 17-year-old female who is a junior in high school and a member of the soccer team. As the head coach, you announced the starting lineup for an upcoming game. Dani will not be starting. Dani is silent for a moment and then she throws a fit in front of her teammates. In her rage, she tells you that she is the most talented player on the team, that she has always been the most talented player on the team, and she can’t believe you haven’t put her in to start once this season. Dani’s grades are marginal, and you know that she sees a strong high school sports career as a way of getting into a better college. That evening, her parents call you. Her father sounds enraged and yells, through the phone, that Dani is the most talented kid on the team.

Strengths: Dani was identified as a talented soccer player in middle school, and was chosen for competitive and travel teams. She has a competitive spirit, and this drives her to push hard in conditioning drills when she is working out next to a teammate. She is very respectful of her parents and tells you that she wants to make her dad proud.

Challenges: She still shows a lot of talent in individual drills, but she is not adapting her playing style to work successfully on the field with her teammates. Increasingly, she has been critical of other players and verbally diminishing of their abilities.

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