LAWRENCE — Researchers at the University of Kansas have been building a body of work showing a positive, caring environment in sport has benefits from improved effort to better overall well-being. They recently partnered with Children International to take their work to Guatemala to help provide a positive sporting experience for children living in poverty and to help adults continue the lessons for years to come.
Mary Fry, associate professor of health, sport and exercise sciences and director of KU’s Sport and Exercise Psychology Lab, partnered with Children International, a nonprofit organization based in Kansas City dedicated to helping youth around the world, to hold a coaches’ clinic in Guatemala. Fry and graduate students shared their research with adults who volunteer at Game On, a youth program similar to those implemented at the Boys and Girls Club in the U.S., and Children International staff.
Fry’s research focuses on building a positive environment for sport in which participants are supported, effort is rewarded, teamwork is encouraged and emphasis is taken away from punishing mistakes. Instead, mistakes are viewed as a learning opportunity. Adult volunteers who coach at five Game On sites around Guatemala took part in the training. They had previously had no formal training in creating positive sporting environments.
“These are people with great hearts who really want to make a difference,” Fry said of the volunteers. “We explained why we believe in this approach, and the volunteer coaches were able to do hands-on activities to try out this positive, task-involving approach and see the impact it has first-hand.”
The caring, task-involving approach has been shown to have numerous positive benefits for coaches and participants, with the latter reporting they have more fun and want to put in more effort. They also have positive physical and psychological responses such as reduced stress and depression and better overall well-being and have even displayed more prosocial behaviors such as empathy and caring for others.
Those outcomes are especially important for the participants in Guatemala. Given high poverty rates, parents are often concerned about violence their children are exposed to and the lack of opportunity many youth have to take part in organized sporting or non-curricular activities. It is even more uncommon for young girls to have an opportunity to take part in youth sport such as those provided by Game On.
“There are some kids in Children International’s programs who do not get to experience a caring and supportive environment at home, which means it’s even more important for them to have that when they participate in our programs, like Sports for Development,” said Natalie Foxworthy, Children International Child and Youth Development senior program officer.
In addition to sharing research, Fry and her team taught Game On and Children International staff games and activities they can use to implement the strategies. While the approach can be applied in any popular activity such as soccer, they also played games that required creative teamwork and strategies such as cup stacking, relays and even incorporated comedy and music.
“When you do these kinds of activities it naturally sets the stage to have conversations about the various strengths different people bring and the advantages of being in an environment where everyone is treated with kindness and respect. The youth are able to develop skills that help them work better together,” Fry said.
But the activity the youths and adult volunteers take part in is secondary to the environment in which it happens. Fry’s research has shown when people take part in sport or activities in a caring, task-involving climate over time, not only do they perform better and have more fun, but they experience better overall well-being, positive behaviors and problem solving abilities that translate to other parts of life.
“It’s not all about the activities, it was about using these strategies and creating a positive environment for kids where they have fun, work together and have better outcomes that, most importantly, can benefit them across all areas of their lives,” Fry said.