Social and Emotional Learning in Action! Part I: School Athletics

Social and Emotional Learning is getting a lot of press lately, as more and more research emerges showing its broad benefits to students across all ages, racial/ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic levels and geographic location.  The fact is, however, SEL has been happening in schools in various ways for decades, maybe even centuries.  Teachers, administrators, coaches and other school staff members have known for years that the best learning happens when students feel safe, nurtured and heard.  If a class, school, or program creates a welcoming environment where students feel that they belong, amazing things happen.  And one of the classic ways to create such an environment is through fine arts, athletic, and other in-school and extra-curricular special interest activities.


Click this picture for a story about GRIT and Marathon High at Dobie Middle School!

The seeds of belonging and connectedness are often naturally planted when special interest groups meet, as they begin with a shared interest and common purpose. In this post and several more to follow, we will explore how Social and Emotional Learning can flow through and anchor programs like athletics, music, theater, dance and others. Such activities can create nurturing places for young people to grow as skilled collaborators, perspective-takers and well-rounded humans.


Featherstone, coaching away

For this first post, I asked two former football coaches to think about their experiences as both a player and a coach from an SEL perspective. Larry Featherstone, current assistant principal at McCallum High School and former long-time football coach and player, said that he remembers seeing the slogan “BIG TEAM, little me” painted in his college football locker room.  He said that the deep meaning of this slogan had a major impact on him: that the team was bigger than each individual member, and that it depended completely on the relationships and trust built between the players themselves, each player and each coach, and the players and coaches as a whole entity. The “little me” part wasn’t meant to diminish the contribution of the individual, but that it was both the individual contribution and the interconnectedness of all the individuals and contributions that made the team successful.  He told me that this realization informed his successful football career and all his coaching afterward–by putting the emphasis on building deep interconnectedness within his team, he built winning teams.  It wasn’t about how hard they practiced or how many times they did a certain drill; it wasn’t even about how good each player was.  It was about how they trusted each other and collaborated; how they each acted not for individual pride, but for the good of the team.  These self-management and perspective-taking skills have stuck with him, and the young people he coached, for much longer than a football season!


When I asked Jason Littlefield, current SEL specialist and former high school coach and player, to reflect on his SEL sport experience, he wrote this beautiful piece:

Athletics creates an educational dream scenario: it provides young people opportunities to collaborate and persevere together within a nurturing environment, while presenting life lessons of victory and defeat.  Hundreds of AISD students and educators share these experiences every day in the various sport programs available in schools across our city.

As a former high school coach, I understand the value of creating and maintaining trusting relationships.  These relationships built between coaches and players help student athletes set, realize, and often supersede goals that seem just out of reach.   When we came up short, there were often tears, but also pats on the back and encouragement to regroup and work harder.  This development of strong character, collaborative skills, and growth mindset is often the valuable result of participating in school athletics.

As a current SEL coach, I now have an even deeper understanding of the importance of athletics in young peoples’ lives, and the lifelong impact a coach can have on a student athlete.  To some, I will always be “coach.” But after working with a particular young man for four years, the graduation announcement was addressed to “Dad.”  Athletics represents an opportunity to grow in all five AISD Social and Emotional Learning competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social-Awareness, Relationship Skills and Responsible Decision Making Skills.  When coaches help to develop these capacities along with sheer athleticism in their student players, a stronger, more resilient athlete is the product– as well as a person that carries valuable life and career skills into the future after the glory of school sport competition fades.


Coach Littlefield’s “T-Dogs” ’04

I am thankful for these two perspectives, as they know first-hand what SEL in sports is all about, far beyond my ability to speculate. (I wasn’t into sports in school; I was the band kid, so when this series gets to the music part, LOOK OUT!) There are many perspectives in the conversation about social and emotional learning in sports, and more points of view (and different sports!) will be explored in the next post in this series.  In conclusion, and as a preview for next time, I leave you with this video–what kinds of social and emotional skills are evident in this story of a first and only home run? (WARNING: may require tissues)

Tune in next week and in the future for more on social and emotional learning, sports, and beyond!

5 thoughts on “Social and Emotional Learning in Action! Part I: School Athletics

  1. Judy says:

    What a spectacular summary of some of the research behind the value of SEL integrated into all learning content including athletics! AISD surely is growing a large set of competent and successful adults for the future!

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