Sport in Society

← Back to Blog

Sport-for-Development: The Necessary Attributes

By Liam Connolly March 26, 2017

I have invoked the image of a kid in an open space on more than one occasion on this blog. When thinking about what it is that sports can offer a child that seems the most obvious starting point: a child, a ball, and space. That very image is the starting point of all that we should be doing in the sport-for-development (S4D) space because it contains the base ingredients necessary to move forward.

As mentioned at other times, though, within the realm of program design, intention and deliberateness are critical to the success and replicability of our work. Sporadic and undocumented successes don’t provide for any manner of sustainability. So the question then follows as to what it is that we must include in this simple circumstance of a child with a ball in some form of open space. While S4D is a relatively young field, more research has been surfacing regarding the critical attributes needed to make progress in this field.

The Attributes[i]

The attributes can be distilled into four interconnected overarching categories: Cultivation of safe spaces; relationship-oriented; skill development; and culture creation. It is important to keep in mind that while these four categories are disaggregated here, they are very much intertwined and informed by one another. All categories have implications on the others.

Safe Spaces – For both physical and psychological reasons, it is imperative that there is a safe space in which consistent activity may be undertaken. Because activity is central to PYD, physical spaces must be secured that may be consistently used and associated with positive development. This speaks to the physical location, as well as fairly regular and appropriate structure necessary in order to realize other components of positive youth development (PYD). Because of the number of intangible factors that play into many parts of PYD, it is important to mitigate uncertainty. Securing safe spaces for activity will help remove some unknowns and lead to greater focus on the content of the program.

Skill Development – The most traditional component of activity, skill development remains an important component of PYD. Leadership, decision-making skills, and problem-solving skills result in part from traditional skill development. Through consistent and regular activity, it is important to increase the complexity of skill development. Simple repetition is less effective than complexity and variation in promoting growth. Skill development is the central conduit through which much of the learning occurs. It is also more controllable, and when addressed appropriately, allows for focus on the other categories—safe spaces, positive relationships, and supportive culture—which must be consciously created, maintained, and constantly re-assessed.

Positive Relationships –There are three primary types of relationships that are integral to PYD: youth-adult relationships; youth-youth relationships; and youth-community relationships. All three relationship types are, in effect, centered on the cultivation of emotionally and psychologically safe spaces. In order to promote PYD, youth-adult relationships, namely those between the coach and players, should be defined by warmth, closeness, and support. The relationship should be consistent and meaningful in that the coach engages with players beyond the immediate role as a skill developer.

Youth-youth relationships are perhaps the most important within PYD and yet the least controllable. It is important that participants learn to engage with one another without direct intervention or guidance by a coach. Most particularly, this is the case with regards to the cultivation of life and leadership skills, including conflict resolution. These relationships are also integral to a sense of belonging, efficacy, and mattering. Their bidirectional nature is also fundamental to fostering inclusion and active growth.

Youth-community relationships are the final component of the relationship paradigm in which the activity should be related to the broader context of the participant’s life. Engagement, contribution, and recognizing the transcendent value of the activity are integral to PYD. These relationships broaden the relevance of the activity and integrate life-lessons more thoroughly into the lives of participants, thus creating a more holistic program that reaches beyond the game.

Supportive Culture – Culture is in part an amalgamation of the other three categories of an appropriate environment. It is important that it also be addressed on its own in order to purposefully tie all other categories into a cohesive whole. Addressed in Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Model as reciprocal relationships, it is more thoroughly discussed in the NRCIM attributes as positive social norms, developing efficacy and mattering, and Perkin and Noam’s addition of active learning. In short, the PYD culture should be one that encourages exploration and creativity in order to try new things and ‘fail courageously.’

Our Role

In a sense, the role of administrator or designer is to control any factors that can be controlled. In the chaos and periodic yet potent sense of indifference of the world, providing youth with an environment that is even just minutely more stable and predictable provides those young people with an opportunity to raise their heads slightly so they may momentarily look beyond their most immediate needs and begin to explore the spectrum of opportunity that sits in front of them.

S4D programs are generally established in areas in which the luxury of looking at the future is not always granted. The crime, violence, prevalence of drugs, and other negative influences that apparently saturate the townships in which AMANDLA EduFootball operates do just that. How can a child plan for his or her future profession if he or she is unsure as to where the next meal will come from, or whether someone within their family will be targeted by a violent act in the coming days?

The idea is simple, albeit challenging to consistently bring to fruition: we will provide you with everything within our power that may promote reprieve from the unforgiving tumult of your context so that you may—for 90 minutes—drink deeply of future aspirations or simply escape into the rhythms of play.


[i] These categories and their content has been condensed from a number of sources, including the following:

Benson, Peter L., Peter C. Scales, and Amy K. Syvertsen. “The contribution of the developmental assets framework to positive youth development theory and practice.” Advances in child development and behavior 41 (2010): 197-230.

Bronfenbrenner, Urie. “Environments in developmental perspective: Theoretical and operational models.” Measuring environment across the life span: Emerging methods and concepts (1999): 3-28.

Fraser-Thomas, Jessica L., Jean Côté, and Janice Deakin. “Youth sport programs: An avenue to foster positive youth development.” Physical Education & Sport Pedagogy 10, no. 1 (2005): 19-40.

Lerner, Richard M. “Promoting positive youth development: Theoretical and empirical bases.” In White paper prepared for the workshop on the science of adolescent health and development, national research council/institute of medicine. Washington, DC: National Academies of Science. 2005.

National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, Community Programs to Promote Youth Development. National Academy Press (2002).

Perkins, Daniel F., and Gil G. Noam. “Characteristics of sports‐based youth development programs.” New directions for youth development 2007, no. 115 (2007): 75-84.


Be the first to comment on this article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *