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Learning for the field and for life – well-being skills in sports

November 1, 2022

Sports environments offer at best an excellent framework for the growth and development of children and young people. Practicing "well-being skills" or "life skills" that support comprehensive well-being and performance can be started at an early stage.

Supporting the well-being of children and young people can be started with small everyday steps. Interest and presence during the conversation are often enough. Being heard and getting personal attention are meaningful in themselves.

The development of children's and youth's well-being skills can also be approached more systematically, in which case the teaching of these skills is included as part of the season plan and training routines.

I will present one possible approach to developing well-being skills with the help of the HJK girls U12 team which I coach.

Well-being skills as part of seasonal planning

The HJK U12 team's psychological season plan combines the club's values and the key areas of Martin Seligman's well-being theory (PERMA): positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment. The basis of everything is a safe operating environment and a good everyday life (e.g. sufficient sleep, rest and nutrition).

We started with the team on basic skills that support well-being, such as friendship and teamwork skills and emotional skills. It is only at a later stage that factors related to strengthening performance become relevant, such as searching for an optimal state of alertness in competitive situations.

We usually practice wellness skills in periods of about four weeks. In the first months of the season, we strengthen the spirit of unity and our club. The winter and spring training months are a time of growth, and in the summer during competition season we play with ambition. However, with children and young people, instead of ambition, we talk more about passion and love of football.

Well-being skills as part of everyday training

Learning well-being skills is brought into everyday training. The chosen theme is highlighted in the exercises during the period and in the opening and closing discussions. During the first season, we have gone through friendship and teamwork skills, strengthening the growth mindset and resilience, self-talk, goal setting and emotional skills.

During the training period, the players answer about ten reflection exercises defined by the coaches in the Qridi Sport application, with the help of which the players evaluate their own well-being skills and their development on those.

The players mainly do these reflection excercises conscientiously and thoughtfully. The essential thing is to take care of sufficient autonomy and let the players themselves decide how much they want to work on these.

Below are a few examples of last season's homework and players' answers related to emotional skills and self-talk (with the permission of the players and families):

I recognized my emotions and noticed how they feel in my body: If I succeed, I feel really good and if I fail, I try to think positive things. I think that the failure may be due to a long school day or an early wake-up.

I thought about how it would be worthwhile to express the feelings I experienced and how it would not necessarily be useful to express them: Success makes me smile and rejoice with my teammates. If I fail, I don't start to worry, I just cheer more. Annoyance and resentment affect the mood of the entire team. It doesn't help anyone.

I identified a new feeling today: On Saturday I felt certainty. I've felt a sense of certainty before, but on Saturday I think I was really sure. Or the kind that "now I'll take that ball away from that opponent and I won't let it score" that's what I thought.

I recognized when my inner critic started to whisper my ear: Yesterday in the training game, when there was a small failure, then it came to my mind that "No, that went really badly" and at the same time again "It's okay, the next one will be successful".

I imagined that my teammate is in the same situation as me. I thought about how I would advise my friend and then I used this advice for myself: I give myself the kind of instructions in my mind that I would give to a teammate in a game and in training. I am always fully involved and give instructions and advice to my friends and in my mind to myself.

The HJK girls U12 team's psychological season plan offers one useful way to structure the learning and teaching of wellness skills. You can start with moderately and focus on areas that are important to your team and club, such as perseverance, growth mindset or goal setting.

You can begin to map the state of your own team's well-being by carrying out a discussion or a short survey about the following statements:

  • I can be myself in training.
  • I am cared for in training.
  • It is nice to come to the training and there is a good atmosphere.
  • My coach cares about me and is interested in how I'm doing.
  • I think I'm good at training.
  • I'm constantly learning new skills in training.
  • I am enthusiastic and motivated about training.
  • I can concentrate well in training.
  • I get to experience joy and success in training.
  • I get encouragement in training and my good performances are taken into account.
  • My opinions and wishes are asked in training.
  • Practicing my own sport brings meaning to my life.

For coaches and players, working on skills that enhance well-being and performance is rarely a straightforward process or a process that produces easy results. For example, developing emotional skills or self-talk requires self-discipline and the courage to also show one's own humanity and vulnerability.

However, experience shows that even the short time spent on developing well-being skills is worth it. Or as one of our players has stated: "Small things can make something big happen".

Further reading:

Bean, Corliss ym. (2018): The Implicit/Explicit Continuum of Life Skills Development and Transfer. Quest, 70:4.

Kaufman, Scott (2020): Transcend – The New Science of Self-Actualization.

Norrish, Jacolyn (2015): Positive Education. The Geelong Grammar School Journey.

Seligman, Martin (2011): Flourish – A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.

The text was produced in MIELI Mental Health Finland’s sports project, which promotes youth’s mental well-being in sports environments.

The blog post was originally published on Timo Räikkönen's futistohtori blog. Read the original blog post here (in Finnish). Timo is a former head of coaching and academy coach at HJK Helsinki football club. Timo was a specialist at MIELI Mental Health Finland and currently works as a senior researcher at the University of Turku.

Photograph: Mira Lönnqvist