Voices in Education

A Different Olympic Quest
The Sochi Olympics brought us transcendent moments of speed, grace, and power—and the opportunity to wonder: how did they get so good? The particular details of each Olympian’s story varies, but the basic arc of becoming a champion follows a similar pattern: deliberate practice, development of a resilient mindset, association with a tribe that inspires and holds one accountable, and great coaching.

For the last ten years, we have been part of an energetic movement of youth sport programs that work with underserved and vulnerable youth and that strive to apply the core pattern of success not just to sport, but to positive academic and social development. This national network of programs—often called sport-based youth development programs (SBYDs)—is distinct from typical sports organizations such as Little League or AAU in that, while they purport to be sport clubs that teach children squash, baseball, lacrosse, soccer, softball, or rowing crew, what they really teach is a process of mastery, or how to get good at anything.

In 2002, we launched Project Coach to help youth who, like Loeb Rosario, grew up in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts, discover enduring and important life lessons through engagement in sport. Rosario grew up in a neighborhood that struggled with the scourge of youth gangs and a 50% high school graduation rate. “I love sports and learned that when you practice hard at something—whether it’s baseball, soccer, or in our program, being a coach—you learn to problem-solve and think on your feet. These are the life lessons that we learn.”

As Rosario recognized, “I may not become an all-star in sports but I figured out that practice, repetition, and hard work is how I'm going to reach my goals in life. The coaches and sense of team in Project Coach helps me stay focused and improve myself.”

In this manner, his comments resemble how U.S. skiing phenom and gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin explains her own success. “You can’t just say ‘I want to win by more’ and just make it happen,” Shriffrin told The Daily Beast. “It comes down to how. . . your tactics and technique will help you make up that time. I’ve been surrounded by coaches and people who always place a lot of importance on improving, and the journey, and making skiing my art—really making a study of it.”

We in the SBYD world use the intrinsic allure of sport to engage youth, and then—while they’re busy having a blast playing baseball—provide them with exposure to, and development in, the core processes that lead to mastery. Yes, children learn forehands, layups, how to turn a double-play, and, more importantly, how to study and practice the critical life and social skills that can help them clear the many hurdles on their path to high school graduation and college enrollment. These hurdles are high, numerous, and persistent for the children in our programs: Only 9% of students from poorest quartile of American families get through college.

At their core, our programs function as communities of practice. They absorb youth in a culture focused on growth and development, which is the intent of SBYD programs, where children come each day to play squash or practice lacrosse and also to study together and engage in enrichment activities. Like any good training center, these values become embodied through structure: Time is allocated for tutors, life-skills lessons are routine, and academic and social skill progress is measured and tracked.

Youth study the process of mastery through their own involvement in sport. In Project Coach, youth learn about Carol Dweck’s theory that success is neither fixed nor inborn but rather the outcome of a process of hard work, learning from one’s mistakes, and positive coaching. We, like other programs, teach our youth if they work hard and remain open to being coached, they will get better, whether it’s learning algebra or playing basketball.

The programs also surround youth with people who coach kids in sport, academics and life skills. At Boston’s SquashBusters and other urban squash programs across the country, the coaches are often college-level players. They have a crucial responsibility: Not only do they teach squash, they become mentors, providing education, counseling, and myriad other supports.

One of our favorite events in Sochi was the ski jump—where men and women launch themselves off the top of a mountain into the sky. This simple solo feat is held aloft by a community of practice, a mastery mindset developed through years of training and a circle of mentors and coaches. SBYD programs serve the same purpose for underserved children: They strive to launch young people upward and outward and see them land firmly in a place far beyond their beginnings.

About the Author: Sam M. Intrator and Don Siegel are professors at Smith College, cofounders of Project Coach, a sport-based youth development program, and authors of the forthcoming book The Quest for Mastery: Positive Youth Development Through Out-of-School Programs (Harvard Education Press, March 2014).