A Scientific Approach to Sports Leadership and Youth Development

  • Daniel Gould, Ph.D.
  • Professor
  • Department of Kinesiology
  • Director, Institute for the Study of Youth Sports
  • College of Education

Sports can be a critical component in many children's lives, and those involved in youth athletic programs have developed a variety of goals to enrich adolescent sports participation. Dan Gould, professor in the Department of Kinesiology and director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, has dedicated his career to the pursuit of scientific evidence that guides improvements in youth athletic experiences.

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The Institute has a clear mission: to provide leadership, scholarship and outreach that "transforms" the face of youth sports in ways that maximize the beneficial physical, psychological, and social effects of participation for children and youth while minimizing detrimental effects.

Gould, similarly, has a clear vision for collaborating with community partners on engaged research projects. His approach incorporates needs assessment, knowledge acquisition, evaluation, and dissemination of results in understandable and practical forms that address impacts and implementation.

"We start by listening," says Gould. "There are many important voices in this process, from program officers and board directors to coaches, volunteers, and the young people involved in sports. Based on what we learn from the various sources, our team brings a scientific approach that produces metrics that can indicate what is and isn't working."

Collaboration with Think Detroit Police Athletic League

A recent four-year partnership between the MSU Institute for the Study of Youth Sports and the Think Detroit Police Athletic League (TDP) provided five evaluation studies designed to examine program effectiveness and facilitate improvements.

TDP is a private non-profit organization in a unique relationship with the Detroit Police Department. Four police officers are assigned to TDP for program assistance, and to build good relationships with area youth that contribute to keeping them away from crime and, more importantly, help them become productive citizens. TDP includes about 1,500 adult volunteers who coach, mentor, and assist more than 10,000 youth ages 4 to 19 in 11 different sports after-school seasonal activities. The organization emphasizes teamwork, diversity, respect, discipline, responsibility, and leadership in their programs, which are aimed at building character in young people through youth sports.

Gould and his team conducted qualitative interviews with athletes in TDP to determine effective and ineffective coaching practices, and assess what values and life skills, if any, are viewed as being learned from their TDP sports experiences. A second study examined coaches in the TDP program, learning more about their background, views, beliefs, and impressions of the TDP approach to coaching education. The third study expanded on learning more about coaches, including those more experienced versus those newer to coaching TDP, and successful versus less successful in terms of positively influencing youth. Other studies aimed at underserved youth measured outcomes regarding the sports climate and interactions with coaches, and challenges to girls' participation in sports in underserved communities.

"Our primary goal is to promote positive character development in young people while promoting the life skills, physical fitness and healthy lifestyles that allow youth to grow into mature adults," says Tim Richey, TDP chief operating officer. Richey is an MSU alumn who played defender and midfielder on the MSU soccer team from 1989 to 1993.

"Dan Gould and the team at Michigan State University worked with us to identify key objectives. We wanted to better understand what was going on with the programs we offered, and the evaluations were critical for determining what was most and least effective. It is valuable information that we can utilize in a variety of ways, from planning to communications with funders, policymakers, and other constituencies."

One initiative that was a result of the evaluations led the Institute and TDP to embark on a joint effort to train Detroit police officers to mentor volunteer coaches and young athletes.

In addition to helping achieve TDP's goals, Gould and the team at the Institute aimed to conduct the studies in a way that would contribute to the broad body of scientific knowledge they are accumulating on impacts of organized sports participation and positive youth development.

The Institute was founded in 1978 after Michigan legislators became concerned about detrimental practices occurring in children's sports. Today, specific objectives include Institute leadership in collecting and integrating unbiased scientific and best practice evidence on critical youth sports issues.

Current Projects at the MSU Institute for the Study of Youth Sports

In addition to the partnership with Think Detroit Police Athletic League, Gould and his team are working on several projects, including: a statewide initiative to educate current and future high school sport captains on leadership, in partnership with the Michigan High School Athletic Association; a three-part study during the next two years that involves using sports as a mechanism for positive youth development in South Africa; a coaches' leadership training program course development for collegiate wrestling coaches, in partnership with the National Wrestling Coaches Association; and an online parent education project that engages high school sport parents to play a positive role in supporting their young athlete's needs.

"I am at Michigan State University because of the land-grant and now world-grant philosophy; all our work focuses on research that contributes to society. And our scientific work at the Institute intersects with practical programs," says Dr. Gould. "We collaborate and partner with some terrific people who share information so we can use our collective resources to help make things better for young people involved in sport. Our staff and our students work tirelessly, and I feel that we are making a real difference in children's lives."

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement

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