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ASU professor studies how coaches can best nurture young athletes

ASU professor says "autonomy support" seems to work best, studies continue.
Winning is nice, but the aim is positive youth development, ASU researcher says.
February 9, 2017

Former coach works with schools, recreation departments to see which behaviors, strategies have the best outcomes

Eric Legg knows firsthand that kindness and positive feedback from a coach can make all the difference to a young person.

LeggLegg is president and founder of the nonprofit Tennis on the Hill and is the national chair of the Training Advisory Group for the United States Tennis Association., an assistant professor in the School of Community Resources and Development The School of Community Resources and Development is in the College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University, is working with area schools and youth sports programs to measure how effective that positivity can be.

“We know coaches are so hugely influential,” said Legg, whose own experience with a kind, mentoring coach has had an affirming effect in his life.

“I was a shy kid, and youth sports was powerful in my life. It’s where my self-confidence came from, and it’s where my connections came from,” said Legg, who played tennis and basketball. “I was fortunate that I had overwhelmingly positive outcomes from youth sports, but we all know plenty of people who had negative outcomes.”

So Legg investigates how coaches — who are mostly volunteers — can nurture young athletes.

“We have tons of volunteer coaches who mean well — and sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that. We demonize the bad ones. They mean well, but they don’t recognize the impact of their actions and don’t always recognize what’s positive and what’s negative.”

He recently concluded a research project with the Cottonwood Parks and Recreation Department in which he observed youth sports coaches, gave them feedback via email and then surveyed the players after the season was over.

It was a small sample size, but he found that the coaches who had better player outcomes were those who practiced “autonomy support” — explaining their reasoning rather than declaring, “Do this because I said so.”

Eric Legg

“We can’t expect these folks to get degrees in youth development or devote tons of hours to training when they’re paid pennies or are volunteers. So we have to see what’s most impactful,” said Legg, who has been a youth sports coach and also ran a parks and recreation program as an administrator.

One organization that trains people who work with young athletes is the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit that offers in-person workshops and online classes to coaches, parents, student atheltes and sports organizers.

The Paradise Valley Unified School District in north Phoenix has hired the alliance to provide training to all the coaches in its five high schools, and Legg has spent this school year evaluating that work by surveying the student athletes.

“We looked at the curriculum from PCA, and we asked the players, ‘Are the coaches actually doing these things?’ And if they are, what outcomes does that relate to?”

Legg said the district wants to know whether its investment in the training is paying off, and the alliance can find out which parts of its curriculum are most effective.

He is looking at several potential outcomes in the athletes, including empathy, a sense of community and attitude towards hazing. He’s also measuring “growth mind-set” — athletes’ belief that they improve through hard work and practice and not just talent.

“One preliminary finding is if athletes have more of a growth mind-set, do they persevere longer? The simple answer is yes, there is a positive relationship there,” he said, adding that one simple example of fostering growth mind-set is when a coach tells a player, “I can tell you’ve been working hard because you’re getting better” rather than “You’re such a natural athlete.”

David Jacobson, the senior marketing communications and content manager for the Positive Coaching Alliance, said that schools or sports leagues will often hire the group as a neutral third party to encourage constructive behaviors among coaches and parents. The training is based in sports and educational psychology research as well as input from the college and professional coaches and players who sit on the advisory board.

"Sometimes they bring a third party like us to explain intellectually and emotionally the real value of youth sports," he said.

"In the same vein, the way this research helps the whole sports ecosystem is by lending third-party credence to what we're presenting in our workshps and on our website."

Legg just started a new project with Bourgade Catholic High School in Phoenix in which he’ll interview not only coaches and players, but also administrators and parents, to find out their goals for the sports program.

“Some people say it’s character development, but that can be a vague term. We want to see what they really want out of it, and what are the coaching behaviors that relate to that?”

Legg said that his work is not about winning.

“Winning is nice. I’m an athlete and I like to win, but what we’re really interested in is positive youth development.”

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now


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Humans of SHOW seeks to inspire compassion for Phoenix homeless

Inspired by Humans of New York, ASU students tell stories of Phoenix homeless.
February 9, 2017

ASU students volunteer for online photo project that gives people opportunity, platform to tell their own stories

There are two worlds in downtown Phoenix.

One is filled with skyscrapers, new condos and fancy restaurants. Sidewalks are clear, clean and landscaped. But on 12th Street, the skyline is far off. Homeless people gather in dozens, dragging belongings, pushing shopping carts and shuffling past the city’s Human Services Campus.

Each person here has a story, and a group of students have made it their mission to tell it.  

“You can’t really write a story about us until you sit down with us, look around and understand,” said Ryan Kacey, who lives in a nearby shelter. “So many people are not willing to do that.”

Arizona State University student volunteers Faiz Khan and Chandan Saini took photos and recorded audio as Kacey described his life. The work will contribute to an online gallery, inspired by Humans of New York, to induce compassion for a group of people who often go overlooked.

Khan and Saini volunteer at the Student Health Outreach for Wellness Clinic, a health care center run by ASU, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona.

Between duties, they pass out water bottles, snap pictures and listen.

The stories they collect end up as part of the Humans of SHOW social media campaign that draws attention to the clinic on the Human Services Campus, featuring portrait-style photographs of the people they serve.

“People should try to engage with the homeless more,” said Saini, a senior studying psychology at ASU. “And that’s the point of this project, to break down the barriers, stereotypes and stigmas, so they can be viewed as people.”

The project is the brainchild of Maggie Delaney, a physical therapy graduate student at Northern Arizona University. It came to her after someone said something offensive.

“There was an unsavory comment I heard from a health care provider who hadn’t worked with this population before,” Delaney said. “They had an experience with a homeless client who came in and thought they didn’t deserve free or quality care because they are homeless.”

Delaney worked with three other students to pitch the idea to leadership at the SHOW Clinic, and it has grown quickly.

She wanted to give homeless people a platform, a way to be heard and seen.

“We all sit at home, and we don't think about them,” Delaney said. “They don't have a voice or avenue to let people know who they are or how they ended up homeless. They’re pretty misunderstood.”

Humans of SHOW has pushed volunteers to look beyond health care.

“I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, which is why I signed up to participate in this project,” Saini said.

Facebook post of woman and her story

A handful of stories have been published already.

“People have preconceived notions that the homeless are unhygienic, uneducated, unintelligent, unmotivated, addicted, but that’s just not true,” Khan said. “There are people like Ivy, where this is just not true. She is very educated and intelligent, but she’s in a situation that may or may not be temporary.”

The published stories don’t mention homelessness. Nor do they always show the face of the subject. It’s meant to blur the lines between people who have places to live and those who don’t. By erasing the distinction, the volunteers hope to create empathy.

“Saying these people should go get a job lacks empathy,” Delaney said. “So after this project started, I could actually tell stories about people who are in these different situations in very different ways, people who were once completely functional in society and many who are educated.”

Saini sat with a woman who wished to remain unidentified. “No one really knows me,” she said. “People talk to me. People see me. But no one knows me.”

The woman was hesitant at first, but before long she opened up to Khan and Saini.

Delaney has been pleased with the interactions. “At first, I thought no one would want to talk about it because we would ask what they think about homelessness,” Delaney said. “The last thing we wanted to do is exploit these people. I wanted them to all have a choice.”

Once the volunteers completed their rounds, they return to the clinic where they transcribe interviews, edit photos and schedule posts.

“It’s important to realize that these are people, and you need to imagine them complexly,” Khan said. “They have their own stories, and we shouldn’t turn them into a one-dimensional character or just an image in your head that you view negatively, because that is not good for anybody.”


Top photo: Ryan Kacey talks to Student Health Outreach for Wellness volunteers ASU senior Chandan Saini (left) and junior Faiz Khan as part of the Humans of SHOW project. Kacey, who is originally from New Jersey, used to be a maintenance worker in Phoenix. Photo by Anya Magnuson/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU Now