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Changing lives, changing futures – the power of sport

Copyrights: Youth Sport Trust

Changing lives, changing futures – the power of sport

How can youth sport leadership (YSL) equip young people with the skills and qualities they need to thrive?

We often hear about the challenges of preparing young people adequately for an unpredictable, ever-changing future. With the current state of the world, it is tempting to believe that this uncertain future has very much arrived.

Youth Sport Trust (YST) International is a sport for development charity based in the UK, working all over the world to use the power of sport and physical activity to improve the lives of young people.

A core component of YST International’s work has always been its focus on YSL: from the BILD programmes delivered in 4 countries in the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa, to International Inspiration, the London 2012 Olympic legacy programme, through to its latest programme, working with young refugees in Lebanon.

Our YSL work has traditionally followed a pattern of training local teachers and coaches in the principles of YSL, mentoring them to deliver training to young people, supporting them to train young people back in their own communities, and then identifying and training those practitioners with the skills and capacity to become national trainers of other practitioners, ensuring the longevity, sustainability, and local ownership of the work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has required us to adapt this model to an online alternative, and has also given us time to reflect on the fundamental principles that make YSL so effective at raising aspirations, building skills and developing confidence.

Taught not caught

Our first principle is a ‘taught not caught’ approach. We ensure that, as trainers, we not only model key leadership skills and qualities, but we also name and describe them. This makes those skills and qualities accessible and understandable to all young people, including those who may not have had the opportunity to experience them in the past. Working internationally in many languages and cultures, this stage is especially important, building a shared and precise understanding of what we mean by a particular word or concept.

Emily Whelan, from Great Marlow School, participated in an international YSL conference hosted by the British Council in Bahrain. Here she talks about her role as manager of a sport festival for children that was planned and delivered by a group of young people from the UK and the Middle East as part of the conference:

“The plan for the festival my team came up with was that within the time and space available we were going to focus on five values, one for each activity. We chose responsibility, teamwork, thinking creatively, communication and enjoyment.”

This illustrates the idea of seeing the development of new skills and qualities as the key outcome, using activities as the tool for this development.

Providing opportunities

Second, we provide repeated opportunities for young people to apply these skills and qualities, using carefully designed group games and problem-solving tasks to test these skills in realistic situations. Only through repeated application do the skills and qualities become embedded in young people, part of their ‘toolkit’ for meeting challenges and solving problems in their everyday lives.

This application stage can be challenging for some practitioners who are more accustomed to seeing and ‘fixing’ problems for their students. Asking them to step back and watch their young people ‘struggle’ to find their own solutions can really change practitioners’ mindsets and influence their future practice.


Third, we ask young people to reflect on their application of leadership skills and qualities. We emphasise that the results of the challenges are far less significant than the learning that has taken place. As trainers, we model feedback that focuses on process and not outcomes.

After each challenge, we adopt a common framework for pausing, reflecting, and discussing progress, asking each participant to identify strengths and areas for development in themselves and in their teammates, before identifying different ways in which they will approach similar tasks in future. This process of reflection helps ensure that these skills become genuinely transferable from one setting to another.

“The Bambisanani Partnership gave me a head start into the view of being of service to others. Because of the experience, skills and confidence gained through the partnership I found that I was able to converse with people that were different from me in terms background, education or upbringing.”

- Freedom Nduduzo Khanyile, participant in the Bambisanani Leadership through Sport Partnership in the UK and South Africa, reflects on his development through the programme.

Articulating personal development

Finally, we offer frequent opportunities for young people to articulate their personal development, encouraging them to talk about what they have learned and how they have grown, rather than what they have done and what they have achieved. In this way, they are preparing themselves for their next steps in education, employment, entrepreneurship and social action, able, for example, to tell potential employers not that they have ‘done’ YSL, but that their experience as a leader in sport gives them a profile of leadership skills and qualities that helps them to stand out as the ideal candidate. While not all young people will go on to become ‘leaders’ in the narrow and traditional sense, those intra- and inter-personal skills and qualities are vital for their future wellbeing.


Kevin Barton is an expert trainer and author of resource for Youth Sport Trust International, who has worked at policy and practice levels around the world. He has a particular interest in physical, creative and cultural education and leadership.

For further information about YSL work by YST International contact


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Kevin Barton


Monday, August 9, 2021 - 20:38

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