How to facilitate a juggling sport coach

Posted on 17 oktober 2011


As former amateur football players, current coaches of a youth football teams and academics, my colleague Jeroen Vermeulen and I have seen, both professionally and personally, many examples of how sport can have positive as well as negative impact on society and individuals. We conclude that the social value of sport, both positive and negative, largely depends on the sport coach. In our opinion, the sport coach is a an identity agent, whose social impact depends on his or her capacity ‘to juggle with  exchange materials’. How can sport organizations facilitate those jugglers?

During the conference ‘Sport as a Mediator between Cultures’,  Jeroen and I argued how sport organizations can support their coaches as relevant ‘capital’ – on, and sometimes off, the pitch.

Coach Jack

First, we introduced Coach Jack. We have met Jack some time time ago in South Africa. Jack is, in our opinion, a great example of the sport coach as identity agent for youths.

Coach Jack makes a difference in the lifes of many children. But should we consider coach Jack as an  exception? Is he a  ‘lucky shot’ within this sport-for-development program? Or is it possible to ‘create’ more Jacks? 

Bridge builders

Coach Jack is part of the WorldCoaches program of the Dutch Football Association (KNVB). According to the KNVB, a WorldCoach teaches children football in a fun and responsible way. But this is not all.  A WorldCoach is also supposed to be a social coach that teaches children life skills. He or she provides the local youth with information on important issues, such as prevention of HIV / AIDS and crime. In short, a WorldCoach is supposed to be a role model, on as well as off the pitch (van Eekeren & Bos, 2010).

The WorldCoaches program regards coaches as bridge builders – intermediaries that can provide social improvement. The WorldCoaches program is no exception. We also examined the Richard Krajicek Foundation program in theNetherlands. This program is enacted in deprived neighborhoods in Dutch cities and focuses on social and individual development through sport leaders.

These are only two examples of many sport-for-development programs that consider sport leaders or sport coaches as bridge builders. In many cases, according to the program goals, the coach has to contribute to peace, empowerment and social development in situations of conflict, poverty and deprivation.

Such social impact not only arises from interventions at group level, but also through personal development of individuals. And it is especially through the dimension of personal development where coaches can add value. Our studies show that coaches do have impact on the identity formation of their athletes, either in a positive or negative way.

What we will argue here is based on our empirical research with WorldCoaches and projects of the Richard Krajicek Foundation (van Eekeren & Bos, 2010;Vermeulen& Verweel, 2009;Vermeulen, 2011). The studies into the Richard Krajicek Foundation and the WorldCoaches program were performed during the period 2008-2011. Both studies discuss the meaning of the sports leader and sports coach.

We will argue here that:

1)     Sport does play a role in identity formation

2)     A sport-for-development leader and coach is an identity agent

3)     This does not necessarily lead to desired outcomes, but

4)     There are ways to influence those outcomes

Organized sport and identity formation

First, we will argue about the relationship between organized sport and identity formation. Several aspects of the concept of identity are important for our discussion. We subscribe to the view of the well-known scholar Erikson (1968) that an identity is a cohesive set of personal values regarding one’s life goals, relationships, and social and religious values. Moreover, characteristically identity is reflexively understood. That means that a person’s identity concerns one’s perception of self and one’s perception of one’s position in society.

Identity formation is the process of the development of the distinct personality of an individual. That process always takes place in interaction with ‘others’ in concrete settings of daily life. We also know that identity is formed in terms of who belongs to a group and who doesn’t. In short, identity inherently is about in- and exclusion. Participation in sport activities is an act of identity, an active demonstration of one’s identity. In sport, two types of fights are happening simultaneously: one is to win the match and the other is to demonstrate one’s identity. Concrete processes of participation in activities of sport always deal with dividing between those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’. In other words, participation in sport is about drawing boundaries that define identities (cf.Vermeulen & Verweel, 2009).

We take as point of departure, that identity formation of youths through sport activities is a battle, or at least a struggle. Sport provides symbolic resources that are used to mark and display different identities. The sport matches themselves – with two teams competing against each other – are symbolic resources that define identities. And so are skills in playing, age, gender and artifacts such as outfit (cf. Verweel, 2007). Organized sport activities for youths may provide secure environments to fight for one’s position, to show one’s skills in competition with others. Organized sport offers a secure environment for identity formation, under guidance of sport leaders and coaches and with clear boundaries (Vermeulen, 2011).

Identity agents

The role of sport leaders and coaches in the identity formation of youths is, in our opinion, aptly summarized in the concept of ‘identity agent’ by Schachter and Ventura (2008) They use the concept referring to those “individuals that actively interact with children and youth with the intention of participating in their identity formation, and who reflectively mediate larger social influences on identity formation” (ibid.: 449).

Schachter andVentura were originally discussing the concept of identity agent with respect to parents. However, the role of identity agent, in the sense described earlier, may be applied to several actors that interact with children and that engage in their personal development. Sport leaders and coaches are indeed identity agents, when they act on the explicit concern of wanting to be involved in children’s identity formation. Schachter andVentura add that identity agents reflect on their goals and practice, aiming to reassess and refine them.

Roles of sport leaders and coaches

As far as the latter point concerns – reflection on goals and practice – our research findings demonstrate that sport coaches and sport leaders do indeed reflect on their own goals and practice. An interesting finding is that they themselves describe their roles as more diverse than is usually claimed from the perspective of ‘established’ sport-and-development goals. The roles that sport leaders and sport coaches play not only are diverse, but also in some case are contradictory (van Eekeren & Bos, 2010;Vermeulen, 2011). The sport leader and coach is:

  • Enabler or sport activities
  • Instructor
  • Confidant
  • Broker
  • Gatekeeper
  • Role model
  • Border Guard

We found that there may be tensions between the roles of gatekeeper and border guard. The same goes for the roles of confidant and broker. The performance of these roles is highly context-dependent. The sport leader and sport coach enacts the ‘right’ role according to his or her sense of what is asked for in the situation at hand. A good sport coach knows intuitively which role he or she needs to play. 

The question arises as to what are the determining factors that decide whether the influence of the sport leader and coach as identity agent for youths is positive or not. We will not be able to go into all of these factors here. However, we found that the following factors are at stake here:

  • Social context and issues
  • Influence of other identity agents
  • Meaning of sport to the child
  • Quality of the coach        
  • Organizational context

Evidently, the interplay between these factors is complex and highly contextual. One may debate whether positive outcomes of sport-for-development, in terms of identity formation, are matters of sheer luck or results of planned intervention. We would say that it is a bit of both. From the perspective of sport-for-development organizations the last two factors, the quality of the coach and organizational context, are manageable to a certain extent.

Juggling with ‘exchange materials’

Our next findings point to an interesting relation between the quality of the coach and the socio-cultural and organizational context in which sport activities take place. In order for coaches and sport leaders to gain influence on youngsters and to earn respect and authority, they need to have and to use – what we would call – ‘exchange materials’.

Respect and authority are necessary qualities for sport leaders in order to function as identity agents at all. However, respect and authority are not given qualities of sport leaders. They are products of the interactions between the sport leaders and coaches on the one hand, and youths on the other. These interactions are subtle, and sometimes less subtle, plays of giving and taking. A good sport coach knows well how to play the game of giving and taking. But he or she needs resources, namely exchange materials, in order to be able to play the game.

Exchange materials come in different shapes. Exchange materials exist in physical form: balls, shirts, keys to playgrounds. And they exist as human capital: social position, part of network, competences, sporting skills. Good sport leaders may be characterized as excellent jugglers with exchange materials. Juggling concerns skills that can only partly be trained.

These findings raise a question: Is it possible, for sport-for-development organizations, to influence the (positive) meaning of sport leaders and sport coaches for identity formation? Our answer to this question: yes, mainly by facilitating the juggling sport coach. So, the next question would be: How can sport-for-development organizations facilitate sport leaders and sport coaches as identity agents?

Organization of sport activities

From our studies, we obtain the following recommendations about the organization of sport activities that would enable the sport leaders and coaches to perform their role of identity agent (the proces is represented in the figure  below).

The first, and most essential, notion concerns the importance of the local context. The meaning of a sport leader or sport coach is highly contextual. Many organizations might find it very attractive to work on standardization and sent their coaches on the road with a blueprint for their training sessions. Too often we found trainers working with manuals which come from minute to minute, issued what the coach should do.

The contextual analysis should result in realistic targets or goals, appropriate to the local context and sport activities. We, then, would recommend that these goals will be translated into resources that enable the sport coach to perform his or her role as identity agents. Resources, as we argued before, are rendered into meaningful exchange materials by sport leaders. We distinguish between two types of resources: human resources and physical resources.

In this way, the sport-for-development organization enhances the potential of sport leaders and sport coaches as identity agents. But this approach is only a starting point. It is part of an ongoing process, because ultimately the coach and the athletes have the most relevant knowledge. Therefore, it is important to have ongoing contact with the sport practice. Sport-for-development organizations need the flexibility to continuously reflect on their goals and resources to enable the identity formation of young people.


Concluding statements

By way of conclusion we argue, on the basis of our empirical studies of two sport-for-development project in South-Africa and in the Netherlands, that the sport leaders and coaches fullfill several roles while supervising sport activities with youths. These role performances influence children’s experiences on the sport field. Sport leaders and coaches are functioning as identity agenst, in the sense described by Schachter andVentura(2008).

We conclude that sport leaders need resources to perform their roles of identity agents. These resources are exchange materials in the interactions with youths. Sport leaders and sport coaches as identity agents are ‘jugglers’ with exchange materials. Sport-for-development organizations can facilitate the sport coaches by providing contextualized resources. However, the impact of sport-for-development depends ultimately on the sport coaches’ sensitive and intuitive use of these resources.

Click here to see the slideshow of this presentation.


Eekeren, F. van & A. Bos (2010) Academic background document. KNVB WorldCoaches Life Skills manual,Utrecht:UtrechtUniversity.

Erikson, E.H. (1968) Identity: youth and crisis,New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

 Schachter, E. P. & J.J. Ventura (2008) ‘Identity agents: parents as active and reflective participants in their children’s identity formation’, Journal of Research on Adolescence, vol. 18, no. 3, pp.449-476.

 Spaaij, R. (ed.) (2011) The social impact of sport. Cross-cultural perspectives, London and New York: Routledge.

United NationsInter-AgencyTask Force. 2003. Sport for development and peace. towards achieving the Millenium Development Goals. Geneva.

Vermeulen, J. (2011) ‘The bridge as playground: organizing sport in public space’, Culture and Organization, special issue on ‘The bridge – connecting, separating, organizing’, vol.17, no.3, pp. 231-251.

Vermeulen, J. & P. Verweel (2009) ‘Participation in sport: bonding and bridging as identity work’, Sport in Society, special issue on ‘The social impact of Sport’, vol. 12, no.9, pp. 1206-1219.

Verweel, P. (2007) Respect in en door sport [Respect in and through sport], Amsterdam: SWP.

Posted in: MVO en sport, Opinie