Rugby and life skills

Why do you bring your child to rugby? It can hurt. Bones get broken. You’ll wipe tears and snot. You’ll spend countless hours standing in the cold and wet, never mind driving to all corners of the county on a Sunday morning when you could be having a lie-in, reading the papers. Then there’s the cost of kit and the mud all over your bathroom.

These quotes from a young man and his Dad might help explain some of it. Steve (not his real name), a clever but challenging 16-year-old, wrote this to a coach:

I could never describe the meaning and influence you have had on my life and the rest of the lads’ lives. It goes far beyond the realms of the sporting arena. True, you have developed some excellent players in the time you have coached us, however it would be just as if not more justified to say that you have developed the lads’ characters just as much.


This exemplifies to me my whole point of it being more than [sport] that you coached us on. And in no way to make this melodramatic, it was the making of me.

His Dad, wrote:

What’s to say? I could never have imagined, at the start of this, the journey we would travel. What you have done for, and with, [Steve] will be with him, and me, forever. He completely gets the difference you have made for him.

I’ve asked the question ‘why do you bring your child to rugby?’ to a lot of parents and many of them have told me about the life skills they believe rugby can help foster in young people. Skills like teamwork, leadership, and communication all get mentioned but the one I’m choosing to focus on is self-confidence.

Self-confidence has been consistently shown to correlate with successful performance in many areas of life. Back in the 70s and 80s, the eminent psychologist Albert Bandura developed a theory of self-confidence. Among a whole range of experiments Bandura and colleagues showed that confident individuals remain persistent when faced with adversity by focusing on the process of what they do (e.g. getting better at passing), whereas less-confident individuals are more likely to blame their own inadequacies and give up. Martin Seligman, a former President of the American Psychological Association, developed the concept of ‘attributional style’ to explain how optimism or pessimism can develop in individuals in situations where they experience adversity. Attributional style is what we tell ourselves when things happen to us. Individuals exhibiting a pessimistic style can believe that the adversity is:

  • Permanent for example ‘I’m never going to kick a goal’
  • Pervasive: e.g. ‘I’m rubbish at all sports, I’m just not athletic at all’
  • Personalg. ‘It’s my fault we lost, I can’t play this sport’

Whereas optimistic thinking tends to treat adversity as:

  • Temporaryg. ‘OK, I missed that one but if I keep trying I might get one’
  • Specificg. ‘I’m a bit small for a forward but perhaps I can play well in another position
  • Impersonalg. ‘Yeah, we lost, but we didn’t play well as a team’.

Seligman and his colleagues went on to show that

  • optimism and pessimism is a learned trait and dependent on the social environment;
  • that parents (especially mothers) and teachers have the most influence on attributional style
  • that an optimistic style helps us be persistent, resilient, and means we’re more likely to remain positive in the face of adversity.

Other research also shows that coaches have the most influence on the experience and learning that a child undergoes when participating in sport (Smoll & Smith, 1993). In preliminary research for this intervention I interviewed a number of young rugby players, their parents, coaches, and a teacher to try to identify behavioural traits that they hoped might be enhanced by participation in youth rugby union. The decision to focus on optimism as the focus of this intervention is influenced by the relatively robust literature linking optimism to self-esteem, self-efficacy, persistence, and resilience – all traits and behaviours that were valued by participants, parents, and coaches in my preliminary research. Also, the literature suggests that optimism is a learned trait that can be influenced by parents and teachers (and coaches), thus providing a potentially valuable outcome from an approach to coaching designed to foster and optimistic worldview in young people.

My coaching philosophy and style is intended to help kids develop self-confidence (among other things). I have had to learn to think differently in order to maintain this style (and not always successfully!) – and unlearn a lot of thinking and behaviours that really did not fit with that intention. Steve, his Dad and I think coaches can help our kids become more self-confident, not just at rugby, but in other areas of their life as well. But there’s very little properly-researched evidence to support that view and even less on how best to try to do it. The research I’m engaged in is aimed at creating evidence to support that ‘common-sense’ point of view and also to establish ways of helping coaches and parents do it more effectively. I could use your help. Let me know if you’re interested:

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