The Benefits of Stress: How Up2Us Sports is Redefining the Role of Competition, for Good

Up2Us Sports’ Healthy Competition Module is Changing the Way Coaches and Athletes Learn from Stressful Situations

By: Bryan Kitch for SportUp

Let’s face it: Competition gets a bad wrap these days. And it’s easy to understand why. The world of youth sports has long suffered the strains of difficult coach-parent relationships, of misplaced dreams about athletic prowess, and of undue pressures on growing minds. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

And that’s where Up2Us Sports’ thoughtful approach to coaching comes in.


Part 1: Coach Across America

“Because we run this program where we place coaches into organizations all over the country, one of the first challenges was figuring out how to make sure that they were well trained,” explains Megan Bartlett, Chief Program Officer with Up2Us Sports. “And, because we care a lot about the coaches we train coming from the communities in which they’re working, the organizations (for the most part) choose their coaches, and then send them to us to be trained, and supported throughout the year. So we offset the cost of their salaries, pay them, and support them in their work within their organization.”

That’s all background on Up2Us Sports’ main initiative, Coach Across America, which has helped a large number of communities throughout the United States. A key question facing the Up2Us Sports team, then, was what could be considered general knowledge, and how could it be tailored to suit the needs of each, individual community? It forced them to think about what universal lessons could be taught, regardless of the packaging (that is, the sport through which the lessons were to be learned).

“What we found, however, was that there was more overlap than we originally thought,” Bartlett says. “There’s a greater ability for people to take a more general lesson and apply it to their specific context, in the right way, than we thought there might be.” Still, that doesn’t mean it’s always an easy transition—coaches attending trainings are encouraged to talk about their circumstances as a way for them to start connecting the dots, and learn how they’ll be able to put their new knowledge to good use at home.

“We’ll say, spend the next five minutes talking to your partner about your story, and how you might use [this lesson] there, so that we can give folks the opportunity to say, ‘I’m not buying it,’ or ‘this won’t work for me.’ That way, people have been more open to trying it, and we’ve been more flexible—we’re not saying, ‘do this exact thing all the time.’”

So, what are some of the universal lessons that stick out for Bartlett from the training?

“One of them is that relationships matter,” says Bartlett. “You have to have some skills to form relationships with kids. It’s not just that some people are better at working with kids—there are actual, hard skills and things that you can do to form relationships with kids, even if you’re not immediately gifted that way. You could be great with kids, and there will still be some children that are difficult for you to connect with, either because you don’t have a shared interest, or because they’ve got something going on in their lives that makes it more difficult for them to connect with you.”

She continues: “I think with coaches, people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to develop those skills—they think that just the shared interest in say, volleyball, will be enough to sustain the relationship.”

First and foremost, one of the things that Up2Us Sports stresses is that behavior is just that—behavior. It’s not definitive, and it can change. It’s also not a great indicator of intention.

“What we find is that kids who have a lot of stress in other parts of their lives develop behaviors to cope with that stress that are not always adaptive,” Bartlett says. “But, there’s a perfectly good reason why they have that coping strategy. It may come off to us as a coach as being obstinate, but actually, the kid needs to develop behavioral skills for all contexts. So, we look at everything as skill-building.”

That works for sports because if there is one demographic that is adept at learning and building skills, it’s coaches. “Taking small steps, and structuring activities so that you’re always adding a little bit more—whether you’re trying to perfect your foul shooting or whatever it may be—is exactly what’s needed to build relationships, and behaviors.”

Building relationships, building culture, building competence—all three are a process of small gains, of concrete steps. It takes a lot of discipline to become a good athlete, and coaches who understand the universal quality of this process as a means to success on and off the court are invaluable to the athletes under their guidance.

“If good coaches make clear connections about these skills, where kids might be able to use them in other parts of their lives, then you’ve really capitalized on the potential benefit of sports for an educational outcome—it’s different from saying we’re going to make you do the education side so that you can play sports. No, there’s actually a really cool link—kids who have learned the skill of discipline can also be taught that that skill is transferable to other parts of their lives.”

It’s that level of in-depth consideration that defines the Coach Across America program as a whole, and hints at how they’ve been able to build such an effective curriculum.


Part 2: Pushing Competition Forward

“Youth sports get a really bad wrap about a lot of things,” says Caitlin Barrett, Director of Training at Up2Us Sports, “and competition is a huge piece of that—I think that so often we respond to examples of really harsh, or poorly managed competition with the idea of ‘let’s just play for fun, we’re not going to keep score, everyone gets a trophy.’ And I think that in that response, we really lose a lot of the core to what sports are, and how sports can help prepare us for the higher stakes situations in life.”

Up2Us Sports already partners with a number of organizations who embrace this philosophy about competition, but this teaching module—a core component of their broader coaching curriculum—is among the most important, in Barrett’s opinion.

“I think it’s an entry point [for people unfamiliar with Up2Us Sports]. I think that folks who might have a more old-school mindset, who have a more traditional youth sports mindset, this module can meet them where they are and bring them into thinking about sports in a different way. People hear about us, and think that we must be ‘kumbaya sports,’ kids just play to have fun, etc.—but we aren’t.”

Once again, it’s a careful approach and thoughtful background that leads to results for Up2Us Sports.

“You might be trying to develop elite athletes, and you might find that they’re unable to handle the most intense moments—how can you as a coach be more intentional about preparing them for those moments, in much the same way as you prepare them with plays, with strategy, with individual or team skills?” Barrett asks, rhetorically.

Without a doubt, competition is stressful. But, when framed the right way, it’s a way to experience and learn how to deal with stressors without ‘life and death’ consequences—experience and training for real life situations, those ‘higher stakes’ moments that Barrett mentioned earlier.

“We know that 70% of kids drop out of sports by middle school,” Barrett says, “and I think that’s because we tend to view readiness for competition, and variety of other sports skills, as ‘either you have it or you don’t’—you look at the kid who ‘has it’ and then at those who don’t, and you say well maybe sports aren’t for them. But then, you lose this extremely protective experience for kids, both in terms of their physical healthy and their connections to others.”

Barrett, formerly of America SCORES New York, is herself a lifelong athlete, having played soccer from a young age, but also has a strong interest in teaching—in many ways, Up2Us Sports has been the perfect lens for her to focus her energies, combining her passion for sports with education. So much of the Up2Us Sports program is about approaching everything as a student. Hence, the interactive, classroom nature of their presentations.

“We do a little bit of presenting the relevant research, but in general we are working with coaches that tend to be on the younger side—they like to educate through games and activities, so we like to do that as well.

“The Healthy Competition Module starts with a game, and moves into an additional activity that gets coaches to think about how they’re most comfortable, in terms of how competition is structured,” Barrett explains.

This can take the form of trying to keep a beach ball in the air with your team, then adding counting (how many taps can you record in a row, keeping the beach ball in the air) to introduce a level of competition within the team, and finally adding competition against other teams.

“It gets them to think about how they respond to these different rounds,” she says.

As they move through the spectrum, they internalize the psychological changes that take place at each level of competition. And this helps illustrate the emotional continuum that young athletes face, while simultaneously giving the coaches the tools to guide them through it.

“That’s a really telling example of how we run these sessions—we’re going to do something, and then really debrief about it, not only as you experienced it while you were playing, but also as you look toward getting back to your program with your kids.”


Part 3: The Coach's Perspective

“Sometimes you don’t have to say to kids that they’re competing—the focus can be within the group, just trying to work together,” says Up2Us Sports Coach Across America coach at Legacy Youth Tennis and Education in Philadelphia, Hashaan Freeman. It may be a cliché, but thinking outside the box is an important part of Freeman’s approach to coaching, both from the standpoint of competition, as well as that of mentoring and connecting with kids.

“We’ve found non-traditional ways to be competitive,” he says. “Through working with kids, you get to know them, you start to understand what their context is, at home, or in the classroom. You get familiar in just kind of an organic sense. But there are ways we use specifically to check in with kids—a lot of non-verbal communication so that they don’t have to be super expressive, or reminded of their stressors. So, we’ll do a number of fingers, or hand signals throughout a practice session—I may check in about four times with individual kids during the course of that session. They can give me a number, or a signal that we both agreed on that will tell me something—I’m a tennis coach, so I’m always taking advantage of the informal time, when we’re done hitting, picking up balls, that’s when I can check in individually with kids, just allowing them to be themselves, with the understanding that this is not life or death.”

For Freeman, a 12-year coach, it’s about creating an environment where kids can choose how expressive they want to be; where kids can, in a sense, experiment with their own behaviors to find what works for them within the context of sports; and where kids can learn lessons about how to work through difficulties and make good decisions.

“These trainings have been wonderful—they’re great as soft reminders. Coach Across America and Up2Us Sports, their big focus is on research into how kids handle stress, and ultimately just being intentional with kids. When I’m working with kids, I’m open in that yes, I’m trying to figure you out: When are you comfortable, what are you struggling with, what are your strong sports skills, what are your strong life skills—just intentionally highlight these things over, and over again. And I think what’s most important is that these young people’s positive qualities are highlighted in front of their peers.”

What does he mean by that?

“There’s this competitive, urban thing—they might come from the same area, the same circumstances, but everybody wants to be better than the person that’s standing next to them,” he says. “But we’re trying to build more of a community sense, where we’re learning this sport together, we’re learning about life together, and we need to have each other’s backs.”

This is a lesson that really hits home for Freeman, who credits a social worker, who organized trips for the kids in the apartment complex where he grew up, with introducing him to the sport of tennis at what was then called the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education Center in Philadelphia. He progressed in the sport quickly, and loved the structure that it brought to his life.

“I was comfortable with the coaches, and understood their intent—they wanted to make sure that tennis ‘made my life,’ is how they might put it,” he says. “It was a lifestyle change for me—and it has helped me throughout my life.”

He went on to play at the DII/DIII level at Lincoln University. And now, he’s making the same difference for the next generation.

“When you’re that young, and making your own decisions, you might make some foolish ones—maybe you don’t have the backing in your household to redirect you, which is a constant reality for children growing up in urban settings,” he explains.

The choice that Freeman made, and those of his core group of friends, to use the sport as a lens through which to see and map out a different path for themselves, has paid lasting dividends, and the bonds that he formed with those friends have lasted, as well.

“I have a core group that stuck with it alongside me—we’ve been doing this since 1997. And within the next couple weeks, we’ll be meeting back up to plan our summer program.”

While some might not view tennis—in many cases, a one-on-one competition—as the ideal sport to build teamwork and camaraderie, Freeman views it differently.

“It’s funny, because I feel that I’m truly, truly blessed with the sport that I’ll say has chosen me, but I get the chance to build individuals first,” he says. “I’m a big believer that if we are stronger as individuals—if I have kids that can stand on their own, make their own decisions—then that will form a better team.

“Look at the whole line of integrity with tennis: If you can’t get to a ball, but the ball was in, hit by your opponent on the other side of the net, then you have to call it in because you have to be honest. You have to suck it up and move on to the next point.”

The whole may be greater than the sum of its parts, but that doesn’t mean that looking after each part of the whole is a waste of time—in fact, quite the opposite: it means building from the ground up.

“I have individual student-athletes in front of me that can hold their own, says Freeman. “Then, when I bring you guys together, when the collective is brought into play, I feel like I can’t lose.”


This piece was written by Bryan Kitch for SportUp’s blog. SportUp is an activity management and analytics tools that provides actionable insights for teams and groups.