KU team partners with Indigenous community to bring positive sport environment to coaches, kids

LAWRENCE — University of Kansas researchers have conducted and published extensive research studies on how evidence-based positive sport environments help athletes learn from mistakes, stay with sports and experience more positive development. Now, those researchers have collaborated with an Indigenous community sporting program to understand how the program can be effective with underrepresented youths.

Billy Mills crosses the finish line to win the gold medal in the 10,000 meters at the 1964 Olympics. KU alumnus Billy Mills' Running Strong for American Indian Youth foundation funded a partnership between KU and the Zuni Pueblo to implement a positive youth sports partnership. Image credit: Wikimedia CommonsMary Fry, professor of educational psychology at KU, and Joseph Claunch, former director of the Zuni Youth Enrichment Program in New Mexico, previously collaborated on a study in which they found implementing a caring, task-involved climate in the football program at Haskell Indian Nations University led to higher athlete retention. Claunch approached Fry about implementing similar programs in the Pueblo of Zuni, a rural, Indigenous community. A KU Sport and Exercise Psychology Laboratory team secured grant funding from Olympian and KU alumnus Billy Mills’ “Running Strong for American Indian Youth” organization to fund a collaboration.

An article detailing the project was published in the Journal of Sport Psychology in Action. It was written by Fry; Candace Hogue of Pennsylvania State University-Harrisburg; Claunch; and Susumu Iwasaki of Fort Lewis College. Hogue, Claunch and Iwasaki all have degrees in sport & exercise science from KU.

The grant enabled a research team to visit the Pueblo of Zuni three times for several days each visit. Before implementing any coaching techniques or sport activities, the team spent time learning about the community, its history, culture, governance, art and more to build trust and rapport.

“When collaborating with a group, we know how critical it is to spend time in the community, get to know the coaches, and in this case learn about the Zuni culture,” Fry said. “This helps us create a genuine collaboration where we are building relationships and breaking down stereotypes. Without this approach, our efforts are meaningless and unhelpful. Our relationship with Joe Claunch was key in this collaboration. We hold Joe in high regard as a difference-maker when it comes to working with youth.”

The researchers then began training with coaches working with the Zuni Youth Enrichment Program’s basketball teams. They shared the difference between the common ego-driven sports climate in which coaches often yell, punish mistakes, reward star athletes and castigate those who are not as talented, and the caring, task-involving climate in which coaches encourage athletes of all skill levels, focus on mistakes as part of learning and provide positive reinforcement. To that end, the researchers replicated a study the lab has conducted on teaching people how to juggle. One group learns in the ego-driven climate, while another uses a caring, task-involved climate. The approach regularly shows the caring approach helps all participants learn faster and have more positive experiences.

The coaches also took part in drills and exercises they could use to help players. The article documents passing, defensive and layup drills in which the most physically skilled athletes help encourage the less-skilled, and all participants and coaches verbally encourage each other. They also took part in activities in which participants shared why they began coaching, describing family members or others in their lives who were influential in their decision to coach youth. Coaches also practiced pre-game and halftime speeches in which they focus on positives and encourage athletes to play hard while having fun, whether they are winning, losing or playing a more-skilled opponent that can be intimidating to young athletes.

In all, the activities were designed to demonstrate a caring, task-involving climate for coaches, give concrete examples of activities and approaches they can use with their athletes and experience first-hand the psychological benefits of the approach.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that doing as many hands-on activities as possible is a great way for coaches who may not have a background in coaching, sport science or sport psychology to get involved and see what this climate can look like,” Fry said. “These coaches have great hearts and want to make it the best experience it can be for the kids. They seemed to come away excited to help the kids, especially those who maybe hadn’t had many opportunities or may not be as skilled as others.”

In addition to the in-person visits, the research team had weekly check-ins with the Zuni Youth Enrichment Program staff to share new ideas, monitor progress, reinforce the features of a caring, task-involving climate and to help build a sustainable program.

“There is a truckload of research informing what youth sport coaches can do to help young athletes have a great youth sport experience. It was a joy for our team to partner with the Zuni committee and support these coaches as they were trying to implement these best practices and maximize their team’s experiences. We are so grateful for Billy Mills and his support of this project,” Fry said.

“Mary Fry’s research on creating a caring and task-involving climate in youth sport is renowned in the field of sport psychology,” Claunch said. “When I was one of her doctoral students, I saw firsthand how powerful and positive a caring and task-involving climate was for the coaches and the athletes that were experiencing them. That is why I was so honored and excited to have Dr. Fry, Dr. Hogue and Dr. Iwasaki, all people that I learned from at KU, come to our remote tribal community and provide a workshop for our youth coaches. I have participated and led many coaching workshops over the years, but this workshop was my absolute favorite. With the help of this workshop, all the coaches wanted to provide a more positive experience for the current generation of community youth participating in sport.”

Image: Billy Mills crosses the finish line to win the gold medal in the 10,000 meters at the 1964 Olympics. KU alumnus Billy Mills’ Running Strong for American Indian Youth foundation funded a partnership between KU and the Zuni Pueblo to implement a positive youth sports partnership. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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