I often open these blogs with some kind of engaging (subjective) anecdote. Apart from personally finding this approach fun, the reason I do it is because stories capture attention. Narrative makes people lean in; it sparks curiosity and invites discussion, reflection, and debate. Today, though, I’m turning the tables: It is time for you to tell yourself a story.
Take a moment (or several), and think back to the last time in your life when you felt sincerely content, healthy, and fulfilled. I know…I’m pulling no punches, right out of the gate. Considering this time: What aspects of your life were the main contributors to that state of well-being? Alternatively: What aspects were missing at a time when you were feeling down and unfulfilled?
If I asked a hundred people these questions, there would be a vast array of responses. But what would emerge as a theme? What is the most significant contributor to our overall health and well-being? Career success? Daily exercise? Adventure-taking? Monetary stability? No, nope, *head shake*, nah (respectively). The answer: Quality relationships. More specifically, two related but distinct constructs that sit within said relationships: Connection and Belonging. The fulfillment of these two irreducible human needs is central to our ability to thrive. People who experience greater degrees of connection and belonging consistently demonstrate better mental, physical, and behavioral health. Zooming in, these constructs also prove to be crucial when it comes to sport: Without them, no amount of talent, effort, resources, or coaching stands to make a significant difference. If that isn’t grounds for a blog topic, I don’t know what is.
A Yabba-Dabba-Doo Time
To best grasp the weight and potential payoff of connection and belonging, it is essential to understand that we, as humans, are neurobiologically hard-wired to connect. This wiring dates back to the Stone Age when the earliest humans needed connection and collaboration to survive. In those days, you simply were not coming out on top of a 1 v. 1 grudge match with a saber tooth tiger or giant hyena (which, I was alarmed to learn, was a real thing). Sapiens who made it out of this era were those able to effectively work within groups; thus, the evolutionary need for connection and belonging was born.
Though these needs have a prehistoric basis, we have all experienced how they impact us today. The innate yearning for connection and belonging is so strong that many of us try to acquire it by any means possible. I’m sure we can all think back to times when we bent over backwards to “fit in” with a group; when we worked and worked simply to receive the approval of others; when we shed literal blood, sweat, and tears all in the name of feeling like we were a part of something (even if that something wasn’t actually of great value to us). I know…it’s the definition of a lot to unpack. Thanks a lot, giant hyenas.
Further echoing our own experience is theory and research, from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Harvard’s Adult Study of Human Development. Per Maslow, food, water, shelter, and safety are the only needs that eclipse those of connection, belonging, and the like. According to Harvard’s meticulous tracking of the lives of over 700 men across 75 years, close social relationships are the strongest predictor of happiness, health, and longevity, beating out money, fame, IQ, genetics, social class, and more.
Before examining the transfer of these constructs into sport, let’s differentiate between them. Borrowing from Brene Brown, connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued. Connection serves as an invitation to belonging, which is the practice of fully believing in, being, and sharing your most authentic self with others. Importantly, “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are. It requires you to be who you are,” (thanks, Brene!).
With that: Why, exactly, should we care?
The Power of Sport Done Right
When sport is done right, it is one of the best vehicles in modern society for the fulfillment of our core needs of connection and belonging. Think about it: Sport has the power to bring together countries (hello, upcoming Olympic cycle!), communities (have you been to Philadelphia??), families (Go Mariners!), and friends (Boiler Up!) across time and space.
Cultivating connection and belonging also proves essential for sport development and performance. Without connection and belonging, there are no psychologically safe environments. High-functioning team cultures? No way. Resilience? Wouldn’t count on it. Dependable intrinsic motivation or consistent, honest confidence? Much harder to come by. When it comes to youth and adolescents, the pages of research boil down to this: When they experience feelings of connection and belonging, they thrive. Youth who report high levels of connection and belonging experience benefits that can last well into adulthood, such as:
- Improved mental health, with lower levels of anxiety and depression
- Stronger immune systems and better physical health
- Higher self-efficacy (belief in one’s own ability to complete a task or achieve a goal)
- Increased empathy, and a greater ability to demonstrate (and elicit) trust and cooperation
- Enhanced coping skills, stress management, and greater overall resilience
- Better decision-making, including lower levels of identifiable health risk behaviors related to sexual health and substance use
Again, while these benefits should be of interest to people working with youth in any context, the transferability of topics like belief, resilience, decision-making, and cooperation to team sport is (hopefully) straightforward. For all of these reasons (and more), connection and belonging are both the cherry on top and the sundae itself when it comes to youth sport.
Work Worth Doing
To summarize: Connection and belonging in sport are really, really important. And while sport stands to meet those needs, sport participation does not inherently guarantee their fulfillment. I’d be naive not to acknowledge the reality that sport can also tear us apart (see Pagel family SuperBowl viewing, 2006) or acutely make us feel like we do not belong. With that, every key stakeholder has a role to play in leveraging the potential power of connection and belonging within and across athletes and athletic environments.
Coaches: Connection is the backbone of quality coaching. Intentionally creating a culture of belonging from the outset can not only promote team cohesion and performance but also put you in a position to effectively support individual athletes in whatever challenges lie ahead (on or off the field).
- Get to Know Your Players: Whether delivering effective feedback, checking in on an athlete’s wellness, or supporting struggling athletes on the field, coaches frequently seek a specific how-to for engaging more effectively with players. Unfortunately, I don’t have a manual. But all it really comes down to is this: Get to know your kids. Meet with them in pre-season to talk about anything but soccer. Start each practice by asking them about life off the field. It’s not hard, it’s just something we have to make time to do.
- Help Athletes Get to Know Each Other: Ultimately, we want athletes to connect with and belong amidst each other. Start off each practice with a random but genuine, topic for players to discuss (What is your favorite way to spend time off of the soccer field?). Task athletes to find commonalities with each other. Mix up training groups. End practice with shout-outs. Again: It’s not difficult. It just takes thought and effort.
- Safeguard Belonging: Cultures of connection and belonging need to be protected. Collaborate with your team at the start of the season on standards of behavior and respect. When you hear language or see a behavior that is disrespectful toward a group or person, even if made in jest, find time to take that player aside and address it.
- Model Vulnerability: At its core, belonging requires owning and sharing our authentic selves with others. It is, by nature, incredibly vulnerable (and, therefore, rather unappealing to youth). Be yourself on the field. Share your quirks, your interests, your struggles, and your coping strategies. Be (appropriately) open with your athletes. Show them who you are so they feel more comfortable doing the same.
Parents/Fans: The importance of creating a culture of belonging at home cannot be overstated. From infant-caregiver attachment to parent-adolescent dynamics, connection within families is essential when it comes to healthy adolescent development.
- Celebrate Your Kid for Who They Are: Putting your true self out there can be incredibly daunting for youth. They are far less likely to do so if they feel they are being judged by those closest to them. Voice appreciation for your child, imperfections and all, and let them be exactly who they are.
- Stay True to Your Word: Stability and dependability are big parts of familial connection. If you say you’re going to be on the sideline for your kid’s game, be there. If you promise not to yell at the ref, don’t yell at the ref. Within and beyond soccer, be a parent who does what they say they’re going to do.
- Invite Your Kids to Lend a Hand: The practice of helping others can be incredibly impactful when it comes to connection and belonging. Altruistic behaviors enhance empathy and, often, personal reflection, which promote the willingness and ability of youth to connect and belong.
- Model Vulnerability: Parents and coaches align here. In fact, all adults can support connection and belonging in youth by exhibiting appropriate vulnerability. Be who you are and own who you are. Failures, faults, strengths, successes, and all.
Athletes: The search for connection and belonging can feel really tough. And, as you’ve read (or as you’ve been told): It’s super important. At the end of the day, no matter what actions coaches or parents take, whether or not you will experience genuine connection and belonging within (and outside of) your team comes down to you.
- Be You: Belonging is the opposite of “fitting in.” Fitting in is assessing the environment and changing yourself so you are what the situation wants you to be. Belonging is about entering into environments and sharing our most authentic selves. Therefore, “Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance” (shout-out Brene). Get to know yourself. Value yourself. Know that you are enough.
- Believe You Deserve It: The biggest barrier to experiencing connection and belonging is the fear that we aren’t worthy of it. If you feel this way, share that sentiment with an adult you trust so they can help you work through it. And, in the interim, hear this from me: All of us – you very much included – are worthy, and all of us are enough.
- Appreciate Peer Authenticity: Beyond making the courageous choice to show up as your true self, recognize and value that authenticity from your peers (even, and perhaps especially, when it looks different from yours). When someone is vulnerable, strive to meet that with appreciation and reciprocation.
- Actively Seek Connection: No matter what opportunities coaches, parents, or teachers create for connection, someone has to be the first person to jump in. Raise your hand. Chat with the new teammate. Ask genuine questions. Share your feelings with and support others. Be a leader here in the same way that you aim to be on the field.
Connect. Belong. Thrive.
No matter who we are or what we do, it comes down to this: There is no substitute for connection and belonging. Quality social connections and feelings of belonging are the cornerstones of every facet of our health. As it turns out, they also lend us a number of advantages on a soccer field. But the payoff of connection and belonging isn’t experienced simply by spending a lot of time around people or having a large circle of friends. In order for us to truly connect and belong, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Alongside creating environments (on and off the field) that invite others to do the same, and appreciating brave authenticity, doing so sets the stage for all of us to thrive.