Creating a Place of Belonging

At the end of the eight-hour school day, students walk through the doors and gates of our gyms, rinks, pools, courts and fields to be a part of the high school sports experience. They show up with a backpack of “stuff” they have acquired throughout their day: stuff that includes friends, popularity, comparison, teachers, being in, being out, academic content, who’s who, success, failure,clichés, boyfriends, girlfriends, acceptance, and rejection, just to name a few. The reality for students is that much of their day includes uncertainty, where they stand in shifting sand, where a firm footing is almost impossible to find.

Many students are looking for a place where they will be accepted. They are looking for a place where they don’t have to pretend and they can show up as their authentic selves. They want a place where they don’t have to try to fit in. They want a safe place where they belong. Dr. Brene’ Brown, author of Daring Greatly, states:

“Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Fitting in and belonging are not the same thing. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.”

When students are connected to an experience and they have a relationship with an adult who really cares about them, one who allows them to show up as themselves, belonging and a sense of security follows.

Think about your own playing experiences. Can you recall a coach to whom you were connected—one who accepted you for you and created a safe place where you belonged? If this was your experience, it didn’t happen accidentally. It happened because your coach understood his or her role and intentionally created that space. It happens today for students when we as coaches choose to be aware of our students’ deeper needs and intentionally create a place of belonging.

When a coach is aware of their purpose and creates this place of belonging and connection, it is called TEAM. When TEAM is intentionally created, students can walk through the practice door at the end of the school day and instead of clutching their backpacks, they can put them down. When this happens the conditions are right for students to experience more than what is on the surface—the game. When we intentionally create this place the conditions are right for deeper, life-changing experiences where work can be done collectively to reach a common goal; where everyone has a role; where students can be themselves and are also aware that they are part of some-thing greater than themselves; and where learning, growth and connection are the purpose.

There has to be more. We have to provide students with more. We have to give them something that will live beyond the span of their four years in high school. We have to get below the surface and get to their deeper needs were greater opportunities for growth and development exist. We must intentionally give students experiences that are about more than just the game and instead are relevant to real life; real life skills that are necessary to work through problems, resolve conflict, be responsible, strive for excellence, find value in mistakes and failure, help others succeed, be a contributing member of a group, and see life through the lens of possibility. In order to get below the surface where the learning of these necessary life lessons takes place, we have to be aware of our role in creating a space where students feel they can show up and be themselves. We have to understand what the word “coach” really means.

The very first use of the word “coach” occurred in the 1500’s to refer to a particular kind of covered carriage that moved people of importance safely from where they were to where they needed to be. Our role as a coach in 2013 needs to be understood in the same way. We need to create a TEAM—a “place” of safety and belonging so we can move people of importance—our students—fromwhere they are to where they need to be.

Every coach has the responsibility to create a safe place where learning opportunities can occur. When we create a climate of belonging, we create a culture of possibility, where there are unlimited opportunities and potential for growth.

So at the end of the school day, when students come to practice with their backpacks on we must remember the words of Dr. Brene’ Brown and be cognizant of our coaching purpose: to provide every student with a safe place to belong, one that doesn’t require students to change who they are; but only requires them to be who they are. If we provide this place, students will not waiver in shifting sand, instead they will have firm footing with a sense of belonging where it will be safe for them to not only learn a game but more importantly to learn the lessons necessary to assist them as they navigate their way through life.

The goal of high school athletics is not to prepare students to participate in college or professional athletics. It is to prepare them for life. Only three percent of high school student-athletes will go on to play college sports and less than one percent of them will go on to play professionally. This means ninety-seven percent of students who have high school athletic experiences will not participate beyond high school and will find little value in their acquired physical skills. When we only focus on physical accomplishments we may help students attain varsity letters, trophies, honors and awards, but we don’t give them the skills that will help them over the course of their lifetime.We give them very little that has any real inherent value.

Coaching with our sights focused only on the surface provides students with an incomplete experience that teaches fundamentals, techniques and strategies of a game. When we operate on the surface we settle for less and only define the student’s growth by game statistics and the outcome on the scoreboard.