#24 – Empathy Through Youth Sports

"Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another"

- Alfred Adler

  • What is Empathy and why is it so important in life?
  • How does youth sports help kids to develop empathy? 
  • How do we deliberately create an environment where empathy can grow?
  • How can Empathetic kids and parents improve the game of soccer and elevate the sport?

"Empathy, which implies a shared interpersonal experience, is implicated in many aspects of social cognition, notably prosocial behavior, morality and the regulation of aggression."

Jean Decety

Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry, University of Chicago

Empathy as a Key Ingredient

Anyone who has worked for someone else for any length of time understands that there are differences between "bosses" and "leaders." Totally task oriented, overlooking the human elements - if the person in charge lacks empathy, employees are often miserable. It is said that when people are dissatisfied at work, they leave their bosses, not their jobs.

There is a difference between the "Boss" and the leader: Empathy. Taken to the extreme, a lack of empathy is seen along a spectrum of personality disorders from narcissism to antisocial personality disorders. 

We might make an argument that Empathy is one of those traits that act like social glue that holds people together in communities. It allows us to experience other important emotions like respect for others and remorse when we've done something to hurt someone. 

People leave managers, not companies."

Marcus Buckingham, Author and Speaker


The Youth Sports Advantage

Youth sports helps kids to develop and mature Empathy. From the first time they take a knee at a soccer match in respect for a fallen colleague, to each time they encounter the natural coupling of a win and a loss, kids mix and journey with one another through literally thousands of events each season.

Practices offer chances for kids to see one another push themselves - or not. They get to choose whether to offer encouragement when a team mate is down, or run past them. They see one another when they are making mistakes and may be feeling vulnerable. Kids can choose to taunt and belittle one another into action, or they can choose to lift one another to greatness. 

Kids take cues from the adults in their lives as to how they should behave. In the learning process, they try different adult examples on for size. They might try yelling at one another, calling out "wake up out there!" or "what's wrong with you?!" Or they may choose to take the shot every time, or to intentionally pass the ball to a team mate who needs to build a little confidence shooting on goal. 

Often, the kids show demonstrate Empathy on a sports field are the ones who bubble up to the surface over time as team leaders - even when they are not the most technically gifted player on the team. 

Kids can choose to taunt and belittle one another into action, or they can choose to lift one another to greatness."

David Dejewski, Coach and President of the Damascus Soccer Club

An facial image of the author


Positive Examples

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    Junior, a high school player, puts his arm around an opponent after a game who is clearly upset and says "you guys are getting much better - you’re going to beat us one of these times." 
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    A team's mom reports to the opponent's coach and tells him that she loves their team and sometimes finds herself rooting for them. 
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    Everyone takes a knee for a fallen colleague - even though the referee has not called a stoppage of play. 
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    A 9 year old stops after accidentally knocking over an opponent, turns around, reaches out a hand, and lifts the opponent form the ground for the first time

Negative Examples

  • Hand clapping in the direction of an opponent in a way that is clearly meant to evoke a negative reaction to a referee's call
  • Leaving a team mate to suffer alone
  • Walking away when there is work to be done
  • Name calling
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    Displays of superiority in the face of a win


  • Immediate Verbal Recognition
  • Team Bench Chats
  • End of Season Party Awards
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    Club Acknolwegdments
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    Club Leaderboards for Integrity
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    Newsletter Articles
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    Patches to Wear on Spirit-wear or Uniform Items
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    Letter or Email to Parents
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    Ability to Wear a Captain's Arm Band
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    Other Bling for Season Over-all Empathy award (like a custom ball, headband, or juggling training tool)

Create The Environment

The examples we provide to our kids, the behaviors we encourage and respect, and the behaviors we call out as ones not to follow - all influence our kids behavior in the future. It's important to show that we ourselves have empathy, and call out when empathy is active in the environment around us. 

Youth sports creates thousands of teachable moments. We can either recognize those moments and capitalize on them, or we can ignore then, take them for granted, and let them slip by unnoticed. This is our call. 

Being deliberate about developing character in the youth sports environment requires us to take action, put pen to paper, socialize the concept, bring the theory onto the field, reward positive behaviors, and go back to do it all again. What follows is a four step process for creating an environment where empathy is deliberately encouraged to grow. 

Clarify the Principle

Getting clear about the specific behaviors you want to celebrate in the youth sports environment is a critical first step. Getting this in writing empowers your organization to get it into parent manuals and coach's training. Clarity around the subject of integrity will mature over time, but step 1 is to just get started. 

Look for Opportunity

Once the picture is clearly written down and baked into coach's training and parent guides, we need to be on the lookout for example behaviors. Identifying them and not taking them for granted is an important step. Once we recognize these behaviors in the youth sports environment, it's time to act. 

Reward Behavior

Coaches and parents should be empowered to take action to reward behaviors spelled out in step 1. This may be through immediate verbal rewards, patches, or even submitting email about the behavior so it can be recognized in newsletters and at end-of-season parties. The point is to reward the behaviors we want to see more of. 

Be Consistent

Consistency is the thing that gives a development program like this life and longevity. Consistency across coaches, between parents, and over time is needed or the program can devolve into a spaghetti mess of loose threads. Getting this in writing and reviewing it annually is a great way to ensure consistency. 

Resources For Listeners of This Episode

  • Decety, Jean. “The Neurodevelopment of Empathy in Humans.” Developmental Neuroscience, S. Karger AG, Dec. 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3021497/.
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    “Marcus Buckingham's Website.” Marcus Buckingham, www.marcusbuckingham.com/.

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The Soccer Sidelines

Soccer Dad, Coach, and Club President who is devoted to developing kids and their families. With a diverse background in leadership in other settings, David is focused on empowering parents, players, and coaches to focus on the stuff that really matters in youth sports.