Sport Psychology and Olympism: How Research on Learning Transferable Life Skills Through Sport Can Help The Olympic Ideal Become a Reality


The philosophy of Olympism – the original idea behind the Games – is that sport has the ability to make a significant positive impact on the psychosocial development of young people across the globe. This article highlights how this same idea underpins research on transferable life skills through sport and therefore argues that this more recent area of personal excellence sport psychology research has much to offer the practical implementation of the Olympic Ideals. A brief review of the life skills literature reveals that we are only now beginning to answer the question of what factors facilitate development, and subsequent transfer into other life domains, of the more positive skills and behaviours that can be learnt through sport.

Sport Psychology and Olympism: How research on learning transferable life skills through sport can help the Olympic Ideal become a reality

Choose London today and you send a clear message to the youth of the world: More than ever, the Olympic Games are for you….Your decision today is critical. It is a decision about which city will help us show a new generation why sport matters. In a world of many distractions, why Olympic sport matters. And in the 21st century why the Olympic Ideals still matter so much. (Coe, 2005)

With London winning the 2012 Games, all things Olympic have shot up the political, social and, perhaps most relevant to us, sport-scientific agenda. Public exposure has become such that virtually every member of the British population will know the two-week elite sporting festival is coming to town. However, when asked what ‘Olympism’, the philosophy behind the Games, might be, many people would be hard pushed to say. In this article Olympisim will initially be discussed along with how the Olympic movement – through it’s educators, coaches and sports psychologists – might greatly profit from a clearer understanding of recent research on the development of transferable life skills through sport. Complementing the more traditional focus on performance excellence, the sport psychology of personal excellence is the Olympic psychology and bridges the gap between the Olympic Ideals and the actual application of developmentally appropriate sports participation.

Olympism – what’s it all about?

Beyond the medals and the TV rights, what is the reason for the Olympics Games and the Olympic Movement? Judging by his final pitch (quoted above) to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Singapore, the then Chairman of the London 2012 Bid Committee and now Chairman of London Olympic Games Organising Committee, Lord Coe has a good idea. His speech makes reference to the Olympics being about Ideals and about getting young people into sport. The Olympic Charter is more explicit; Fundamental Principle 2 outlines the individual Ideals as follows:

Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles. (International Olympic Committee, 2004, p. 7)

Fundamental Principle 6 goes on to explain the more social aims of Olympism:

The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. (International Olympic Committee, 2004, p. 7)

Thus, sport is not just an elite activity concerned simply with winning; it is also a forum within which everyone can participate and develop. This captures the essence of the applied Olympic Ideal – begun by the Ancient Greeks and passed on to the nineteenth-century French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin whose ideas were much influenced by the British Public School tradition of sport in education – that we can develop desirable personal and social characteristics through sport. The sound bite message from the current IOC President, Jacques Rogge (2004), is still very similar, “The world of sport is not separate from the rest of the world. Sport breaks down barriers, promotes self-esteem, and can teach life skills and healthy behaviour”. However, though noble and worthy in writing, this philosophy holds the great implicit assumption that, in reality, sport is firstly a force for positive psychosocial development, and secondly, that these positive traits transfer to other life domains.

Is sport always positive?

There is much anecdotal evidence, and some research basis, for the educational rationale for sport participation in modern society. Some of our most famous political and humanitarian icons have spoken of how they have personally benefited from sport at some point in their lives. For example, in his lucid and reflective autobiography, the former South African President Nelson Mandela (1995) also acknowledges the life skills he learnt from sport:

Running taught me valuable lessons. In cross-country competition, training counted more than intrinsic ability, and I could compensate for a lack of natural aptitude with diligence and discipline. I applied this in everything I did. Even as a student, I saw many young men who had great natural ability, but who did not have the self-discipline and patience to build on their endowment. (p.54)

However, alongside these virtuous illustrations of positive sports participation outcomes, there are also instances that highlight the darker side of sport.

Over the thousand-year history of the Ancient Olympic Games, perhaps coinciding with the evolution towards specialisation and professionalisation, the athletic Ideal (or arête in Greek) did not always correspond to that which is often naively portrayed in popular history. In Ancient Greece there was often no peace during the Games, no amateurism, and indeed, no fair play. Instead, status and winning, and therefore the associated negative behaviours of bribery and cheating, were often the most important athletic motivations.

Fast-forwarding to more recent times, research often reflects these negative character traits inherent in modern elite sport. For example, in his study of spectators’ perceptions of sporting ethics, McNamee (2001) found that 95% of association football spectators believed that disputing the officials’ decisions was a common occurrence, and that the conduct of professional sportsmen and women is generally, in decline. Interestingly, 70% of spectators believed that it was the increase in money in the sport that was responsible for the perceived increase in this and other negative behaviours, such as cheating.

Although there are a many examples of positive outcomes too, research into college student-athlete populations is also littered with similar findings. For example, in a systematic review of the student-athlete literature (Cross, 2004), there were 42 studies found to assess the psychological outcomes of being a student-athlete. Of these, only 8 studies found positive outcomes whilst 17 found negative outcomes (with 17 finding no differences between student-athletes and the rest of the student population). Furthermore, Priest, Krause and Beach (1999) examined the four-year changes in ethical value choices in sport situations in 631 U.S. college athletes. They found that at entrance and at graduation, intercollegiate athletes value choice scores were significantly lower than intramural athletes, and that both declined through college. This led to their conclusion that college sports environments decrease ‘sportsmanship orientations’ and increase more ‘professional’ attitudes to sport.

Beyond this reduction in ethical principles, student-athletes also showed an imbalance between their sporting and intellectual pursuits. Similarly, British sport scholarship athletes tend to have more exclusive sporting identities than less able college athletes, which associate with higher role conflict, lower career maturity and lower grade point averages (Cross, 2004). Furthermore, even when controlling for lower admissions criteria, Shulman and Bowen (2001) found that U.S. student-athletes under performed academically when compared with their non-athletic peers, leading them to propose that the growing gap between college athletics and educational values is a major, unavoidable, issue that must be understood and addressed so that intercollegiate athletics can once again contribute to the achievement of educational goals. Shulman and Bowen also suggested that organisational culture is an important antecedent of individual values and behaviour. The IOC as an organisation, during the public scandal that overshadowed the bidding process for the 2002 Winter Games, has shown that just because they espouse certain ideals does not necessarily mean that they adhere to them in their internal culture. Torres (2002) commented, “The IOC has to regain – or probably – establish – its relationship with the foundational philosophy of the Olympic Movement”. Wider than the scope of this paper the challenge is also therefore to bridge the gap between ideal and reality at both personal and organisational/social levels.

The fundamental question

Positive psychosocial and life skill development does not result from mere participation in sport; in fact the reverse is often true. Instead, it has been said that character is taught not caught in sport (Gould, Collins, Lauer, & Chung, 2002; Shields & Bredemeier, 1995). But, if sport can be positive, how do we know what it is that facilitates the developmentally appropriate outcomes of sport? Parry (1998), in his article on Olympic education, concludes with a similar concern, suggesting that there is no detailed Olympic pedagogy to inform the content, procedures and, ultimately, impact of Olympic education.

It is interesting that this research gap is not simply an oversight of Olympic education. In other areas of physical activity such as the adventure training or ‘Outward Bound’ industry, there has been a similar understanding of the need for empirical evidence to link activity and personal development. For example, Hopkins and Putnam (1993) commented that although adventurous experiences are generally accepted as an avenue of personal growth, there has been similarly limited amount of attention paid to the clarification of the change and learning processes involved. Moreover, few attempts have been made to assess and explain the effects systematically.

de Coubertin (1901, cited in Muller, 2000) himself saw the need to describe and test the educational process of the Olympic pedagogy. His understanding of the issue is expressed in his comment, “does (sport) really strengthen character and develop what might be called the moral musculature of the man? That is certainly the fundamental question”. So, rather than just simple participation, it seems as though something else is required in order to facilitate both the personal and social ideals of Olympism.

When we consider that the field of sport psychology focuses on understanding and applying how psychosocial factors influence and are influenced by sport participation and performance, the parallels to the Olympic Ideal seem clear. In particular, as Olympism is interested in development, the recent focus on ‘life skills through sport’ may provide insights to answer de Coubertin’s ‘fundamental question’.

Life skills through sport – a brief history

It is perhaps surprising to report that although there is considerable interest in using sport as a vehicle for promoting psychosocial development, very little is known yet about the specific content to guide interventions and applications (Petitpas, Cornelius, Van Raalte, & Jones, 2005). In fact, based upon a review we have conducted, before 1990 there was only one published article in peer-reviewed journals on life skills in sport, and there are still very few in general (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Results of PsychInfo search 1840-2004 (Keywords ‘life skills’ AND ‘sport’)

Miller and Kerr (2002) suggest that one reason for this paucity of research may be that the discipline of sport psychology has focussed mainly on the pursuit of performance excellence since its emergence in the 1920’s (e.g., Griffith, 1925). However, possibly due to high profile cases such as Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the 1990’s saw a growing awareness of the cost of an exclusive pursuit of performance excellence. This may have subtlely shifted the view of how sport psychology can also be used to develop the whole person, rather than just the performer. In recent years, this alternative approach is beginning to uncover avenues for research and practice that can be used to enrich the lives of young people who participate in organised sport across the globe, without compromising the pursuit of performance excellence. The position is one of balance:

If high-level sport were delivered in a developmentally appropriate manner, both performance and personal excellence would be possible at the same time. To take our position one step further, we suggest that performance excellence is attained only through optimal personal development. (Miller & Kerr, 2002, p. 141)

One example of optimising personal development is, of course, through effective life skills interventions.

The research definition of the term ‘life skills’ is in itself a particular challenge as there is significant ambiguity as to what life skills actually are with different researchers having different opinions regarding what constitutes a life skill. For example, UNICEF (United Nations Children Fund, 2005) define life skills as a large group of psycho-social and interpersonal skills which can help people make informed decisions, communicate effectively, and develop coping and self-management skills that may help them lead a healthy and productive life, and the World Health Organisation (1999) define them as the abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life. There is, therefore, a need to establish an objective and standard definition of life skills.

So, having touched on positives and negative outcomes of sport participation in general, what about the relationship between life skills for sport programmes and personal development in particular? Life skill programmes can be delineated into different categories; those that simply teach sport skills as a primary focus with life skills learned indirectly, those that are intervention and/or prevention directed to combat antisocial behaviours, and those that specifically target life skill development. The vast majority of programmes are from the first category and are designed to introduce participants to a specific sport or structured activity that satisfies the desire for belonging, physical fitness, and fun (Petitpas, et al., 2005). Although these types of programmes may espouse specific values or characteristics, it has been estimated that 90% of youth sport coaches in the United States do not have formal training in coach education or youth development (Ewing, Seefeldt, & Brown, 1996). Thus, it has been suggested that the inconsistent research results may be because few programmes teach life and sport skills in a systematic manner and that the majority of adults who facilitate programmes have no formal training in coach education or youth development (Petitpas, et al., 2005).

Similarly, although intervention/prevention programmes, which use sport to reduce or pre-empt behaviours such as delinquency or substance abuse, may include some life skills content, more central is the safe and positive environment that the programme provides (Petitpas, et al., 2005).

Finally, some programmes specifically target life skill development. Although relatively few in number, these promote academic, social, and personal development as their primary focus. They not only teach sport and life skills directly, but also engage participants in non-sport roles to enable them to test skills in different domains (Petitpas, et al., 2005). The First Tee (Petlichkoff, 2004), Play It Smart (Petitpas, Van Raalte, Cornelius, & Presbrey, 2004), Personal-Social Responsibility Model (Hellison & Walsh, 2002), GOAL (Danish & Nellen, 1997) and SUPER (Danish, Fazio, Nellen, & Owens, 2002) are examples of such youth sport programmes. Although rigorous published evaluations of these programmes are few, those that exist generally find positive outcomes (e.g., Papacharisis, Goudas, Danish & Theodorakis, 2005).

What then are the characteristics of effective life skills in sport programmes? Recent commentaries are beginning to provide testable frameworks, informed by best practices identified by youth development experts, of when and how positive psychosocial growth is most likely to occur (Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Larson, 2000; Pittman, 1991; Smith & Smoll, 2002). Petitpas et al. (2005) provide such a framework and suggest that positive development can happen when young people are, (1) engaged in a desired activity within an appropriate environment (context); (2) are surrounded by caring adult mentors and a positive group or community (external assets); (3) learn or acquire skills (internal assets) that are important for managing life situations; and (4) benefit from the findings of a comprehensive system of evaluation and research. The challenge is now to test and build on these frameworks in practice.

Transferability of skills to life domains

The first stage of the Olympic Ideal is to learn life skills through sport. The second is for the participant to effectively transfer these skills to other life domains. For example, de Coubertin (1918, cited in Danish, 2003) stated:

Sport plants in the body the seeds of physio – psychological qualities such as coolness, confidence, decision making etc. These qualities may remain localised around the exercise which brought them into being: this often happens – it even happens most often. How many daredevil cyclists there are who once they leave their machines are hesitant at every crossroads of existence, how many swimmers who are brave in the water but frightened by the waves of human existence, how many fencers who cannot apply to life’s battles the quick eye and nice timing which they show on the boards! The educator’s task is to make the seed bare fruit throughout the organism, to transpose it from a particular circumstance to a whole array of circumstances, from a special category of activities to all of the individual’s actions.

Regarding the programmes that have been developed thus far, it has been argued that the best way to foster skill acquisition is to integrate sport and life skill instruction seamlessly rather than attempt to teach these topics separately (Hellison & Walsh, 2002; Petlichkoff, 2004). Employing continuous learning cycles of sporting experience, coach or peer-guided reflection and then conceptualisation, followed by opportunities to actively experiment in different contexts may then enable a more successful transfer to occur.

One of the disadvantages of many of the current programmes is that they teach life skills outside of the sporting context. For example, the NCAA CHAMPS Life Skills Programme (NCAA, 2005) is more ‘compensatory’ in spite of sport, rather than in concert with it. It is our belief that those programmes that strive to use the sport experience itself, and which create an environment that makes the extraction and transference of learning inevitable in the moment, are the ones that will succeed in their educational task.

The future of life skills through sport

So far this article has considered the research rationale of how personal excellence sport psychology can be aligned with Olympic psychology through a clearer understanding of the sporting environments that facilitate transferable psychosocial life skills development. As we often find though, research rationale is often far from rational! Because this fledgling area is orientated more towards personal development as opposed to performance excellence and winning, interest and funding for such research may be slow in coming. However, the growing appreciation of the position held by Miller and Kerr (2002) – that performance excellence is attained only through optimal personal development – may encourage a more balanced perspective by those who hold the purse strings. Furthermore, the life skills through sport agenda also plays directly to the policies of a variety of governmental and Non-Governmental Organisations. For example, the United Nations has an Inter-Agency Task Force on Sport for Development and Peace and sees life skill learning through sport as a central tool in achieving some of their Millennium Development Goals (United Nations, 2003). Similarly, at a recent ‘The Next Step’ conference bringing together experts, leaders and even royalty interested in sport and development, one main conclusion (voiced by former Olympic Speed Skater and current President of ‘Right to Play’, Johan Olav Koss) was that:

We need to approach the issue of sport… in a more systematic way. We do not evaluate enough so we invite people to research into things like sport and development, sport and peace. We need to prove what we say we do. (The Next Step, 2004)

Finally, what more of a catalyst is needed than a successful Olympic bid and a proposed London Olympic Institute, with its Olympic Research Centre dedicated to promoting, “the ideals of the Olympic Movement through a centre of excellence for learning, research and practice” (Paterson, 2005)? Therefore, we might conclude that the current lack of research may actually provide a big opportunity within the field of sport psychology.


The Olympic equation is youth + sport = life skills. However, we have argued that it is actually much more complex than this. Whether sport constructs or contaminates character and psychosocial skills is less about the playing of sport and more about the dynamics of the environment within which the sport is being played; including factors such as the philosophy of the sport organisation, the quality of coaching, the nature of parental involvement, and participants’ individual experiences and resources (Petitpas, et al., 2005). Sport psychology is only now beginning to delineate and test these factors to clarify how the Olympic Ideal, through carefully planned youth development programmes, can become a more consistent reality.

The authors

Jeremy A. Cross ( is a Consultant at Lane4 Management Group Ltd, a BASES accredited sport psychologist and the President of the International Olympic Academy Participants Association.

Martin I. Jones is PhD student in the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Loughborough University.


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