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Sunday, September 24, 2017

If you suddenly saw a 550% increase in an investment, other than being baffled by your good fortune, what might be your reasoning for such a gigantic jump? I imagine you might start to think about supply and demand, more efficient assembly lines and maybe some forward thinking in research and development (probably from Israel). I imagine most of your guesses would try to pin down the technical and tangible reasons why big improvement happens and, in this case, happens quickly.

This past year I had the pleasure and privilege of being a first time basketball coach, coaching the Kushner Varsity boys basketball team. Although I previously was trained as a player, I had little experience in what they call the “x’s and o’s of coaching” or the nuanced aspects of sports. So you can imagine how shocked I was when a team that had won two games the prior year, won 11 games in our new coaching staff’s inaugural season. Since the end of the season, I have had time to ask myself, what accounts for the 550% jump in production?

There were certainly some obvious reasons. There was special veteran leadership, talented returning players, as well as some young promising additions. The majority of our team were experienced players who had been playing together for many years. We even had players trade off using a weighted vest in practice. But that still only tells part of the story. I believe the success of the team had a lot less to do with x’s and o’s and a lot more to do with what psychologists refer to as social-emotional learning.

Social-emotional learning (SEL), refers to the abilities that people have to manage their emotions, problem-solve, work well with others and all the other internal tools people need to get along well in the different areas of life. Just like physical strength or intelligence, people have different strengths and weaknesses in their social-emotional abilities. Similar to muscles and brains, these are things that can be developed and improved. In education circles, when students are taught to practice these skills, they do significantly better in their classes and score significantly higher on standardized tests (by some estimates 11 standard scores points higher). Even in the job market, employers consistently cite social-emotional skills such as “works well with others” and “can bounce back from failure” as even more valuable than more “obvious” technical skills. And most importantly, better social-emotional skills consistently lead to better quality of relationships and more resilience much later into life.

Whereas I am currently unaware of research suggesting that the cumulative presence or active teaching of SEL skills correlates with a team’s winning percentage, I can say from my exactly one year of athletic coaching experience, that approaching sports as a means of teaching youth to manage themselves better, collaboratively problem-solve and be gritty is an important perspective to promote. I am completely unable to share any of my own high school coaches’ offensive or defensive schemes many years later, but the constant barking of responding to challenge with a warrior mentality, of being able to overcome adversity because I can will myself to do so, has, to this day, helped me cope emotionally through a variety of life’s professional, academic and personal hurdles.

I vividly remember one of our first team huddles before this past season began. During a quarrel among some our players, one of our coaches intuitively and astutely shared that “it was through the adversity of challenge and wanting to accomplish a goal that our bonds would form a “brotherhood.” It was in that moment that the first questions were asked; What does it mean to be in a brotherhood? What character traits does a member of a brotherhood display? I’m not entirely sure we could have told you at the moment, but the answers began to uniquely and organically materialize. We responded to failure and loss by problem-solving our challenges together. We gave each other positive reinforcement for doing the right things on and off the court. We tried to understand the perspectives of teammates and practiced empathy for our opponents. We strove to never give up on ourselves or on each other. And I believe most importantly, it was through the brotherhood that the intrinsic motivation to have a successful season developed l’shma, for the satisfaction it feels to improve and grow, individually and collectively, for its own sake.

It was through the social-emotional learning of our brotherhood that the players (and coaches) practiced the skills for successful living. It is our hope as educators, mentors, therapists, family members and even athletic coaches, that youth will build their internal skills to be successful at the game of life. Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible to protect kids from all kinds of failure, even though we might want to. Or to steer them on the path that we are so certain is best, even though we might want to. By investing time and resources into teaching the skills of social-emotional living, we can give them some ways to figure it out themselves.

I want to thank the coaches at The Pingry School and Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School for their mentorship and friendship.

By Perry Bell

 Perry J Bell, Psy. D. is a clinician in private practice with the Center for Child and Family Development in Morristown. He has published in peer review journals, textbooks and other outlets. He has consulted and developed SEL programs with public and private schools and local and international aid organizations. Contact [email protected]