In this paper, Fraser-Thomas et al (2005) argue for an ‘asset building’ approach, as opposed to a ‘deficit reduction’ approach, to youth development. Put differently, they challenge policy makers, sports governing bodies, coaches and parents to focus on the promotion of positive behaviour rather than simply on the reduction of problem behaviours. In this way, and in placing the developmental appropriate needs of the individual young person at the heart of what we do in youth sport (and I place physical education squarely at the centre of that notion), we shift our think to a “vision of fully able children, eager to explore, gain competence, and made a difference in society” (p. 20). 

Acknowledging that this vision of the fully able child may seem simplistic, and perhaps naïve, the authors argue that it is a positive step away from both increasingly expensive, competitive and elitist youth sport programmes and overburdened and unfunded inner-city programmes. In place of these versions of youth sport provision, Fraser-Thomas et al. propose an “applied sport-programming model of positive youth development” that (a) emphasises the role of policy-makers in assuring accessibility (regardless of socio-economic status, race, culture, ethnicity or gender); (b) highlights the role of sport organisations in designing programmes that emphasise the development of better people and not just higher skilled athletes and; (c) acknowledges the central role of the coach and the parent(s) in supporting youth on a daily basis. 


Positive Youth Development

There are a number of definitions for optimal youth development but all focus, albeit it in different ways, on the development of ‘good youth’. Such individuals are “said to experience more positive than negative affect, to be satisfied with their life as it has been lived, to recognise what they do well and use their strengths to fulfil pursuits and to be contributing members of society” (p. 20). The aspiration of good youth draws on enhancement in physical, intellectual, psychological/emotion and social development and focuses on different positive developmental assets which are said to enhance positive youth development . The National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (NRCIM, 2002) outlined eight features of settings (for example, physical and psychological safety, supportive relationships, opportunities to belong) that are most likely to foster these positive developmental assets. The Search Institute, in comparison, name 40 assets subdivide into internal and external facets across eight sub-categories (support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time [external] commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, positive identify [internal]) that can impact on youth development and the drive for good youth. 

The importance of both encouraging asset development (i.e. increase levels of support and feelings of empowerment) and minimising asset depletion (i.e. the reduction in a commitment to learning or an erosion of positive values) have, according to Fraser-Thomas et al., been overlooked in youth sport. Instead there has been a focus on the physical replacing the development of “physically, socially, psychologically, emotional and intellectually healthy youth [who] develop into adults…[who]…choose to contribute or ‘give back’ to civil society and in doing so, promote the  positive development of the next generation of youth” (p. 23).



Positive Youth Development In Sport

Fraser-Thomas et al. report on the wealth of research that highlights the propensity of sport participation to engender both positive outcomes (i.e. less likely to smoke, be more physical active, have higher life satisfaction, better adult career achievement, better community integration etc.) and negative outcomes (i.e. sport-related injuries and eating disorders, concerns with body image, perceptions of poor personal ability, burnout, acts of violence ad aggression) for young people. They argue that “two contextual factors have consistently surfaced as contributing to positive and negative outcomes and experiences in youth sport” (p. 27): programme design and adult influences.


Programme Design

Drawing on the work of Côté – among others – the authors argue that the increasing popularity/promotion of early specialization (through sports camps, instructional clinics, and other off season programmes) goes against findings that show that youth who stay in sport longer and succeed better are those who’ve had the chance to sample (aged 6-12) a number of sports before specialising (13-15 years) in a few and finally investing (16+ years) in one sport as they grow up. As such, programmes should be developed that acknowledge these stages and don’t simply emphasis improved skill as the key outcome of youth involvement in sport. Instead, designers need to acknowledge (and avoid) the “physical, psychological, and social disadvantages (e.g. overtraining, injury, failure to develop transferable skills, decreased enjoyment, burnout, depression, sense of failure, degreased self-esteem, increased sensitivity to tress, fear of competition, sense of failure, missed social opportunities etc.) of early sport specialism.  

Whilst Fraser-Thomas and colleagues don’t specifically allude to driving forces behind early specialism they may relate to the perceived need of national governing bodies and local sports clubs to maintain and increase youth interest in particular sports. Equally, when considered from a school context, specialisation may be driven by tradition and teacher interest. After all, a football playing teacher working in a successful football playing school may see little or no need for sampling in the extra-curricular programme (although this might be a better justification for the multi-activity curriculum than many I’ve read). The bottom line is, however, that youth sport experiences and outcomes need to be developed with more in mind than early specialism. 


Adult Influences

The impact of long-term reciprocal relationships with others involved in youth sport – coaches, parents and peers – plays a significant role in young people’s long-term involvement in sport and should, according to the authors, play a part in the planning of programmes aimed at positive youth development. When children experience “positive interactions, support and encouragement and less pressure from parents” (p. 28) they enjoy more positive youth sport experiences. Equally, when children feel entrapped by perceived parental expectation around participation (i.e. training and competition) they are more likely to burnout. This can be exacerbated by the significant role parents can play in early specialisation by funding their children’s involvement in camps, clinics and lessons and by provide sport-specific facilities at home. 

While coaches have a different role to play, their behaviour can have a demonstrable impact on youth involvement in / disengagement from youth sport. Those who display “more technical instruction, reinforcement, and mistake contingent reinforcement” and decrease “punishment and control behaviours” (p. 29) are better liked and create atmospheres that are more fun and develop team unity. When contrasted with the reasons why children drop out (i.e. less encouraging and supportive coaches who display more controlling and autocratic behaviour) it is clear the key role coaches play in positive youth development.   


A model of positive youth development through sport

The authors argue that policy makers, sport organizations, parents and coaches should promote physical, psychological and emotional safety and security under appropriate adult supervision which fosters supportive relationships and opportunities to belong. Positive social norms, efficacy and a personal sense of mattering should replace the promotion of masculinity, aggression and competition in child-centred, empowering, autonomous and personally challenging sports experiences that integrates family, school and community needs and ambitions. These experiences should be diverse and shift slowly (and appropriately) from deliberate play to deliberate practice. They should be accessible to youth (regardless of socio-economic status, race, ethnicity or gender) and aimed at developing better people and not just skilled individuals. Coaches should have access to relevant coach training opportunities and every young person should have the chance to emerge “as competent, confident, connected, compassionate, character-rich members of society” (p. 33).  

This model assumes two positive outcomes of youth participation in sport: sport expertise and recreational involvement and seeks to reduce the impact of one negative outcome i.e. sport dropout. Only by consciously designing programmes that promote the positives and reduce and eradicate the negatives can we aspire for positive youth development. This won’t happen by chance but an awareness in school, clubs and communities and by policy makes, sports organizations, coaches and parents of the enablers and constraints of programme development and adult involvement in youth sport can start to steer us closer to the path of positive youth development.  


This article is the most cited and 2ndmost read paper in the Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy journal.



Jessica L. Fraser-Thomas , Jean Côté & Janice Deakin (2005) Youth sport programs: an avenue to foster positive youth development, Physical Education & Sport Pedagogy,10:1, 19-40, DOI: 10.1080/1740898042000334890