Developmental relationships are the secret sauce for holistic youth development

Sheila Ohlsson Walker, CFA, Ph.D. | December 01, 2021

Scientific research is clear that for all children—no matter their age, stage, or background—a safe, trusted, consistent and supportive relationship with an adult is a non-negotiable ingredient in the recipe for thriving. That’s where coaches come in. Among the major factors that promote youth thriving,  developmental relationships are the secret sauce for optimizing their full potential from the inside out.


In the language of sport, whole child coaches are the very embodiment of developmental relationships, which are characterized by the following elements:

  • Expressing care

  • Challenging growth

  • Providing support

  • Sharing power

  • Expanding possibilities


Educators to the core, whole child coaches take an athlete-centered approach, leveraging their presence, emotional intelligence, technical and tactical expertise, insight and wisdom to create learning climates of caring and challenge. They skillfully seize upon teachable moments to weave experiential learning into the complex and dynamic tapestry of tennis play, nurturing a player’s nature in an intentional way to spawn multi-dimensional growth—all during one of the most exquisitely malleable chapters in brain development across life. 


Indeed, when the overarching goal is developing extraordinary human beings through tennis, there’s simply no substitute for the whole child coach. And while our open skill sport may be priority number one, these coaches encourage engagement with multiple sports—which lowers injury, stress and burnout and enhances fun—which is, incidentally, the top reason youth stick with sport over time.

Multi-sport participation also builds physical literacy (the competence and confidence to move in various settings and value physical activity across life) which is strongly linked with “psychological resilience” (the capacity to thrive despite exposure to adversity)—both of which are priceless skills to ride out life’s inevitable peaks and valleys.


Across different sports, coaches and athletes, here’s the basic progression:

  1. Connection. It all starts here. You see the whole human being—physical, emotional, mental and spiritual—and strive to support them in full expression of their inherent gifts. Human relationships, in all their forms, are fundamentally about authentic connection and caring. In the context of emotional safety, trust, respect, consistency and appropriate boundaries, coach-athlete caring embeds critical learning via the strongest wire to memory of all: emotional connection.
  2. Competence. Connection leads to skill acquisition, which practice fortifies into a sense of competence. Bottom line: it’s all about the journey and research is clear on two things. First, getting better—at anything—is FUN. Hence, developmentally-appropriate progression plans for each player are vital. Second, having fun amplifies the odds of retention, the true first-place trophy in a sport like no others that pays dividends for life. (Side note: A study of youth athletes on elements of sport-related fun found that winning ranked #40 out of 81.)
  3. Confidence. Connection and skill progression leads to confidence. This is where the rubber hits the road! You help them see, believe and live their way into new stories of opportunity, ones they’d not have contemplated were it not for you. These self-narratives extend well beyond the court, fueling a sense that the impossible is indeed possible—when they bring kindness, character, growth mindset and foundational self-care and wellness skills—to the game of life. 


The Caring + Competence + Confidence progression takes on even greater significance for youth who have experienced adversity—a heart-achingly common occurrence—with nearly two-thirds of the population having suffered early trauma. The higher the dose of adversity, the greater the long-term health risk—mental, emotional, behavioral and physical— and the unambiguous headline of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study


Adversity is markedly higher in vulnerable communities, disproportionately affecting the young people for whom tennis may be the sole route to a new story of possibility and a family legacy of hope. And as whole child coaches know, changing life trajectories is all-encompassing—and sometimes, exhausting—work. While physical injury is straightforward to see and treat, identifying the symptoms of trauma requires training, insight, patience, flexibility, eternal optimism and an abundant supply of kindness.


That’s where PACEs come in. Protective and compensatory experiences (PACEs_ are the molecular-level offset to ACEs, and essential not only for those who have experienced adversity, but for the healthy development of all young people. The positive, buffering experience of tennis—strong coach-athlete relationships, regular physical activity through sport play, fun with friends, a healthy routine and an engaging hobby out of school—can neutralize the toxic stress response endemic to adversity with “upward spiral” biochemistry. Your presence may be just the medicine they need at just the right time. In short, you can help them return an ACE—with PACE!


This is your legacy, and because emotions and energy are contagious across the dynamic systems of relationships in our lives, your energy ripples out not only through their families and communities, but across generations.


Sheila Ohlsson Walker, CFA, Ph.D., is a behavioral geneticist whose research centers on how nurture (environment) shapes nature (DNA), and how we can create contexts in sport and school settings that optimize positive development and unlock the potential of our youth. A former professional tennis player, Walker translates scientific findings to equip athletic and academic educators with knowledge and skills that help young people build mindsets and habits that promote wellness and healthy whole human development across life. Learn more at her website by clicking here.

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