Dear Friend of Oakland Leaf,

Sports are an integral component of Oakland Leaf afterschool programs. Sometimes people are surprised that a youth organization with a mission of building a more loving and just community includes classes like basketball, soccer, baseball, biking, and lacrosse. But the truth is that our sports emphasis isn’t accidental or tangential, and we don’t prioritize these opportunities just because our students love them, though that is a definite bonus. Our objective is to use sports specifically to advance our students’ social and emotional growth.   

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a vital part of a child’s development. To reference the definition from CASEL, “SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

We are not alone in believing that sports can support youth to develop all of the elements listed in the description above. Last year, research report was released with findings demonstrating that sports-based youth development programs foster significantly more social and emotional learning than non-sports programs, especially for young men of color and youth in underserved communities. The research confirms that sports, when used intentionally, can support young people to increase their social skills, teamwork, sense of positive identity, and desire to give back to their team and community — all attributes that have shown to support success in school and in life.

The research made it clear that it is not the engagement in sports alone that creates these positive outcomes, but rather the ways in which youth are taught, trained, and coached. Below are just a few of the ways that Oakland Leaf sports programs intentionally support social and emotional learning: 

Relationship and community building
All our classes begin with check-in questions and icebreakers that support meaningful connection and mutual support.  We end every class with appreciations, modeled by the instructor or coach who acknowledges students for everything from dedication to trying something new to supporting a peer. Throughout the year, our coaches and instructors work to build a strong sense of group identity, group accountability, and camaraderie among students.

Healthy risk-taking and resilience
Youth can easily become overwhelmed by a fear of failure in sports, and in other areas of life. They may be worried about disappointing others or embarrassing themselves. We teach players that failure and making mistakes are important learning opportunities and inevitable experiences in sports and life,  for even the most talented athletes. When our students feel safe and empowered to take risks, they let go of mistakes more quickly, accept feedback better, perform more freely, think more creatively, and have more fun.

Discipline and dedication
We talk about how experts in all arenas of life, including our sports heroes, achieved their level of skill as a result of thousands of hours of practice. We create drills and activities to help players see their successes and improvements. We also support students to identify areas of challenge and set goals and action plans for improvement.

Self-awareness and social awareness
We create spaces (e.g. huddles and cool downs) for players to reflect on the outcomes of the day, their own engagement, what they learned, and how they can apply the lessons of the practice in their own lives. Students develop confidence sharing their experiences and perspectives and they listen to and learn from points of view different from their own.

Oakland Leaf is proud of our heart-centered approach to youth sports and we look forward to many more years supporting our young athletes to thrive on and off the field.

Much love,

Melissa Mendez Ochoa
Executive Director