Social bonding and team building

Written by Arne Öhlknecht & Stefanie Peichler (SPORTUNION Steiermark / Austria) and Anita Ahlstrand & Pekka Anttila, (Metropolia UAS / Finland)

© UHC Graz

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One of the key elements for young athletes to participate in sports activities is the sense of belonging. This blog opens up the topic HOW the coach can support the team building, create positive and safe training atmosphere and bring joy as well as good team spirit to the training sessions. 

The sense of belonging in the team is one of the main reasons why young athletes remain motivated and do not drop out of sports activities. A coach of young athletes has a big responsibility when talking about team building and social bonding among young athletes. Good team spirit and safe training atmosphere bring a sense of belonging and joy not only for the youngsters, but also for their coaches. 

“In my experience, there are 3 main reasons why youngsters do not drop out:
1: group dynamics and social environment

2: coach as a trustworthy person
3: the geographic distance between home and trainings hall.
Well the last one I can´t influence, but the first two are my duty to fulfil.”

Coach Michael from the U14 Handball Girls team at the sports club UHC Graz

Building relationships – building a team

Participation in an activity does not automatically promote inclusion or a sense of belonging. Involvement develops into the relationship between the individual and the community, and the conditions are created by supporting both the individual and the community. Building coach-athlete and athlete-athlete relationship is based on trust and mutual respect. When the coach shows trust and respect to the athletes, the athletes respond in the same way. Sensitivity towards the needs of the team as well as a single athlete is a useful skill for the coach.

Knowing the athletes individually, taking the time to getting to know especially the new ones and making them feel welcome help to improve the team spirit and cohesiveness. The coach can observe signs such as changes in behaviour and feelings or fragmentary engagement in the activities. The coach should respond as soon as possible by asking whether there is something the athlete wants to discuss with the coach.

For young athletes, the sports activities provide an opportunity to develop their communication and teamwork skills. The coach acts as a model for constructive discussion, guides the youngsters to behave in a responsible and respectful way and engages everyone in the conversation and thoughts sharing.

Practical tips for the coach

During the training session:

  • use team building activities at the beginning and end of the training sessions (see below)
  • co-create a welcome ritual with the youngsters (cheering in the group)
  • encourage and give positive feedback during the training sessions: it is encouraging and motivating to hear that you are good at something! However, consider that there are different ways to do so, and everyone needs a different approach. 
  • switch pairs and use group rotation to prevent the formation of small groups
  • give the team the possibility to make co-decisions and bring in their ideas
  • offer fun activities and freedom to choose from a variety of activities once in a while
  • enable moments of success for everyone and challenge the athletes in a good way, by offering exercises that are not too easy and not too difficult
  • hold open and constructive discussions and be interested in youngsters´ life and things that inspire them
  • use a lot of “guiding questions” to bring up the positive team spirit:
    • where did we succeed together?
    • what went well today?
    • how could we manage even better?
    • how did you help the teammates today?
    • how did others help you today?
  • use short feedback discussions at the end of every training session to create possibilities for the athletes to express their opinions and feelings and learn how to give feedback to each other in an empowering way. The guiding questions will help you here too!
  • in conflict situations, talk with the team right away and use the guiding questions again to ease up the talking and give a chance for everyone involved to tell his/her opinion and thoughts
  • talk with a single athlete first and then together with all the athletes involved, then the whole team and the parents, if needed

Before and after training sessions:

  • create ground rules together with the athletes
  • askfor regular feedback of the training sessions, activities and the coaching
  • take time to talk with the youngsters, also about topics that do not concern the training itself: How is school work going? How is the situation at home? What do you do with your friends outside the training sessions?
  • give everyone a chance to feel as “the youngster of the day/the star of the team” at some point e.g.:
    • every birthday, a youngster could bring a birthday cake to the training session and sit together with everyone after the training to celebrate

Outside the training sessions:

  • organize common events also outside the training session (Christmas party, summer party, carnival training, parents-kids tournament…)
  • member of the month event: once a month one randomly picked team member decide the special event they do in their regular place    
  • make the athletes feel part of the sports club (team photos, team wear, stickers, goodies)
  • present the team members on the web page/social media
  • once a month or 3 times a year a special activity, e.g cinema, hiking, swimming, skiing, camping, baking together

“Whenever one of the girls in my team celebrates her birthday, we take 10 minutes of our 60 minutes training session to celebrate together and eat some cake. Every time I can see that this binds them together.”

Coach Michael from the U14 Handball Girls team at the sports club UHC Graz

Using team building activities in training sessions

There are many benefits from team building activities: higher perceptions of self-worth, enjoyment, better team work skills and athletic competence, social acceptance and physical appearance. Based on studies, also coaches have noticed that their motivational and communication skills with the athletes have improved by using the team building activities. 

These activities include for example problem-solving tasks that require: 

  • engagement of each team member
  • listening to each other
  • sharing of ideas
  • communication 
  • cooperation

Team building at its best gives the athletes and coaches experience of fun, trust and acceptance and opens the door for lifelong friendships and memorable experiences. 

Safe and trusting atmosphere in team building

In a safe atmosphere you can make mistakes and try again, without being afraid of punishment or becoming an outsider. Promoting safe and supporting atmosphere during sports activities thus includes encouragement of trying new skills.  Then the young athletes are not ashamed if they do not succeed. When the young athletes feel safe, they can express their feelings and thoughts and try to achieve new skills. They do not worry what others might think in case of failure. 


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Stefanie  is working as an project coordinator at SPORTUNION Steiermark and gets inspired by working for the bigger goal; to help people to find their favourite sport and bring them to the sports clubs. Her strengths come from living her prayers – work life balance and sport help her to be creative and focused at the job and excite others with her optimism.

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Arne is working as a project coordinator in health and recreational sports at SPORTUNION Steiermark and is inspired by the energy of working with different people together to make people move. He sees it as a challenge to give EVERYONE the possibility to benefit from the health enhancing effect of sports. 

Anita is working as Senior Lecturer in Metropolia University of Applied Sciences and gets inspired of meeting new people, learning new things and long walks in the nature. Her strengths come from endless curiosity, co-creation, innovative thinking  and positive pedagogy.

Pekka is working as Senior Lecturer in Metropolia University of Applied Sciences and is interested in applying the research to grassroot activities. Pekka is motivated by the development and implementation of new innovations and operating models through collaboration. He takes care of his own well-being by mountain biking and by playing football and disc golf.


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Jakobsson, B. T. 2014. What makes teenagers continue? A salutogenic approach to understanding youth participation in Swedish club sports. Journal of Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, volume 19, 2014.

Super, S., Verkooijen, K. & Koelen, M. 2018. The role of community sports coaches in creating optimal social conditions for life skill development and transferability – a salutogenic perspective.  Journal of Sport, Education and Society, 23:2, 173-185.

Vermeulen, J. & Verweel, P. 2009. Participation in sport: Bonding and bridging as identity work. Journal of Sports in society. November 2009. DOI: 10.1080/17430430903137886