The Social and Emotional Benefits of Playing Soccer Last Far Beyond the Field
By Olutope Aghedo
“Sir, we have as many people as possible among us who want to play soccer. We need you to be our coach. It makes us happy. It will help us,” Melvin, a new student, said in the middle of a classroom lesson. I saw the passion on the face of a young boy. The sincerity with which he spoke moved me to tears. “Sir, I would love to be your coach; I want to be,” I replied. I wondered how Melvin knew I have a love for soccer even in the very first week of school.
September 20th was my first day as a soccer coach. To my surprise, there was a huge turnout of excited students, more than enough to make a soccer team. Soon after we started practice, Melvin and other students’ grades began to improve. The attitudes of these students also changed, and they became more receptive to learning.
Melvin’s zeal for soccer took me down memory lane, when I was a kid in high school. I remember times when I could not concentrate in class; my participation in soccer helped calm me down by allowing me to expel excess energy so that I could focus. Playing soccer also helped to reduce my anxiety and improved my sleep, cognitive function, and memory. Understanding and retaining skills was easier. I’m not alone. Research shows that physical activities can improve brain health, and for me, it did. Although I spent a lot of time practicing on the team, I was also ranked the top science student in my class.
My own and my students’ experiences are proof that structured time built into the school day for activities, like soccer, that help improve emotional and social wellness is critically important. At my school, we have a built-in, daily advisory period in which teachers and students interact in an activity mandated by the administration. Students often complain that these activities are boring. We can do better. Advisory time should be redesigned so that students can make their own choices about what they need. Engaging in activities students enjoy will energize them for learning for the rest of the day and boost social and emotional skills.
When students interact with each other beyond the four walls of the classroom, in clubs and sports, they build positive relationships that motivate them to learn and lead. This has been a key to my classroom success for years: students wanting to listen and learn because they know I care and believe in them having agency. Research shows that when people care for each other, the frontal lobe of the brain can release oxytocin chemicals, which help to facilitate trust and connections that can help students learn.
Teachers can also benefit from offering and engaging in activities that boost our social and emotional health. Having time with students beyond teaching classroom content allows me to take a break from a demanding workload. When I coach soccer, I feel calmer even several hours afterwards. However, I also worry that I will not have enough time in my day to continue coaching. Teachers, like students, need structured time built into their school day for activities that provide us with much-needed social and emotional support.
Connecting with students like Melvin and building relationships with them through activities like soccer benefits all of us. The rewards are obvious: emotional balance, mental alacrity, and academic success. When students and teachers have time to dedicate to these activities, the entire classroom community benefits, and school becomes a place where everyone wants to be.
Olutope Aghedo is a 9th grade teacher and departmental chair (2021/2022), HISD T-TESS Ambassador (20222/2023) at South Early College in Houston, Texas and a 2022–2023 Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellow.