Kids First, towards a pedagogical sport climate

Kids First, towards a pedagogical sport climate is the title of a major study conducted at sports clubs to create a pedagogical sports environment 'on the ground.' A pedagogical sports climate centers on the child, focusing on a development-oriented, enjoyable, caring, and safe sports environment. The project began in September 2018 and concluded in April 2021. The key question is how sports clubs can establish a pedagogical sports climate; a positive and safe learning environment that helps children develop in and through sports. We spoke with Dr. Nicolette Schipper-van Veldhoven, Professor of Sport Pedagogy with a special focus on a safe sports climate at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences and Professor of Sports Risk & Safety at the University of Twente.


The project was conducted at 8 football and hockey clubs in four municipalities (Zwolle, Arnhem, Utrecht, and Rotterdam) with athletes aged 12 to 15 years. The innovative aspect of this project is that standard data collection methods, such as questionnaires, were combined with new methods like motion sensors and social media. The research was carried out by Windesheim University of Applied Sciences (Zwolle), in collaboration with Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen, The Hague University of Applied Sciences, University of Amsterdam, Leiden University, Mulier Institute, Kennispraktijk, NOC*NSF, KNHB, and KNVB.

How to Realize a Pedagogical Sports Climate

The aim of this study is to design and implement a support framework to create a pedagogical sports climate at the club level. In this project, sports clubs (4 hockey, 4 football clubs) were considered as living labs within their local environments. Using an action research approach (researchers actively participated in the change situation while conducting research), progress was monitored through an intensive mixed-method, multi-level data collection to analyze the local context in-depth. Measurements included focus group discussions with parents and youth members, interviews with key figures within the clubs and municipality/sports organization, and a survey conducted among youth members, parents, and trainers. This yielded a wealth of data on perceptions of culture at a sports club.

Sensor Measurements

A pilot study was also conducted using new sensor measurements to analyze social interactions for network analysis and to gain more insight into group dynamics. Nicolette explains: “Through the sensors, we can visualize interactions between players and between the trainer and the players. This interaction is displayed through heat maps. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were unable to conduct more measurements beyond the pilot at the club, but we aim to carry out these measurements through innovative research in the future.”

Framework for a Pedagogical Sports Climate

The results show that creating a pedagogical sports climate is not easy. This is primarily because not everyone thinks the same about it. Using the 'Youth Sports Compass' developed in this research, a framework with four pillars (which simultaneously distinguish and integrate) can support the design, implementation, and evaluation of pedagogical settings at a sports club.

Nicolette explains the compass: “The compass consists of four quadrants, similar to a compass with four directions: a development-oriented climate, a motivational climate, a caring climate, and a socially safe climate. This compass helps to clarify and work towards a pedagogical sports climate.”

Kids First prompted the availability, documentation, and sustainability of all information about a pedagogical sports climate through a central website where all knowledge, tips, tools, and the Youth Sports Compass can be found in one place.

Changing the Core of the Club: Kids First, Not Win First

Cultural change within a sports club is a long-term process and not a one-time action. The research has identified several essential principles for creating a pedagogical climate at a club:

  • Urgency awareness and organizational strength within the club itself (readiness check)
  • Understanding the rhythm of the sports club (aligning with their short-cycle process)
  • The change dialogue and pedagogical support of the trainer are important change instruments
  • Indispensable assistance from external parties in strengthening the club in cultural change processes (knowledge of organizational processes)

Unique Context of Each Club

The initial results show that each club has its own starting point and chooses its own path to what a pedagogical sports climate can mean for them. There is no uniform roadmap that 'works' for all sports clubs. It is evident that within clubs, 'champions' are needed who explicitly promote the concept of a pedagogical sports climate and thereby increasingly involve club members in the cultural change.

From 'We Always Do It This Way' to Behavior Change

Nicolette concludes: “Kids First has made an important contribution to the increasing attention for a pedagogical sports climate. We are dealing with a resistant culture within sports clubs that prioritizes winning. It should not only be about winning medals. This means there is much to be done to truly realize a pedagogical climate. It is not just a project but needs to be ingrained in people's behavior.”

To better bridge the gap between practice and research, it is recommended that future research appoint professionals (a club framework coach, community sports coach, or a club support officer with a pedagogical background) who can help reinforce the transition to a pedagogical climate at the sports club from 'outside in.'

“Together with additional results from more extensive research using sensors and social media, a positive and safe learning climate is one step closer. However, it is necessary for scientific reviewers to also consider the challenging practice in living labs and the flow within these types of projects.”