Finding SEL Sweet Spots Through Rugby

Through rugby, young people can build strong team collaboration skills. Many people did not know that young people in New York City love the game of rugby, but one group, Play Rugby USA, knew it would be a hit.

It’s not about winning, it’s about how we get those points. Rugby is egalitarian – everyone plays offense and defense, everyone has to be able to pass and run the ball. This is different than other American sports where people have specific skills - rugby is about everyone having all the common skills. - Wil Snape-Rogers, Executive Director, Play Rugby USA

Started as a weekend program in Brookyln in 2003 for young people who are homeless, Play Rugby USA has grown to annually serve more than 2,500 young people, diverse in incomes, gender, and cultural backgrounds from over 50 schools across New York City. Three critical elements of strong youth-adult partnerships are at the heart of their recipe for success.

The way that we really create change and impact within the young people we serve is within a triad system with the learner at the center. The triad includes vital connections, the relationship between mentor and young person; competency and curriculum, what and how we deliver; and consistency, the reliability of the mentor to be at events that young people will be part of. - Ryszard Chadwick, Program Director, Play Rugby USA

This approach is important, as mounting research shows that strong youth/adult partnerships and peer-to-peer relationships are key ingredients in efforts to grow social and emotional learning (SEL) amongst young people[1]. We also are learning that these experiences can improve physical fitness, increase sport skills, decrease obesity[2], and reduce discrimination[3].


Research-Based Best Practices that Boost SEL

With nearly 40,000 young people in the Hello Insight platform, we have strong evidence about the key experiences that young people need to increase their SEL. These look different in every program. Here is how Play Rugby USA does it.

1: Engage Young People in Interest Exploration

Provide opportunities for young people to explore potential interests, try new things, broaden their horizons, and take risks in a safe space.

Play Rugby USA capitalizes upon young people’s own interests in the sport as a basis for its approach. Wil says, “The biggest thing is that kids want to be here, that they choose to be here. Many kids have identified rugby as a passion before they enter the program. But they do not join to become professional rugby players, it might be an indirect outcome, but it’s not the goal.” Others join Play Rugby USA to become part of a team and really enjoy working together toward a common goal. In fact, over 40% join because they want to belong to a team and rugby provides a fantastic opportunity for young people to work together and learn from one another.


2: Peer-to-Peer Engagement

Encourage young people to work with and learn about others with differing backgrounds and perspectives by promoting teamwork, group cohesion, and problem solving.

Group cohesion and problem solving are deliberate practices, both on and off the field. Ryszard stated that, “People join because of the community — kids feel connected, there’s a responsible leader, and young people see and respond to the security of that culture.” Rugby is about figuring out the best way to advance the team, versus the mentality that is more focused on winning. “Everyone is part of building the team dynamic, so that is attractive to some young people. Some youth don’t have adult leaders at home. We orient around problem solving and finding solutions together. We are not just doing drill after drill, we are focusing on the team working together.” During every session, there is a community circle where young people talk about their work and reflect on their successes and challenges as a team.


3: Goal Management

Plan activities to give young people the chance to practice setting goals, breaking them down into smaller tasks, develop plans of action, and adjust them as necessary.

Play Rugby USA not only focuses on building skills important for the game, but also for life. A typical day at Play Rugby USA, “starts with a circle of friends,” explained Ryszard. During the community circle, “youth pick a topic to focus on as a group and then they take it to the field and apply it, as they play together, like, non-verbal communication within the team.” In this example, Ryszard explained that young people would practice non-verbal communication during the circle time through a fun activity, reflect on it, and then set this as a goal for their collaboration on the field. According to Ryszard, coaches also focus on adaptive skill building, and on supporting young people to develop alternative plans. “We also encourage everyone to give input during circle time to improve the team, so we set aspirational goals, with both positive and critical feedback, to help the players get better in support of the team being better.”


4: Prioritize Young People

Build meaningful relationships by prioritizing young people by setting high expectations for them and inviting them to share their unique experiences and passions with the program.

Play Rugby USA has different strategies for prioritizing young people in their practices. “The tactic we try to impart with coaches is the questioning approach,” explained Ryszard, “helping kids to come up with solutions on their own.” Play Rugby USA coaches ask young people questions without providing the right answer and invite them to think through problems and weigh in on solutions during their community circles. However, positive youth-coach relationships do not develop quickly, and coaches require training and mentoring. Ryszard reported, “It’s about care, consistency, competency — do I care, am I showing up when I say I will, and do I know what I’m talking about.”


About This Case Study

Each year, the Hello Insight team analyzes the data in our growing community of more than 500 programs across 20 states to identify those that are supporting exceptional growth in SEL. Celebrating their success through the HI Impact Awards.

The HI Impact Award winning organization Play Rugby USA more than 2,500 young people from 50 schools across New York City in playing rugby, to empower and inspire young people to go forward and realize their full potential. Learn more about Play Rugby USA


  1. Roehlkepartain, E. C., Pekel, K., Syvertsen, A. K., Sethi, J., Sullivan, T. K., & Scales, P. C. (2017). Relationships First: Creating Connections that Help Young People Thrive. Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute. The Art & Science of Creating Effective Youth Programs (2017). New York, NY: Algorhythm. Doyle Lynch and Flores, K. (2017). Social Emotional Learning and the Power of Adult-Youth Relationships. Flores, K. (2018). The In Between Ryszard es: Building strong youth-adult relationships in an era of overscheduling. ↩︎

  2. Malina, R. Children and Adolescents in the Sport Culture: The overwhelming majority to the few select. ↩︎

  3. Neirotti, L. Sport Has the Ability to Reduce Discrimination Among U.S. Youth. ↩︎

Pamela Wridt

Pamela Wridt

Pamela has over 15 years of experience on a range of local and international child-rights, mixed-methods, and participatory projects in over 35 countries. She currently leads Hello Insight's services.

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