Despite the strong belief in sports programs as a setting in which socially vulnerable youth can develop life skills, no overview exists of life skill development in sports programs serving this youth group. Therefore, the present systematic review provides an overview of the evidence on life skill development in sports programs serving socially vulnerable youth and, insofar as it was investigated in the included studies, of the conditions conducive to life skill development in these sports programs.
Potentially relevant studies published during 1990 to 2014 were identified by a search in 7 electronic databases. The search combined terms relating to (a) sport, (b) youth AND socially vulnerable, and (c) life skills. Eighteen of the 2,076 unique studies met the inclusion criteria.
Each included study reported that at least 1 life skill improved in youth who participated in the studied sports program. Improvements in cognitive and social life skills were more frequently reported than were improvements in emotional life skills. Only a few of the included studies investigated the conditions in the studied sports programs that made these programs conducive to life skill development.
Sports programs have the potential to make a difference in the life skill development of socially vulnerable youth. This conclusion needs to be treated with some caution, because the studies experienced many challenges in reducing the risk for bias. Several alternative research strategies are suggested for future studies in this field.