Four Ways To Fix Youth Sports Right Now

Athletes and leaders met to discuss the challenges facing youth sports and how to help.

Numerous studies have highlighted the relationship between youth sports and improved grades at school, along with future leadership opportunities. Still, athletes with disabilities, families with lower incomes, or those without physical education programs at school still find themselves at a disadvantage.

That’s why LA84 Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to youth sports programs, focused the theme of a recent daylong summit on #PlayforAll, which emphasizes the power of sports to unite and cross boundaries of ability, gender, household income, or zip code. Olympians, Paralympians, college athletes, youth athletes, and leaders in the field from across the country spoke on the most pressing issues affecting youth sports right now.

Here’s what we learned.

Paralympian Kendall Stier and USC long snapper Jake Olson. Image courtesy of LA84 Foundation.

1. Small changes = big difference.

Minor tweaks can make a sport accessible to more athletes. Jake Olson, a long snapper at the University of Southern California who became blind when he was 12 years old, spoke about how his teammates and coach have made small modifications to help him be able to participate in the game he loves dearly. Trojans head coach Clay Helton works with the opposing team to ensure safety on both sides whenever Olson comes out to kick.

“I work with the holder to coordinate the snap,” Olson said. “It’s taken a little extra work for us, but the ability for [my teammates] to realize that I can do it — that I’m pulling my weight — it impacts them and it impacts me.”

Similarly, aspiring Paralympian Kendall Stier also asked for a small change that could make a huge difference for many other athletes from the disabled community.

“What I would like to see is these simple three words added to articles about 2028: ‘The Olympics — and the Paralympics — are coming to Los Angeles,” she said. Stier is the 2016 California Interscholastic Federation state track and field champion for girls seated shot put, 2017 CIF state track and field qualifier, and the 2017 U.S. Paralympics national champion in women’s shot put.

2. Bring back structured play at school.

The resounding message from advocates is that physical education in schools is the first place to start in terms of restoring access for all kids to sports, and, given the numerous physical and mental benefits of structured play, it’s “a social justice issue” when the opportunity to participate is limited only to those who come from advantaged backgrounds.

Two-time NBA All-Star and activist Baron Davis spoke about the “Beyond The Bell” program, in which the Los Angeles Unified School District offers free afterschool sports programs at its middle schools. It simply gives kids, many of whom would be unable to otherwise, a chance to play.

Program participants are active for 45 minutes per day, five days a week. The impact has been significant. Regular participants see improvement in math pass rates and aptitude and higher GPAs when they move on to high school, and the program actually sees more students taking part in sports as they get older. Nearly 43% of kids play more than one sport; this “sport sampling” has advantages over specializing in one sport from an early age, which studies suggest may increase the risk of injury and burnout.

Olympic gold medal winners Julie Foudy and Kerri Walsh discuss athlete burnout. Image courtesy of LA84 Foundation.

3. Let kids be kids.

Don’t let kids get burned out on a sport. Olympic gold medalists Allyson Felix and Kerri Walsh spoke about the value of playing many different sports at a young age and waiting to specialize until later in life. In fact, Felix said she thinks it’s what has led to a longer career in track and field. “Let your child find their passion,” Felix said. “Let them be kids.”

Walsh agreed. After winning gold but almost losing her marriage after Beijing in 2008, she spoke about how fierce competition can sometimes get in the way of what really matters in life. When it comes to her own kids, she thinks that allowing them to enjoy the benefits of play without a focus on winning is important. “If you ever see a child play, it's the meaning of life,” she said. “They grow through experience in their mind, body, and soul. I want to show my kids how to play with joy.”

4. Hire more female coaches.

Kids benefit from experiencing coaches of all genders. Data from a 2015 study by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association shows only 27% of youth coaches are female, a statistic that experts from the Women’s Sports Foundation and others are actively working to change. A panel of experts spoke about the numerous benefits for athletes of all ages of having experienced coaches of both genders — but particularly at the youth level — in guiding them on the playing field, court, or gym.

Ultimately, inclusion starts from the top — from leadership of sports organizations to coaches to athletes — and this sets the table for future opportunities for inclusion of both genders in the workplace and beyond.

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