If you are not familiar with the Aspen Institute's Project Play, here is a quick low down. This platform was established by the Sport and Society Program in 2013. The PP's next Summit, supported by Michelle Obama, among other well-known advocates, will take place this May, to discuss more ways to lower the overwhelming dropout rate in youth sports. The program promotes 8 core strategies, including a global push for "physical literacy" -- the understanding and motivation to live a continuously healthy, active lifestyle.
On the surface, it may not seem injurious when children quit youth sport activities. But in fact, there are dire, long term consequences for physical inactivity and withdrawal from sport-related socialization. As a consultant with youth athletes, every day I hear personal stories of both triumph and defeat. My athletes and I discuss how to handle their nerves, how to focus and refocus after a mistake, methods for better coach-athlete communications skills, relaxation, visualization and so forth.
But, even with the aforementioned recognized techniques, there is one concept, a simple question that seems to relieve the most pressure. I simply ask; "Do you think other people are nervous in sport?" And with the distinct blank stare and catered moment of silence, I am able to share: "Even the most famous, professional athletes suffer from butterflies." Their shoulders drop and faces light up. This is often when I gain their undivided attention.
Our young athletes want to hear that they are not alone. Youth athletes, no matter what level, amount of talent, or potential they possess, all want to be part of a group. One of the largest detractors from sport is when a teammate quits. Losing players depletes the nourishing camaraderie of a team dynamic.
It has taken distance -- getting deep into my career and far out of the sport of gymnastics -- to realize the impact of having the company of peer athletes. Competing in a sport since age 6, and always being part of a team, I never realized how many components of wellness were carved into my pre-teen, teenage, and collegiate journey. 30 plus hours-a-week were automatically planned, which included exercise, positive social interactions, and purposeful practice. In addition, other critical life skills were developed, such as paramount eating and sound sleeping habits.
The camaraderie of a bonded group is not only motivating and energizing, it relieves stress and potentially prolongs life. Although there are several factors that play into the longevity of one's life, research has shown community, as well as life-partnership, to be a significant part of extended wellness. Yet, today's digital age of distraction and immediate selfie-gratification competes with motivation for youth to remain physically active via group sports. So, is it still possible to provide an attractive path to sport-based fitness, enticing enough to hold our children's interest? This month's Project Play Summit will explore the question at a global level, while youth coaches and parents, can take action locally. Here's how to start:
Brainstorm your "team."
Think: What types of people have helped you to aggressively go after a goal or to stay on the right track in your life? Who were your formal and informal mentors? Gather a small cadre of upbeat, motivating people to "adopt" your team or youth group. For example, parents can contact successful, local teen athletes to make guest appearances at a "free-play" session. Importantly, connect with people involved in healthy, active lifestyles who will benefit your child's future (and yours too!).
The weight of gathering a group does not have to solely fall on you; get a partner. Designated team duties also help teamwork to be most effective. For example, put someone in charge of arranging a free-play day, another one in charge of exercise drills, equipment, and so forth. Coaches can have their team cross-train in other sports. I still remember doing off-season cardio training with the basketball team (quite a sight to see tiny gymnasts amidst the near 7-footers!). Not only was this a motivational experience, but it also became a lasting memory.
Envision an elite win-win cycle
Elite or teen athletes can also individually mentor younger children. This is a win-win for both the mature athlete and the youngest members of a sport. Often, experienced athletes hit their own motivational roadblocks, possibly bogged down by nerves or extended commitments. "Giving back" to younger athletes can help mature athletes clarify goals, and remind them of their roots and passion in their sport. Younger generations will thrive in the company of accessible, face-to-face role models, in contrast to the sound bite messaging from national sports icons.
Parents and Coaches -- Get yourself out there!
Try not to talk the talk, if you do not walk the walk. Teens, especially, will eschew comments and suggestions pertaining to sport/fitness when proffered by someone living a stagnant life on the sideline. Instead, remain in shape and involved in a competitive sport, if possible. Not only will you present as a credible role model, but your empathy and respect will grow for children as they personally face sport-related milestones.
Make compassion part of the plan
Make it a point to mention absent/injured members before the play, practice or game. Refer to them during the practice, too. Designate 1-2 players to reach out to injured teammates in a thoughtful way, outside of team time. Demonstrating care for all team players builds camaraderie as well as individual compassion - both a huge health boost.
There have always been "stigmas and ideals" around athletics that can cause children to avoid athletic involvement. Children may think or have been told that they are not "sporty." This type of premature, and often incorrect branding can cause young people to abandon physical activity completely, leading to severe health issues and possibly shortened life spans. Sport is the perfect combination of (physical) action and (human) interaction. Therefore, encouragement and involvement is near essential. This is not a new concept, but it does need to be a forever trend.
"No one has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which the body is capable." -- Socrates