Now is the Time to Rebuild Youth Sports

by Nate Baldwin

Just over 4 weeks ago, the NBA abruptly suspended its season after Utah Jazz Center Rudy Gobert unexpectedly tested positive for the novel coronavirus.  With that one dramatic action, COVID-19 seemed to take over our collective North American consciousness.  All pillars of American life followed suit in the days that followed…all major sports leagues suspended their seasons, schools closed, workplaces shuttered, stay at home orders were implemented.  We were officially in quarantine mode, our only weapon in the marathon battle against an invisible enemy that has no cure.  Nearly a month later, anxiety, fear, and impatience are at all time highs… the news cycle rolls on, infection and death totals tick upward, and jobs and livelihoods are lost.  Questions abound about when, and more importantly IF, we will ever return to the “normal” we knew before.   

But, you know, there’s also another, more positive side to having pressed the collective national “pause button” as well.  As I sit here typing on a cold April day in Wisconsin, my 3 young children run wildly around the house… each in various stages of undress (my 4 year old sporting only socks and Star Wars undies…), inventing games with wild, rapidly changing rules, alternating between laughter, cooperation and arguing, as brothers will do.  Like all kids, their organized spring sports activities have been canceled, and for perhaps the first time in their young lives, they are enjoying complete freedom in how they spend their days and their time.  If today is like other days, they’ll likely squeeze in some basketball or baseball time in the yard, hop on their bikes and cruise the cul-de-sac, and maybe search for some bugs and worms in the garden.  Don’t worry… I’ll make sure my 4 year old is wearing pants before that happens.

The pandemic has impacted all sectors of the U.S. economy and emotional and economic recovery will be long and difficult.  The organized youth sports industry in particular will face challenges in the coming weeks and months unlike anything it’s faced before. Few other industries are as dependent on consistent participation and recurring revenue for supporting the daily functions of their businesses, and therefore few industries are less capable of enduring a domestic shutdown of this magnitude and length.  By the time we eventually emerge from our collective shutdown and organizations prepare to once again start offering their “product”, they’re going to be facing a landscape that is quite different from what it was before the crisis.

  • FEWER PROVIDERS – The economics of youth sports can be brutal, and the harsh reality is that most are not equipped or financially prepared to navigate multiple seasons with zero revenue.  Minus a federal bailout, the reality is that by the time youth sports return to our daily routines, there’s going to be a massive thinning out of the industry… many, many organizations will have ceased to exist.  (More info from Aspen Institute’s Project Play here.)
  • CHANGING DEMAND – Like my anecdote above, parents around the country are rediscovering the value and importance of balance, free-play, and unstructured time….not only for the physical and emotional health of their children, but for the well-being of the entire family.  These are forgotten, precious commodities that the industry-dominant “elite” / travel / tournament providers have willfully taken from families at increasingly young ages.  Only NOW, in the midst of pandemic lock-downs, are families realizing that they were sold a bill of goods that didn’t improve their quality of life in any meaningful way.  Family dinners are back, as are driveway games of Horse, Lightning, Home Run Derby, Nerf Battles, Hopscotch and more.  There’s more time for art, more time for music, time for reading, time for nature adventures, and time to be bored.  Post-pandemic, many families will not make the same mistake again.  They’re smarter now…and their future youth sports choices will reflect that newfound wisdom.  They’ll stay local, they’ll sample diverse activities, and they’ll reject youth sports commitments that consume family life rather than complementing it.
  • FINANCIAL REALITY – Even for families who have not yet embraced the importance of balance and age appropriate levels of inclusion and instruction in youth sports, their own personal financial realities will likely force them to reassess what they spend on their child’s athletic pursuits, and with whom they spend. With unemployment skyrocketing and long term economic pain looming, families who have long embraced a more exclusive and expensive path for their child will need to seek out affordably priced alternatives from the likes of community-based, school-based, and park & rec program providers in an effort to keep their kids engaged in organized sports.

Within the context of this post-pandemic reality, the youth sports industry as a whole is facing a pivotal moment in time that it may never again enjoy…a very real opportunity to reclaim it’s soul.   This is an opportunity to serve kids and families the way they always should have been served through sport… where inclusion, age appropriate skill development, family balance, and a cradle-to-grave embrace of physical activity become the pillars of high quality sports programming and become the expectation of a youth sports experience.  We are witnessing a moment where youth sports can be leveraged as an opportunity to heal and re-establish our sense of community through the joys of healthy competition and shared activity.

Community-based providers, school-based programs and park & recreation programs are uniquely positioned to lead this renovation project, not only because of the way in which their financial structures provide natural protection from the acute economic forces of a pandemic, but also for the inherent traits many of these programs possess (low cost, low commitment, inclusive, etc).  These characteristics will uniquely situate these organizations to satisfy post-pandemic demand.  Unfortunately, however, many community-based providers are also dramatically unprepared for this challenge to lead.  These organizations frequently lack innovation, lack courage, are mired in routine and bureaucracy, and minimize the importance of things such as league culture, coach & staff training, lesson planning and quality control.  Often, they willingly serve as a secondary / back up option for more “energetic” providers in their communities.  This HAS to change… quickly… if we are to seize on this once in a lifetime moment to reclaim the youth sports narrative in this country, for the benefit of our kids and families.  Community providers, schools and park & recs have a narrow window of opportunity to prepare now to lead when the moment arrives.

What should community-based youth sports organizations be doing now to prepare for the resumption of programming in our new youth sports reality, post-pandemic?

  1. DEVELOP YOUR PROGRAM VISION AND CORE VALUES… NOW. – Before sports resume, you’ll need to have a clear message about what your program represents, and what kids / families can expect as participants in your program.  This was important before COVID-19… but it’s CRITICAL now.  A clear vision and set of values allows you to create the buy-in among your stakeholders that you will need to guide your decision-making, secure support and advocacy, and deliver program consistency.  For in-depth advice on how to develop your organizational core values and culture, check out my article from January 2020.
  2. DEVELOP OR UPGRADE YOUR LESSON PLANS AND TRAINING – This shutdown offers you a rare opportunity to do some much needed quality control.   One of the most damaging characteristics of many recreational level programs is a lack of a consistent player experience from team to team.  The experience many families have is completely dependent on the abilities or traits of the random coach they receive.  As a coordinator, you can minimize this random effect by providing your coaches with high quality, mandatory training sessions, and with structured weekly lesson plans grounded in Long Term Athletic Development principles. Doing so will promote development, ensure consistency, and enhance the experience your young athletes enjoy.  Many national sport governing bodies and national sport organizations provide FREE access to lesson plans for multiple age groups.  Little League, US Youth Soccer and Junior NBA are just 3 great examples. For coach training, consider the free tool released through a collaboration between the USOC, Project Play and Nike called “How To Coach Kids”.  It’s a great introduction to youth coaching founded in solid values and principles that put kids’ health and safety first.
  3. “ALWAYS BE SELLING” – Just like Alec Baldwin’s famous “Always be closing” line in Glengarry Glen Ross, community-based providers need to get bolder and better at “selling” the virtues of their programs.  For too long, many of the inherent traits of a recreational sports program (inclusion, low cost, limited numbers of practices and games, etc) have been spun by high stakes competitors as reasons to avoid a program.  Yet, ALL of the youth sports research and data that has emerged since our last recession in 2008 is unified in its conclusion that these traits actually lead to better, more sustained athletic outcomes and greater health equity for ALL kids!  The science and data is on YOUR side, and supports the format your program employs.  Your post-pandemic audience is going to include many skeptics who have chosen your program simply out of economic necessity.  We have ONE CHANCE to show them a program experience worth sticking around for.  To avoid the same deterioration of participation most community organizations experienced 10+ years ago, we need to educate these families, and then deliver an experience that positions your program as the PREFERRED option, not the fall back option.  Communicate your message often, connect the science and data to the traits of your program, and leverage the great work, data and research of organizations like Project Play and the Changing the Game Project (along with many others) to both refine the delivery of your program and drive the message home with your new audience.

Organizations need to use this unprecedented time to invest in their programs, and prepare to deliver a premier youth sports experience when we emerge on the other side of this pandemic.  Quite simply, this is THE moment for our community-based organizations, schools and park & recreation programs to rise and lead the youth sports industry into a new, better youth sports reality… one that serves all kids, all families, and in the process empowers better athletic outcomes and equity for all.

Nate Baldwin is a former Youth Sports Programmer at Appleton (WI) Parks & Recreation, and is a current Free Agent. His youth sports program was named an inaugural Project Play Champion in 2018.  His work has also been featured by the Changing the Game Project blog, the Way of Champions Podcast, and in a recent Project Play article about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the youth sports industry.  Follow Nate on Twitter @nbaldwin75.