Youth sports are at a crossroad. While popular in the U.S. – 56% of all kids 6-12 participated in 2016 – there are concerning trends that show an overall trend towards less participation, fewer kids continuing with sports, and a corresponding increase in sedentary children that also correlates to health issues like obesity.
The positives in sport have long been recognized: physical activity, teamwork, sportsmanship, confidence, social interaction and of course fun. Some of the things that are factoring into the decision by families to drop sports, however, are newer phenomena:
- Sport specialization at a young age, which can lead to increased injury risk and burnout
- A focus on winning and performance over broader life lessons, which can drive away players
- Increasing injuries, sometimes related to overuse or pushing kids too hard as their bodies are developing, which in turn leads some families to reduce participation
Even as Minnesota gears up to host one of the largest celebrations of sport at Super Bowl LII in 2018, a number of businesses and organizations based or started locally are quietly trying to win victories at the other end of the sports spectrum, getting more children to play youth sports, safely, AND for the right reasons.
InsideOut Initiative: A Minnesota model for high school sports going national
Jody Redman, Associate Director for the Minnesota State High School League, wanted to change the culture of high school sports in Minnesota. She had read the book “InsideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives” by former Baltimore Colts player Joe Ehrmann, and wanted to bring its message of positive coaching to the state, where winning games is just one facet of the benefit of sports, while an equal focus is placed on character and learning life skills through sport.
“We started writing a curriculum around this book,” Jody said. “We were really excited, and taught it to our coaches. And within a year, we realized we were setting these coaches up for failure.” The problem was that coaches alone are just one part of an entire system that also involves school administrators, parents and students.
Meanwhile, Ehrmann had been called in to consult with the NFL on a series of crises involving abuse and crimes by players. “Roger [Goodall] asked, can you coach character to these players? My response was no, you can’t coach moral character in a culture of false masculinity, power dominance, and control. These players [in the NFL] have been raised on this. The longer they played, the higher levels they achieved, the more calloused they became.”
These players, in other words, became more and more removed from the life lessons of sport. Character and responsibility took a back seat to winning. And that culture was oozing back deeper and deeper into sport, from college to high school sports.
Back in Minnesota, Jody and her team redesigned their program to encompass the entire state high school sports community, creating systematic change and creating accountability. “We needed to make space in sports culture for more than sports skills,” she said. “97 percent are done with sports after high school, and less than 1 percent ever play professionally. What are we leaving them with?”
The model is based on the principles of Awareness (recognizing the lessons sports can teach, as well the pressures placed on short term success, so the purpose can be established); Alignment (making sure all parties agree the purpose of sport is the human development of kids, and that they use the same language); Action (taking concrete steps to make sure the focus is on values and outcomes); and Accountability (making sure all parties follow through and measuring success.)
Jody and Joe, aware of each other’s work, joined forces with the support of the NFL to take the Minnesota model and bring it national through the InsideOut Initiative, which has now been rolled out in Colorado and Texas and is moving to other states in the coming years. The NFL supports the initiative in multiple ways, including using the resources of local NFL teams to spread the word.
“It’s creating a mindset where success is measured on more than the scoreboard – that’s the easy part,” said Joe. “Did you help your players develop character?”
Coaches in the program explore why they coach, how they coach, how players feel being coached by them, and how they define success. This is shared with administrators, parents and students, and all participate in helping students succeed.
“We are trying to turn a big ship, but the response has been tremendous,” Jody said. “Everyone has wanted this. It’s been like we’ve been feeding starving people.”
SportsEngine: Making it easier to find and try more sports
Kids won’t get all of those benefits from sports if they don’t play, however. And that is where another Twin Cities-based business, SportsEngine (a part of NBC Sports) is central to a new push to get kids to play more.
SportsEngine is one of the leading youth sports league management service companies in the U.S. Sports leagues signed on with SportsEngine use its platform to manage registrations, team sites, schedules, reporting to governing bodies and countless other tasks to enable or improve the youth sports experience.
This year, SportsEngine launched a new consumer-facing portal that acts as a front door for families looking for sports to play. It is a perfect complement to SportsEngine’s historical emphasis on leagues and teams, and allows parents to search for leagues in their area that meet their kids’ interests and schedules.
“The data has been there all along, and all of these opportunities around them,” said Carson Kipfer, co-founder of SportsEngine. “It’s a concept we’ve talked about for years, but NBC has the media muscle to promote it and get the eyeballs. It’s cool, because these local sports organizations have limited budgets. This gives them a megaphone”
There is also a benefit to parents, who now will have one place to find and compare different programs in their area. This will encourage discovery of opportunities they didn’t even know were available.
“That whole marketplace is where we want to be – both supply and demand,” said Justin Kaufenberg, co-founder and CEO. “We took such care to architect the system so the information could be re-purposed, and now it’s making it possible for families to find new ways to be active.”
Player’s Health: Increasing injury visibility and proper care for youth athletes
For many families, concern about injuries is another factor when choosing whether to participate in sports. Youth sports have come under scrutiny as the national conversation has intensified about concussions, overuse injuries resulting from single-sport athletes playing year-round at a high level, and legal questions about who makes decisions for kids.
Tyrre Burks, a former pro football player in the Canadian Football League, has built a solution to help answer some of those concerns and give parents, coaches and players clarity and peace of mind. The Player’s Health platform is set up for all teams in a participating league, with profiles for each player. (The system ties into SportsEngine’s registration, simplifying account creation and affordability.)
Coaches have an app on their smartphone where they record suspected injuries, and a notification is sent to parents.
“For youth sports, the communication infrastructure about injuries is in the stone age,” said Burks. “It’s usually the coach telling mom about something that happened in the game, and there’s no follow up or record kept.”
The app can also help guide coaches on next steps, including protocols for removing a player from the field, and parents are notified. If a player has been removed, the parent holds the right to clear the child to play or not and decides on next steps, such as seeing a physician. “The control goes to the guardian, and they can control who has access to the data on the platform,” Tyrre noted.
Meanwhile, Player’s Health will be able to establish a record of what happened and the outcome, giving parents and physicians a clear picture that no injury has slipped through the cracks and their athlete hasn’t been returned to play in a dangerous situation. Collectively, this data may also help show the real rates of injury rather than allowing anecdotes and uncertainty to dominate the topic.
Establishing a foundation for more and healthier youth sports
What all of these initiatives have in common is making youth sports more beneficial, accessible and safer for kids. While change won’t happen overnight, these Minnesota organizations are building the infrastructure to make it happen.
“No one person can make sports a better place,” said Joe of InsideOut. “It takes intentional coaches and practitioners. But kids who play more sports can get so much benefit out of it.”
Innovative ideas to improve youth sports
- Sports culture
- Sports technology
- Youth sports trends
- Youth sports injuries
Youth sports is a big deal – and has a long term impact on the lives of participants. Twin Cities-based businesses have been helping make youth sports more enjoyable, safer and better in a number of ways. At the same time, a Minnesota-pioneered program backed by the NFL is helping redefine sport at the high- school level to make sure it has a proper place developing well-rounded kids with character that goes beyond the field.
- Jody Redman, Associate Director for the Minnesota State High School League and co-founder, InsideOut Initiative
- Joe Ehrmann, former Baltimore Colts player, author, and co-founder, InsideOut Initiative
- Justin Kaufenberg, co-founder and CEO, SportsEngine
- Carson Kipfer, co-founder and principal designer, SportsEngine
- Tyrre Burks, founder and CEO, Player’s Health
““We are trying to turn a big ship, but the response has been tremendous. Everyone has wanted this. It’s been like we’ve been feeding starving people.”
- Jody Redman, speaking of a program to codify personal development, character and values as the goals of youth sports
- NBCI – Youth Sports: Positive and Negative Impact on Young Athletes
- The Aspen Institute – 7 Charts that Show Why We Need to Fix Youth Sports
- InsideOut Website