Q+A: Can Youth Sports Transform a City?

Youth Sports
U.S. Army photo by Daiquan Wilson (USAG – Humphreys / flickr)

Drexel’s second annual Philadelphia Coaches Conference kicks off Monday, May 16, with an opening reception and appearance from Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. There, the mayor will be announcing the new executive director of the Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative — an umbrella organization for dozens of sport-based youth development programs in the city.

Many coaches from those organizations will be at the conference Tuesday to learn how they can better serve children and teenagers in the Philadelphia area. But what exactly is sport-based youth development? And how can it impact the city?

Conference organizer Amy Giddings, PhD, an associate clinical professor in the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management, believes the emerging field has the ability to make long-lasting impact in the community.

Here, she explains how:

What is sport-based youth development?
It is a relatively new field that uses sport as a vehicle for young people to learn other, valuable life skills. People often say that sports build character, but I would say that’s not always the case. In fact, sometimes sports can negatively affect youth. In order for a sport to build character, it has to be a specific type of experience and coaches need to have an understanding of how to implement character-building into their programs.

So what has emerged in the past two decades are a number of nonprofit organizations, which use a sport or multiple sports to teach young people how to better navigate life. They focus on academics, leadership and life skills. They mostly work with young people from underserved communities and provide a support system and sense of belonging for them, but quite honestly these programs can and should be replicated in all neighborhoods of Philadelphia regardless of income levels. Everyone can benefit from character development through sport.

How is joining one of these programs different from joining, say, a school sports team?If you want to be a really good baseball player and play at a high level, you join your school’s team or a club or travel team. In a sport-based youth development program, you don’t have to be the best, or even familiar with the sport.

The most important thing is that the coaches in these programs are trained to make parallels between the skills they are coaching and life outside of sport. They purposefully put activities into their program to teach things like the importance of being on time, for instance. Or let’s say someone loses a competition, a coach may use that experience to talk to her about how that loss can build confidence.

Coaches in these programs care if a team or an individual wins or loses, but this is not the focal point. That being said, if coaches do recognize that an athlete is really good, they might refer that player to a different league. It is all about ensuring that these kids have the right support.

How can these types of programs make a difference in Philadelphia?
Many of the kids in these organizations are part of a cycle of something — that could include domestic violence, poverty or homelessness — and there is often no one to help them. However, when children and teens become a part of these nonprofit groups, it really is a way to lift them out of that cycle. When that happens, I think the benefits to all of us in the city are immeasurable.

What are some examples of sport-based youth development organizations in Philadelphia?
There are over 100 of these organizations in Philadelphia. One example is SquashSmarts, which has multiple sites – one here at Drexel’s Recreation Center. Students in the nonprofit spend three days a week at squash practice and focus the rest of their time on academics. The students also participate in community service projects and special events.

What is the mission of the Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative?
What they are trying to do is help all of these smaller youth sports organizations in the city be better at what they do. Eventually they want to be a central point for advocacy in city government. You really need to change policy in order for youth development programs to be successful. If they have investment at the city government level, these organizations will grow, and we’ll really see widespread change in Philadelphia.

How is the Philadelphia Coaches Conference helping train the coaches and directors of sports-based youth development programs?
The great thing about the conference is that there will be so many coaches at different levels – youth, scholastic, collegiate and professional, from a variety of sports. Last year when we started this conference, some attendees were skeptical about what coaches at various levels and from different sports could really learn from one another. Amazingly, they all left saying how wonderful it was for so many coaches to be in one place, and they learned a lot from one another and felt reinvigorated thinking about how they could improve as coaches. Coaching really is an art, not a science, and a highly creative profession – one that demands constant evaluation and change on the part of the coach in order to meet their higher-level goals.

For media inquiries, contact Lauren Ingeno: lingeno@drexel.edu or 215-895-2614.

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