Fearing Free: Lessons From Washington D.C.

By Brendan Ledwith | May 20, 2016, 12 a.m. (ET)

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May 17, 2016 was a very important day in the sports world. The Aspen Institute hosted its second Project Play Summit. I was on a panel to speak about sport sampling for kids, but I got to learn so much more. This summit brought together leaders in sports that see a need to change the multibillion-dollar youth sports culture. Here are some lessons from the summit that I found interesting.

Why do we fear free?

Working on the sport-development and grassroots side of things, we have touted the idea that we can do things for free. The feedback we are getting is that “free” doesn’t work. What is it about something being free that turns people off?

People feel like they are being inundated with free stuff and it is a burden. When I was in college, I used to join clubs just for the free pizza meetings, walk around the club fair for T-shirts from clubs I would never join all in the name of saving a dollar or simply not paying for it. It seems that people have an anti-free sentiment these days. I walk around a lot of conferences and vendors walk home with tons of stuff, because the “cost” of taking something free is a conversation.

We discussed low-cost options, especially for the boys’ and youth sides of the sport. Most of the time we advocate for free. This is to assist in lowering the barrier to entry. But in the hyper-competitive sports landscape, society has placed clinics and camps in a hierarchy. The bottom of the hierarchy is anything offered for free, followed by local programming at a parks and recreation department, YMCA etc. Then come day camps, followed by overnight local camps and fly-away camps. What attracts us are “high-level coaches,” which we will pay for. I have worked quite a few camps and clinics and have not seen many that can deliver on the promise of quality coaching for every kid. USAV High Performance does this by having great coaches and a low ratio. This is not true of many camps and clinics out there.

How do we fix this in America? How do we go back to not being skeptical of people and services that are given away for free? The start needs to be the idea that any time a kid gets to play, it is a great thing. We should be putting greater scrutiny in evaluating anyone that charges money for their services. Not that I don’t believe in paying people for their time and effort, but make sure you are getting what you pay for.

YOU SHALL NOT PASS

While there isn't a wizard stopping you from playing sports, I have been struck by the barriers to entry that exist in sports. Some of them are your typical barriers such as price, location, availability of qualified coaches and popularity of a particular sport in an area of the country. The other ones that come into play are gender, economics and safety as well as failure and fun.

Everyone knows that youth sports are expensive. Every sport has a different cost and different equipment. But the cost for elite practice facilities (I say elite because any space with hardwood and not dirt or cement is elite) and elite coaches all the way down to under-6 age groups drives the costs up. One discussion I find myself having frequently with club directors is that they can’t charge less than they are. I challenge everyone to look at the budget and find a different way to do it, to make sports and especially our sport accessible to almost everyone.

First Lady Michelle Obama brought some interesting points to the table and one of them that resonated was, kids can’t do free play because it isn’t safe. The great basketball cities of Philadelphia and Chicago are predicated on this free play; kids go to the playground, call next and when they lose, sit out until they are “next” again. But now there is a serious issue with safety on America’s playgrounds, so kids don’t play sports because they don’t have the money for organized sport and there is no safe place to play for free. Changing the landscape will require costs to go down, but also a safe place to go. Boys and Girls Clubs, rec departments, and YMCAs provide a great outlet for this, but don’t have enough resources to reach as many kids as we would like. It will take other organizations to provide the time and “structure” of free play.

As I grew up, I played sports because it was fun. I got to go spend time with my friends on a Saturday or Sunday morning doing something that wasn't school. The most vivid memory I have from youth soccer is eating apples at halftime. Why is this significant? I learned that a teammate had gone up into a tree and picked them that morning. His mom had sliced them and they were a little tart, which led the team to find out that lemon juice helps stop the oxidation process. I don't remember the score or who we played. I don't even think I could tell you who the coach was. I just had a good time eating apples with my friends and learning a new fact.

Sports today do not seem fun. The overemphasis that is placed on winning, rankings and scholarships is making it less fun for kids. This environment makes kids not want to fail more than anything else, which in turn causes kids not to participate. You can’t fail at something you didn’t try.

Train all Coaches

Another popular session was about training all coaches. It was striking to me because the session was opposite Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor from the Will Smith movie Concussion. Many of the conference attendees were parks and rec directors, leaders in college athletics and from other parts of the sports world. These people all felt that properly training coaches was the most important thing they could do to change the landscape of youth sports.

USA Volleyball advocates for the game teaching the game, which also includes teaching others the game. USA Soccer takes it one step further and offers certification to its players as young as 16 to coach the youth age groups. Having certified and trained coaches is essential, but everyone must remember that there are many good and certified coaches that will give of themselves and time for free and that is something we cannot be afraid to use to our advantage.