Youth sports is a hot-button topic across the United States, with scholars and advocacy groups constantly aiming to solve relevant topics. However, young athletes themselves often do not get a big enough say about the issues that affect them directly. At the 2016 LA84 Summit, five Student Athletes in Motion (SAMBassadors) aged 11-17 shared their experiences and how they would carry out change in youth sports. See the full video of the panel below.
Problems & Solutions
- Youth sports are run by adults. It’s a top-down system that gives kids little or no voice in decision-making.
- LA84 created in July, 2016 a youth advisory panel, called the SAMbassadors. (Student Athletes in Motion.) The first cohort consists of 26 kids ages 11-17.
Voices from the Field: Today’s Athletes Panelists
- Jaiher Douglas, Basketball, Football, Augustus Hawkins High School
- Emily Eisner, Founder, Play It Forward, Sierra Canyon School
- Ezra Frech, Parathlete, Basketball, Track & Field, Brentwood School
- Kayla Novak, Cycling, Tennis, Redondo Union High School
- SaraJoy Salib, Water Polo, Venice High School
Moderator: Gary Hall, Jr., Olympian, Swimming, Healthcare Advocate
How to Make Youth Sports Better
Douglas’ solution was succinct: “Make it fun.” All five of the panelists echoed his sentiment, stating how issues like sports dropout rates and lack of engagement could be fixed simply by catering sports to the athletes that play them. “We need to be able to actually play enough,” Novak said. “Sometimes coaches repeat the same things over and over. That can be good, but it can also cut into our time to actually play.”
READ MORE: LA84 Announces Youth Ambassadors Program
For Eisner, who started her own non-profit to address a similar issue, the issue is often that children do not have the ability to play sports even if programs are being offered. “A big thing people don’t always know about is a lack of usable equipment,” she said. “We’d be able to engage a lot more kids in athletics if we worked together to give more schools the equipment.” Frech also reflected on this from an Adaptive Sports angle, explaining how he and his father started Angel City Sports to expand opportunities for physically disabled youth in Southern California.
If I Had a Million Dollars…
Hall, Jr. asked the panelists on what they would do with $1 million directed toward improving youth sports.
Douglas: “Create a food plan. Some kids won’t eat all day, then go to practice and play 100 percent. I would provide healthy snacks so kids don’t play sports on an empty stomach.”
PANEL RECAP: The Impact of the Olympics on Youth Sports
Frech: “There has to be more sports opportunities for athletes with disabilities. Sports is not just an escape for able-bodied athletes. So many athletes who list a limb or have a disability use sports as a way to recover.”
Novak: “We need to invest money in sports that don’t get attention.”
Novak, a cyclist and tennis player, argued how young athletes don’t always have the ability to find the sport that works best for them, bringing up a background story similar to how Olympic medalist and LA84 Summit guest Ibtihaj Muhammad became interested in the sport of fencing.
It’s All About the People
The five young athletes on stage could all be considered success stories. For many, a big reason sports are so valuable to them is the relationships they’ve built with their teammates and coaches that go far beyond the fields of play.
Salib is an only child, and noted how sports gave her a sibling-like bond that she had always wanted. “Water polo gives me 25 other sisters who can support each other when they’re down. It’s something much bigger than just going to school and playing sports,” she said.
For Douglas, his coach at the Brotherhood Crusade program is a role model for the positive impact sports allows us to have on young athletes. “He teaches me lifelong skills: Eye contact, a firm handshake and food etiquette,” Douglas said. “He treats me not just as an athlete or student, but like one of his kids. He knows what’s going on with me at home and at school.”
LA84’s tagline is “Life Ready Through Sport”, and the young athletes on stage were all in accordance on how in order for youth sports to advance toward solving its various problems, there needs to be an increased focus on taking much more out of a game than just a win or loss.
See more from the Summit and the latest from LA84 here.