The following interview comes from the recently released 2016 SFIA U.S. Trends in Team Sports Report. Each year U.S. Trends in Team Sports details data about youth participation to understand the latest trends, this report is a must have for anyone looking to understand team sports in this country. Readers can dive deeper than ever before in the specific trends that are shaping this industry. Learn about the sports that are growing and which ones are struggling with participation. In addition, this report includes key insight from industry leaders and interested stakeholders.
SPECIAL HIGHLIGHT: ASPEN INSTITUTE STATE OF PLAY REPORT
INTERVIEW: TOM FARREY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ASPEN INSTITUTE SPORTS & SOCIETY PROGRAM
Tell us about Project Play, where did the idea come from and how was it formed?
Project Play started with a book that I wrote in 2008, “Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children.” This was a journalistic survey of the landscape of modern youth sports that tried to answer the question of how we became the world’s sport superpower while developing one of the world’s worst obesity crises, with so many inactive kids. How did we create this system of sports haves and have-nots, in which some kids are fed sports with a firehose and so many others are left out or pushed aside?
I did the lecture tour and at each stop, people – parents, coaches, academics, industry and sport leaders – would say, Thanks for telling us how we got into this mess. Now how do we get out of it? People clearly wanted solutions. So I partnered with the Aspen Institute to find them. Aspen is one of the nation’s premier conveners, with a long history of helping leaders find common ground in pursuit of systems-level solutions, which is what it will take to make quality sport activity accessible to all children, regardless of zip code or ability. No one organization, or even sector, can do this alone.
In 2013, we launched Project Play, a multi-stage initiative to provide stakeholders with opportunities to build healthy children and communities through sports. We hosted a series of 10 roundtables with 300 thought leaders, then developed a framework for action— eight strategies for the eight sectors that touch the lives of children. The report, “Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game” was released at the 2015 Project Play Summit, where Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called it a “very powerful roadmap” for innovation and cross-sector collaboration. That was huge, and since then more than 100 organizations, from the U.S. Olympic Committee to community sport providers, have used the report to introduce programs or shape their youth strategies.
In your opinion what is the biggest challenge facing youth sports participation?
The fundamental flaw in our sport system is our manic desire to sort the weak from the strong well before children grow into their bodies, minds and interests. Research suggests that if we’re going to build a healthy population, the priority needs to be on developing physical literacy and love of game in all youth, at least through age 12. Instead, we hold tryouts and create travel teams as early as first grade. We aggregate the kids who we think are going to be our next generation of performers, structurally pushing aside kids who are late bloomers, have late birthdates, or whose families cannot afford elite-leaning forms of play. By age nine or so, many kids decide they are not athletes, and thus not athletic, discouraging the pursuit of sport and physical activity over the lifespan.
Meanwhile, the children at the center of the system aren’t always served well either, subject to burnout and overuse injuries. Parents often load them up with private training, camps and year-round play, seeking ROI – the elusive college scholarship. I understand why the system has evolved this way. College today is expensive and NCAA programs dole out $3 billion a year in athletic aid, up from $250 million in the early 1990s. But all that chum tossed into the waters of youth sports (the odds remain long your kid will
get any aid) has unleashed behaviors inconsistent with best practices in athlete and child development, while erecting barriers to access.
Do you consider Project Play to be a report or does it provide a specific plan of action?
It’s a framework for action, but also an expression of what good looks like in youth sports. None of strategies are rocket science, and that’s by design. All are worded in a manner that allows heads to shake in unison – “Train All Coaches,” “Reintroduce Free Play” and “Encourage Sport Sampling,” for example. That way, organizations can develop the partnerships that can best serve the interest of children, families and communities. Youth sport is a massively disjointed space, with lots of energies running at cross-purposes. Project Play is a tool to herd cats by showing them where the milk is.
One thing that needs to be made clear: A focus on participation rates is not an argument for participation trophies. We’re staying out of that culture war. Project Play is simply anchored in the notion that every child deserves a chance to be active through sports, and that every sector, including sports and health care, has an interest in making that happen, at least through age 12. It’s about squaring the pyramid at the base, so more youth can receive the myriad benefits that flow to those who play sports — which in turn will make the country more competitive on and off the field.
This interview was taken from the 2016 SFIA U.S. Trends in Team Sports Report, available for purchase by clicking here.
- The State of Team Sports in 2016
- Organized vs. Pick-Up Play
- Special Highlight: Aspen Institute State of Play Report.
- Interview with Tom Farrey, Executive Director, Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program
- Trends in Core vs. Casual Play – Cause for Optimism, Caution
- Core vs. Casual Participation (A closer look)
- 2016 Update on Churn Rate
- 2016 Consumer Spending & Sales Analysis