Monday, 27 May 2024

Fostering Positive Change: Key Insights from the Washington D.C. Summit

May 17, 2016, marked a significant milestone in the world of sports. The Aspen Institute held its renowned Project Play Summit in Washington D.C., bringing together industry leaders who recognize the urgent need to transform the multibillion-dollar youth sports culture. As a panelist at this summit, I had the opportunity to delve deeper into the subject and uncover valuable lessons that I am excited to share with you today.

Why Does “Free” Elicit Fear?

The sports development and grassroots community has long championed the idea of offering free opportunities. However, there seems to be a growing aversion to anything labeled as “free.” So, what exactly turns people off from something that doesn’t involve payment?

In today’s society, people often perceive free offerings as burdensome or overwhelming. Back when I was in college, I would join clubs solely for the free pizza at meetings or collect T-shirts from various organizations at club fairs, all in the pursuit of saving a few dollars. It appears that there is now a prevailing sentiment against anything free. Even in conferences, attendees hesitate to accept free merchandise because they view it as an obligation to engage in a conversation.

When it comes to sports, we often advocate for free or low-cost options, particularly for youth programs. The intention is to lower barriers to entry. However, within the fiercely competitive sports landscape, people tend to assign a hierarchy to different programs. Free offerings are often placed at the bottom tier, followed by local programming at parks and recreation departments or YMCA centers. Day camps, overnight local camps, and fly-away camps are viewed as more desirable because they promise “high-level coaches” that people are willing to pay for. In my experience working at various camps and clinics, I haven’t come across many that consistently deliver on the promise of quality coaching for every child. However, USAV High Performance stands out by offering excellent coaching ratios and highly skilled coaches, which is not always the case with other programs.

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So, how can we address this issue in America? How can we overcome skepticism and regain trust in services and initiatives that are offered free of charge? It starts with recognizing that any opportunity for a child to play sports is a valuable one. We should also exercise more discernment when evaluating programs that charge fees. While compensating coaches and professionals for their time and expertise is important, it is equally critical to ensure that the value provided aligns with the cost.

Breaking Down Barriers

While there may not be an actual wizard stopping us from participating in sports, there are numerous barriers that impede access. Some are expected, such as financial constraints, location limitations, availability of qualified coaches, and regional sport preferences. However, other barriers related to gender, economic disparities, safety concerns, the fear of failure, and the diminishing element of fun also come into play.

Youth sports are undeniably expensive. Each sport has its own associated costs, from equipment to practice facilities. Elite practice spaces and coaches, even at the under-6 age groups, drive up expenses. I often find myself discussing with club directors the challenge of reducing fees. I encourage everyone to reassess their budgets and explore alternative ways to make sports, especially our chosen sport, accessible to a wider range of participants.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama raised an interesting point during the summit: the decline of free play due to safety concerns. Basketball cities like Philadelphia and Chicago thrived on the tradition of free play, where kids would gather at playgrounds, call out the next players, and wait their turn. Unfortunately, safety issues have plagued playgrounds across America, discouraging kids from engaging in sports when they don’t have the means to participate in organized activities or access safe play areas. Resolving this issue requires not only reducing costs but also creating safe environments. Boys and Girls Clubs, recreational departments, and YMCA facilities are excellent outlets, but their resources often fall short of meeting the demands. Other organizations should step up to provide structured opportunities for free play.

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Personally, I participated in sports as a child because it was enjoyable. Spending time with friends on a Saturday or Sunday morning, away from school, was a treat. One vivid memory from my youth soccer days was halftime, where we would indulge in apples. The significance of that memory lies in the fact that a teammate had climbed a tree that morning to pick them. His mom sliced them, and we discovered that the tartness could be counteracted with lemon juice to prevent oxidation. I can’t recall the score of the game or even the name of our coach. The only thing that remains etched in my mind is the joy of eating apples with friends and learning something new.

Fast forward to today, and the sports landscape no longer exudes that same sense of fun. The emphasis on winning, rankings, and scholarships has overshadowed the enjoyment for kids. This environment breeds a fear of failure that stifles participation. After all, you can’t fail at something you never attempt.

Training Coaches for Success

Another noteworthy session at the summit focused on the importance of coach training. Interestingly, this session ran concurrently with a talk by Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor whose story inspired the movie “Concussion.” Participants in the conference, including park and recreation directors and college athletics leaders, unanimously agreed that adequately training coaches is the most crucial aspect of transforming the youth sports landscape.

USA Volleyball advocates for a “game teaching the game” philosophy, which extends to teaching others how to coach. USA Soccer takes it a step further by offering coaching certification to players as young as 16, allowing them to lead youth teams. While certified and well-trained coaches are essential, it’s essential to recognize that there are countless talented coaches willing to volunteer their time and expertise. Embracing this willingness can be immensely beneficial.

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Q1: How can we overcome the negative perception associated with free sports programs?

A1: Overcoming the skepticism surrounding free sports programs requires a shift in mindset. We need to view any opportunity for a child to play sports as a valuable one. Additionally, evaluating programs based on the value they provide rather than their cost can help restore trust in free offerings.

Q2: What are the key barriers preventing children from participating in sports?

A2: Financial constraints, limited access to qualified coaches and facilities, safety concerns, gender disparities, economic disparities, and a diminishing sense of fun are some of the barriers that hinder children’s participation in sports. Addressing these barriers requires reducing costs, creating safe play environments, and instilling the joy of sports above the pursuit of achievement.

Q3: Why is coach training crucial in transforming youth sports?

A3: Properly training coaches is a game-changer in youth sports. Investing in coach education ensures that young athletes receive quality guidance and mentorship. While certification programs exist, it’s important to recognize the significant value provided by volunteer coaches who bring passion and expertise to the table.


The Project Play Summit held in Washington D.C. shed light on the pressing need to transform the youth sports culture. Lessons from the summit revealed the fear associated with free sports programs, the barriers that hinder participation, and the importance of coach training. By embracing the idea that every opportunity for a child to play sports is valuable, evaluating programs based on their value rather than cost, and investing in coach education, we can foster positive change and create a more inclusive and enjoyable sporting experience for all.

Take action today! Join us in reshaping the future of youth sports. Visit to learn more about our mission and how you can get involved. Together, we can make a difference!