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NextUp 2022

NextUp: Putting the Why in Youth Sports

By Melissa Wickes
September 7, 2023
3 min

During the long days and late nights of coordinating programs, attending practices, making sure everything goes smoothly at games, and tracking registrations, it may seem difficult to remember why you dedicated your life to youth sports. 

Numbers tell us that the benefits of youth sports are countless—they strengthen kids’ mental health, teach critical skills like teamwork and accountability, and so much  more. In fact, 57 percent of business leaders attribute their career success to their youth sports experiences, according to PR Newswire. 

Sometimes numbers aren’t motivating enough, though. Hearing the stories of success from former youth athletes themselves is really what puts the ‘why’ in youth sports. At NextUp 2022, we gathered some influential leaders in sports to discuss what the ‘why’ in youth sports is for them.

The Why in Youth Sports

Victoria Arlen is a true testament to what youth sports can do for someone. At 11-years-old, she was diagnosed with two rare neurological conditions that did irreversible damage to her brain and spinal cord. She was in a vegetative state for four years, and thought she’d never walk again, let alone play sports. 

After four years in a hospital bed, Victoria began to blink to communicate, then speak, and eventually use the upper half of her body. While playing sports was so far from her mind, her brothers had different priorities. They thought (and somehow knew) getting Victoria back in the water would give her a newfound sense of freedom. And that’s exactly what happened.

From that day on, Victoria played sled hockey with Northeast Passage, swam, and eventually trained for the London Paralympic games—where she went on to take home one gold medal and three silver medals and break a World Record. Since then, Victoria has regained the use of the lower half of her body and has gone on to Dancing with the Stars.

“To say that sports saved me is an understatement,” says Victoria. “Sports have allowed me to not only win in competition, but to win in life. They taught me that pushing past my disability was not only possible, but necessary.” 

Emilio Collins lost his mom to breast Cancer at a young age. He was growing up in a single parent household and struggling as any young kid would as the result of this kind of loss. Luckily, he had wrestling.

“My coach was everything to me at that time, he was my savior,” says Emilio. “I trusted him, he was there for me, he taught me the value of hardwork and grit. He taught me to set high goals.” Emilio went on to get a full scholarship to college and is now Chief Business Officer” at Excel Sports Management—a leading sports management and marketing agency.

Sports taught me to have a gameplan and to never give up, says Derrick Dockery—former NFL player and current executive at TikTok.

How do we increase the impact of youth sports?

There’s a lot that youth sports leaders can do to create impactful experiences for kids. Renata Simril, President and CEO of LA84 Foundation, suggests the three As—Agency, Affiliation, and Advocacy. Give kids a say in the programs they’re participating in and they will be invested in the success.

Emilio says to focus on the ability to grind and work through hard things—like training, conditioning, and harder practices. It teaches kids that they can get through something.  However, don’t let this stop you from giving them help where it’s needed.

“Give the athletes a voice, create athlete advisory councils, give them a chance to provide feedback,” suggests Skip Gilbert, CEO of US Youth Soccer. “They buy in more when you give them a voice. Ask them what they want.”   

Unfortunately, not every kid has the same access to the youth sports programs that are providing such an important impact. Organizations like LA84 are leading the fight to play equity because she believes sports are a central tool in a person’s development. 

“How can we come together as an ecosystem to bring value and worth to play and sport? How do we make economics not a barrier? It’s about action, not just talk,” says Renata. “What are you doing to level the playing field?”

At LA84, Renata represents the millions of kids who are being left out entirely—the second largest school district in the country, where kids are 70% Black and brown, and obesity is 50%. To Renata, play equity is about individual responsibility and collective responsibility. We need to fund the organizations and initiatives that are supporting access to play. 

At Excel Sports Management, they only partner with professionals who understand the platform they have to ensure the partnerships they facilitate are impactful.

The conversation about what we can do better in youth sports is a never-ending one—and NextUp is one of the ways we aim to facilitate these conversations. Visit our youth sports management content hub to watch the full panel discussion “Putting the Why in Youth Sports” and browse through other discussions and presentations from the conference.