Today’s guest columnist is Ben Sherwood, Founder and CEO of MOJO.
Judging from our record, it was a lackluster start for the Royal Blues, the AYSO football team of under 12 boys that I coach in Los Angeles. We’re 3-3-1 with three games to go in the short season.
It’s all the rage to say that win-lose records don’t count at this age, and I’m not going to go into that in this essay. Let’s just say there’s a lot more than dubs on the shoulders of a base trainer. The team depends on volunteer coaches to manage the schedule, plan the next training session, and hopefully keep it fun. Parents count on us to teach their children what it means to be a team member and, if all goes well, to inspire a love of sport for life.
It might sound strange, but in a sense the entire $ 500 billion sports industry in the United States also relies on volunteer coaches like me. Indeed, the NFL, NBA, MLB and MLS all need us to be successful.
Why? The logic is simple.
Playing sports as a child is the number 1 indicator of the future fandom. No fans, no industry.
But nine out of ten times in the United States, a child’s first sporting experience involves a volunteer coach, usually a parent. So many walks on these first meetings, and yet it is a total crapshoot. Three out of four times, according to the data, your coach has no training or experience.
This means that the critical introduction to all major professional sports in the United States – football, basketball, baseball, and soccer – comes from fathers and mothers who, while almost always well-meaning, are only occasionally skilled.
Imagine sending a kid to a math class and relying on volunteers to teach him a long division. You already know it doesn’t stick.
Youth sports are in decline. Some 70% of children drop out before the age of 13, girls at a much higher rate than boys, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this situation. According to Project Play last digits, nearly three in ten children have completely lost interest in organized sports.
It’s no wonder the kids drop out. It’s more competitive than ever. More specialized. More expensive. At a very basic level, it is no longer fun. Because they don’t play, they don’t reap the benefits of sport. And from an industry perspective, they don’t become big fans.
For professional leagues, there is quantifiable value for a child who plays his sport from an early age. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred put it succinctly: “[T]The best way to have a fan is to get a child to to play.” And NFL CMO Tim Ellis explains the issues: “You have to make them a fan before they’re 18, or you’ll lose them forever.
Think about it: lose the child, lose the fan, maybe for life.
And yet, we send millions of moms and dads to the courts and the courts every year with nothing more than a PDF of a 1994 workout plan or a YouTube video shot in someone’s backyard.
It’s no wonder youth sports are in crisis, with recreational and local programs being left behind by elite and paid travel teams, and a global ecosystem that has been crushed by COVID.
The solution cannot be for volunteer coaches to do more. They’re already doing a lot (and they’re doing it for free).
I think it’s that we need to do more for the coaches and for the recreational leagues, which should be the beating heart of youth sport.
First, we need to dispel the feeling that youth sports should focus only on developing elite athletes at the competitive level. Almost all of the resources – attention, energy, and money – go to the best young athletes, leaving the grassroots and their coaches behind. We need low-stake community places where children of all ages and abilities can learn to love the game.
Second, we need to give volunteer coaches the tools to make youth sports easy, stress-free and fun. I was this inexperienced parent-trainer who has spent hours on YouTube searching for a solution. When I couldn’t find it, I created it – a one-stop resource for high-quality, fun-to-watch and easy-to-teach training content that demystifies youth training and brings kids to the field with energy and enthusiasm.
Third, we need to invest in organizations like Coaching Corps, Up2Us Sports or the Positive Coaching Alliance, whose mission is to train coaches on what matters most and deliver to children in underserved communities. All child deserves a great trainer.
Of course, empowering coaches is just the start. But if we call this game right, we can transform the whole game. Imagine establishing a robust and differentiated youth sports landscape that invests in free or low cost grassroots and neighborhood leagues, to foster a love of the sport. powerful and ubiquitous enough to support an entire multi-billion dollar industry.
This is what we owe the children. This first meeting should aim to foster a love of the game that lasts a lifetime.
In that sense, for kids, coaches, families and the entire sports ecosystem, it’s simple: everyone wins when everyone plays.
Sherwood has coached his sons for the past 12 years in several sports. From 2010 to 2019, in his spare time, he also served as Chairman of ABC News, Chairman of the Disney ABC Television Group, and Co-Chairman of Disney Media Networks. His new company, MOJO, helps make coaching easy, fun and stress-free and won the Webby Award for Best Sports App of 2021.