At age 14, I never would have guessed that a set of the volleyball, swing of the softball bat or lap around the track could mean so much.
At that age, putting the softball in play simply meant that I was contributing to the team. Now, though, I can comfortably look back and say that those youth sports experiences, whether I hit a double or struck out swinging, helped to shape me into the person I've become.
I was never the best athlete on any of my teams, but I was blessed to have coaches who allowed me to get on the court or the field and advance my skills. It was the practice and playing time, not the numbers on the scoreboard, that allowed me to be more active, gain more confidence and learn the values of teamwork, discipline and accountability that I carry with me to this day.
My experience as an athlete would have been vastly different if I had coaches who were more concerned about statistics than the personal development of myself and my teammates. Though I was fortunate, many young athletes today have not had quite the same luck. In fact, a poor experience with a coach is a big reason why 45 percent of children drop out of an organized sport according to a 2008 Women's Sports Foundation report. The U.S. Youth Soccer Association notes that six of the top seven reasons that youth quit sports are adult-influenced behaviors, ranging from lack of playing time to overemphasis on winning.
Clearly, coaches make a difference. Every word they say and decision they make affects a young athlete's perspective on sports and physical activity, and how they view themselves as a person.
When an athlete is actually able to look forward to coming to practice the next week, we know that he or she will be more likely to make physical activity a lifelong priority, more likely to create social bonds with his or her teammates and more likely to absorb the many valuable lessons that sports can instill.
A coach's impact, though, is not limited to the boundaries of sport. Coaches serve as everyday role models for their athletes and, in cases like mine, can also act as a parent away from home.
Simply put, quality coaches can make a lasting difference on the lives of today's youth. Our challenge, then, is to ensure that all coaches have the training and tools necessary to serve as positive, productive leaders for their teams.
Many organizations have made great headway in providing the type of training that can transform both coaches' and athletes' experiences. The United States Tennis Association (USTA), for example, recently committed to installing 5,000 new kid-sized tennis courts across the country and training 15,000 new coaches, trainers and teachers. First Lady Michelle Obama was among the many on hand at the U.S. Open to applaud USTA for its commitment toward young athletes.
Moving forward, the President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition is proud to be working with Aspen Institute's Project Play to elevate the national conversation on how to grow the quality and quantity of effective coaches.
On September 4, Project Play will host the first of four roundtables to provide direction and insight on how organizations can emulate USTA's success.
Any successful attempt at increasing the number of quality coaches, of course, cannot simply be a government solution, a private sector solution or a non-profit solution; rather, it must be the result of an all-hands-in type of collaboration.
Teamwork is a skill I first learned on a volleyball court and softball field many years ago, and teamwork is exactly what we'll need now to create a healthier future for today's young athletes.