Early Positive Experiences = Athletes for Life

I don't know where I'd be today if it weren't for Dottie Jordan Park in Austin, Texas, and the director who oversaw its rec center, Mr. Robert Armistead. As the latchkey son of a single mother, that park was where I spent my childhood from morning 'til dark. And Mr. Armistead was always there ... as a coach, a father figure, a teacher (of life lessons) and a friend.

Sure I played football, baseball and basketball from an early age -- 7 or 8 -- like most kids where I lived. It taught me a lot about sport, commitment and that internal drive. But those lessons paled in comparison to what I got from those countless hours spent playing at Dottie Jordan, and the intangible gifts from Mr. Armistead, even if we didn't realize how much he was investing in our lives at the time.

My friends and I played kickball, dodgeball, softball, box hockey, Ping-Pong and touch football. We swam. We rode bikes. If we could make a game of it, we played it. And if we didn't have the right equipment or a regulation field, we didn't care. We made it up. And man, it was fun -- for hours!

And then there was Mr. Armistead.

He coached us through all of the sports we played at Dottie Jordan, and through the games we made up. At the same time, he taught us what it meant to be good sports and to respect your opponents as you did your teammates. If we didn't, he saw to it that we turned things around.

Mr. Armistead led by example as a man of integrity who cared for each and every kid who passed through the doors of the rec center or played at Dottie Jordan. He challenged us as much as he loved us.

I turned 50 earlier this year. When that day came, the phone rang like clockwork and it was Mr. Armistead. He hasn't missed a birthday yet. I'm a better man for having had him in my life.

Those early positive experiences helped my confidence, taught me to follow my passions and to find something I'd love to do. In other words, they gave me nearly all of the qualities that I've drawn on to succeed in the rest of my life.

Let me be clear. It is not just participating in sport that brings about good things in life; it is having fun with sports and physical activity that actually delivers the good stuff. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way kids stop having fun.

To address this concern and the subsequent issue of decreased physical inactivity, Nike convened a number of experts to figure out what the "good stuff" looks like. Then we checked in with a bunch of kids around the world just to make sure we were on track. It turns out there are seven features of a program that determine whether a kid will have a good experience (if you want to dig deeper, check out Designed to Move). They include:

  1. Make experiences available to every possible kid, regardless of ability or disability, economic circumstance, gender. (You name it...the list of the most excluded kids goes on and on.)
  2. Be age appropriate. Six is not sixteen. Enough said.
  3. Design programs with the right amount and intensity of movement -- sixty minutes per day or more -- and with a wide variety of age-appropriate skills. Time in line doesn't count.
  4. Fun. The options for sports and play have to be fun. Otherwise, kids will choose something more sedentary (and more interesting) every time.
  5. Motivating. There's nothing wrong with a little incentive (as long as it's not expensive). Even high-fives and cheers from other kids can go a long way.
  6. Give feedback to kids. They like to know how they're doing, so set realistic milestones for the team and individual kids.
  7. Well-taught. Whether they're volunteers or paid employees, teachers, mentors and coaches are the gatekeepers of fun. That means they need opportunities to become great coaches and programs need to invest in their development.

Unfortunately, the flipside to all of this is the alarming trend of kids being completely inactive and dropping out of sports due to poor or bad experiences. We've all seen it. The kid sitting on the sidelines because they're not "good enough." Kids standing in line waiting for their turn to take part in a drill. Kids being assigned activities that are way too advanced or specializing in one sport way too early often yield that unmistakable look of sheer boredom.

All this is causing way too many kids to say, "I can have a better time doing anything else."

At Nike, we believe in the power of human potential, and we know that through the work of Designed to Move that early positive experiences are some of the most important keys to unlocking kids' greatest potential. In fact, we often hear athletes talk about how their earliest experiences deeply impacted and shaped them -- particularly sport and play experiences outside their current job.

These kids are getting short-changed in a big way. They're missing out on the opportunity to develop the basic physical skills that are the foundation of all future movement. They won't develop the passion for physical activity that could sustain them into adulthood. And they'll miss out on all of the academic, health, financial and social benefits that active kids get.

Through our own work with kids, we confirmed that they love to play, they want to be motivated and inspired, they want to feel safe and they want to have some choices.

For those of us who are parents -- and for many of us as coaches -- it's our responsibility to reverse the current alarming trends by providing early positive experiences and create athletes for life.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in conjunction with the latter's "Project Play." Project Play aims to re-imagine youth sports in the U.S., and on November 20 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, will convene more than 30 thought leaders to help develop a plan to grow the quality and quantity of youth coaches nationally. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about Project Play, click here or follow @AspenInstSports.