My philosophy to youth development work was simple when I began: Be a caring presence. Do everything I can to let youth know they are cared for and valued. It feels a little empty to write it. Demonstrating care takes on so many forms and so much time. After 15 years, I believe this philosophy to still be the center of all youth development work. I have also learned it is incomplete.
I had the opportunity to work with young people of all backgrounds. After six years, I had observed pathways; 3rd graders who were now in high school, 9th graders who were now wading into adulthood. I was close to many young people and their families. I knew them in them in school, in the gym/field, in the neighborhood and some in their home. My efforts did not have the impact I thought they would. Care, support, love and acceptance did not change trajectories.
My philosophy had to evolve. Skills and competence are such an important part of pathways. In fact, they are huge part of our self-concept as well. Nothing builds a greater sense of value than being able to make a meaningful contribution with a skill or talent. My attempt to strengthen young people’s sense of value and confidence without helping them find and develop meaningful skills and purpose was hollow. Once competence becomes a goal, habits of character and process take on new life. Skills are learned through effort over time. Planning and reflection is essential. Communication and interpersonal skills make or break skill-building settings. Now I believe it is not a youth development context without skill building and habits of process involved.
Further, I would have conversations with leaders in schools and other community programs. Many of us were in similar positions. We could identify ways in which our work was changing lives. We were addressing academics and character. Providing a positive space and keeping kids off the street. We each had our own strengths and weaknesses. Some of us were musically talented and some were athletic. Some were organized teachers and some were relational mentors. Everyone was doing everything to meet the wide-ranging needs of youth. Yet, when I zoomed out and looked at my community, and further, my city, the needs of many young people were not being met.
The environment had to evolve. Currently, each person committed to serving youth in a given community first must build their organization. We need to get funding for our programs. Funding comes from demonstrating MY program is having a positive impact. Each organization is doing a similar set of time-consuming tasks each day before investing in young people can be addressed. This environment leads to everyone spending significant time working outside of their strengths. This environment leads to scattered and disconnected opportunities for youth. Maybe there is science enrichment for only middle schoolers. Many singing groups, yet nowhere to learn an instrument. Gaps and overlap. Incomplete pathways. Not enough caring adults and skill-building opportunities for every young person. Vessels filled with talents and world-changing potential that will never leave the dock.
My response was to step back. Coaching had become the space that I enjoyed the most. Where I felt the greatest connection of purpose, competence and passion. I returned to school with the thought that I would focus on building the best possible sport opportunities, and hope to work in a system in which others are working in their areas of greatest strengths and passions. Ten years after making that decision, I have been greatly influenced by my education and experiences, but the major questions and ideas I started with are still the same.
What if we view the environment from a broader perspective; there is a certain amount of resources, dollars, people and facilities to promote the education and development of youth in a given community. If we started building from scratch, what would the system look like? It would be hard to create a less efficient and less impactful system than we currently have. How can we reduce administration dollars and increase the presence of caring people? How can we place people to dynamically build opportunities in areas of strength? What resources and capacity can be shared? What facilitates collaboration between individuals and organizations? How can we shape the environment around youth needs and development, and still meet the adult needs of stable jobs and good wages? How can we create a culture among coaches where they are sharing ideas and learning together?
From the youth development perspective, how can we create the system of supports and opportunities for youth to explore their talents and passions, build a wide range of skills and habits, and ultimately, create the life they desire for themselves?
From the youth sport perspective, how can we provide youth and families access to a comprehensive sport and fitness ecosystem, where they can experience every way to move and play, build a foundation of movement and sport competence, and choose the ways in which they want to be physically active for lifelong health and enjoyment.
This is the heart of Developmental Athletics. To build youth-centered sport systems. Understanding there are complex issues and questions. Understanding there are culture battles to be fought. Understanding youth-centered is not always the most profitable. With that understanding, Developmental Athletics seeks to serve, support and connect the amazing youth sport coaches and facilitators to maximize the impact of the time youth spend in our care.