Rule number one of getting kids active through sports: Ask Kids What They Want. The kids are the customer. How can community leaders make improvements to the current landscape of youth sports if they aren’t asking kids about their sports experience?
Every kid has a story to tell, and that story can help to inspire positive change for leaders to come together to develop key solutions for youth sports. In the State of Play: Baltimore, Aspen interviewed five dynamic kids, each with a different sports experience and perspective but with the same goal in mind of being active through sports.
Lily Agueda, 13
Ideally, Lily, a seventh-grader at Hampstead Hill Academy, would not be the only girl on her coed basketball team. Not enough middle-school girls are interested to create girls-only teams. Only five girls tried out for the coed basketball team.
“It’s mainly that more girls aren’t interested, because I know from my school there aren’t many girls that want to play any sports,” Lily said. “But sometimes I feel like the important people who can make the leagues happen, they don’t actually think about what girls really want to do. They think about how to improve leagues, but not for any specific gender.”
So Lily speaks out. She tells teachers, her principal, vice principal, and parents of friends with businesses that they can help create an all-girls team.
A girls basketball team exists in Lily’s area for fourth- and fifth-graders, but not for middle-school players. Lily said that she would like to play other girls her age that also enjoy a less competitive league.
Lily finds that a huge difference exists between playing with boys versus girls. Boys tend to focus on whether they win or lose, she said. Lily is less concerned about who won and gains satisfaction if she plays well.
To Lily, the joy of basketball revolves around finding friends to shoot hoops with at their own pace.
Lily lives across the street from Patterson Park and near a basketball court, where she often plays with friends. Yes, she said, there have been incidents around her neighborhood. But that doesn’t stop her from playing the game she loves.
“I like it when I can just be myself and make up my own rules,” she said. “It’s not like I’ve ever had a bad time playing basketball.”
But just the same, she wishes more girls would join her.
Alonzo Horton, 17 & Keyon Woods, 15
The reason Alonzo and Keyon each play three sports at the National Academy Foundation School became clear as they described their neighborhoods. Alonzo spoke of trash, fights, and shootings. Keyon said he’s friends with kids who are drug dealers, “but I try to stay away from it.”
Sports keep them occupied. Sports give them pride—a basic feeling every child needs.
Feeling proud about NAF sports facilities can be challenging. NAF’s varsity football games are played on Dunbar High School’s field. Every junior varsity game is on the road.
“It’s kind of messed up,” Keyon said. “It would be nice to have your own home field so your school has support.”
Last season, the junior varsity team walked several minutes with equipment to practice at McKim Field. That site is now unavailable, being converted into a $30 million Ronald McDonald House for seriously ill children and their families. The school is exploring alternatives.
Alonzo believes Dunbar should share its football field with NAF for practices. “Let us practice on the other side,” he said. “It’s a wide field.”
A NAF administrator said school leaders understand the scheduling challenges for Dunbar in sharing its field. She said that occasionally, Dunbar does make its fields, pool, and other facilities available.
NAF wrestling practices involve mats in a classroom. Baseball practices occur in a small patch of grass near a parking lot.
“It’s not a lot of space, but you’ve got to work with it,” Keyon said.
The alternative is no sports. That’s not an option for Alonzo and Keyon, who use sports to stay focused on becoming mechanical engineers.
Nina Locklear, 11
Nina is a people person with wisdom well beyond her years as a fifth-grader at City Springs Elementary School. She questions why boys at the UA House, a community rec center built by Under Armour that she often visits, don’t play football and basketball after school despite wanting to grow up and become football and basketball players.
“I’m like … ‘why don’t you try the sport and that can actually help you get to where you want to go to make you successful?’” Nina said.
If this sounds like coach-speak, well, it is. Nina is a coach. She’s part of a junior coaching program at her school for kids to motivate kids academically and athletically.
The program is run by Playworks Maryland, a national nonprofit that manages recess for three schools in our focus area. Playworks helps teach kids to run their own games at recess and settle disputes quickly—rock-paper-scissors is the problem solver—while teaching no bullying and working cooperatively.
“Other girls don’t really like to play sports,” said Nina, wearing a Baltimore Orioles jersey on the day her class took a field trip to Camden Yards for a baseball game. “They just do their nails, do makeup, put on some pretty clothes. I’m not that type of girl.”
Nina said very few children play outside in her Perkins Homes neighborhood and she usually stays inside because “you’ve got violence and stuff.” Nina’s father never imagined she would like sports.
But since Nina started watching basketball on TV with her dad, she’s curious about joining a basketball team. She hasn’t joined a basketball team yet because she wants to improve her jump shot and not embarrass herself or her team.
“I might join at my middle school next year,” said Nina, who, unconventionally, managed to become a coach before playing in team sports.
Keney Davis, 16
By her own admission, Keney, a sophomore at Dunbar High School, said she can have a “pretty bad attitude and temper.” She was kicked off the tennis team as a freshman for fighting and has battled teachers.
The anger resurfaced during a soccer game last fall when an opposing player repeatedly pushed her and Dunbar’s goalie, according to Keney. She said she “blanked out,” hollered at the referee, and was prepared to fight. Keney got a red card and was banned from soccer for the season.
“I was wrong. … I’m not really good at talking,” she said. “So it was as if somebody said something to me I didn’t like, I was fighting.”
Several months after the incident, school administrators and coaches are impressed at how she’s maturing. Swimming may have helped.
Keney’s favorite sport is lacrosse. She also likes badminton, enjoying the unity of playing doubles and the nuance of understanding a partner’s strengths and weaknesses. But she had never swum in her life and was afraid of drowning.
Nikki Cobbs, Dunbar’s swimming, soccer, and badminton coach, convinced Keney to try swimming since her grades and attitude usually improve while playing sports. One added bonus: Keney was hired as a summer pool attendant for Cobbs, who oversees aquatics at Chick Webb recreation center.
Coaches patiently asked Keney to trust them with her life. She eventually conquered her fears. At the city championship, Keney finished second in a 50-meter freestyle heat. Now one of Keney’s friends wants to try swimming.
“You never really hear (of) kids swimming,” Keney said. “It’s just different. People are scared of different.” Keney embraced different. She dove into a sport where safety depends on staying calm—a characteristic that may help her in life.
Watch Keney Davis share her love for swimming on the Baltimore Sun website here.
Project Play: Baltimore is a multiyear initiative designed to help city stakeholders grow the quantity and quality of sport options available to local youth. It is the first model community initiative organized by the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. Supported by Under Armour, it is a bold experiment designed to serve and inspire Baltimore’s communities.