As a lifetime swimmer, from the starting blocks in Mexico City to the roster of Florida State University men’s swim team, I know firsthand the role sports play in shaping a child’s future — not just academically, but socially, and personally. So, I have spent many years back in my country as a strong advocate for physical activity improvements in the Mexican system.
In November, my colleagues and I presented the Aspen Institute Mexico’s very own “Playbook Mexico.” It’s the culmination of two years of research bringing together kids, parents, trainers, experts in the field, companies, brands, Olympic athletes, NGOs, the academic sector and government officials to identify nine barriers, and their possible solutions, that we face in developing and sustaining youth sport participation. The project was inspired by the framework and methodology of Project Play, which the Sports & Society Program has used to help stakeholders build healthy communities through sports in the US.
The launch event for our report was held at Universidad Anahuac Norte in Mexico City and was made up of a panel of leaders from the Aspen Institute Mexico, the US, contributors from the university’s faculty, as well as past and former Olympic athlete speakers, and a panel of kids. The audience consisted of parents, coaches, education and health professionals, brands such as Nike, media representatives, NGOs, academic experts and government officials.
The interest in our playbook follows the great need for solutions. Mexico, a nation of 126 million with 31.1% of the population below the age of 17, has one of the highest obesity rates in the world. One in three youth, ages 6 to 19, are overweight or obese, and more than half (51%) of the youth between ages 10 and 14 are physically inactive. Sports play a major role in addressing these problems, as the instinct of children is to play – but often in Mexico, they have no place to do so or are discouraged from participating.
We knew we had to identify barriers and develop strategies specific to Mexico, just as the Sports & Society Program developed a framework specific to the structure and culture of youth sports in the US. Below is what we came up with, all mapping to a vision of Mexico, where all children have the opportunity to be active through sports.
Barrier 1: Early discouraging experiences
Strategy 1: Let’s build up a good beginning
By asking kids what they want, and letting them play naturally, we can increase the probability of them staying in sports. Before age 10, if kids have positive experiences in an activity, they are more likely to continue it in the long run.
Barrier 2: Limited options, more of the same
Strategy 2: Motivate them to try new alternatives
We tend to stick to a few mainstream sports, or only those easily accessible, but we can be innovative with the space and tools we have in order to let kids try new things, or even make up a new game. This enhances kids’ abilities, prevents boredom, and allows them pick and choose what they’re good at or like the most.
Barrier 3: Lack of adults as healthy models
Strategy 3: Adults as role models
Often, the problem lies in the households where parents aren’t setting a healthy and active example for their kids. There is a strong correlation between parents that are involved in sports and activities and their kids doing the same.
Barrier 4: Insecure and inaccessible environments for children
Strategy 4: Create adequate public spaces for kids and their characteristics
29 out of 32 entities in Mexico point to lack of security as the main concern. It’s paramount that we have accessible and secure spaces to practice activities, and that the infrastructure is adequate for children (i.e. a basketball hoop scaled to kids’ heights vs. 2 meters tall).
Barrier 5: Deficiencies in educational plans and programs
Strategy 5: Make and design a plan
Mexico’s P.E. programs are quite limited in offering only 50 to 60 minutes a week of physical activity for children. Children between the ages of 5 and 12 should be doing 60 minutes of physical activity a day. Technology is a great avenue to develop apps and online platforms that contain games and activities for kids to play. Also, the education sector can restructure their educational plans to include more P.E. time for the kids during school hours.
Barrier 6: Exclusion and discrimination during sports practice
Strategy 6: The games know no differences
Mexico is among the most diverse countries in the world — with different ways of thinking, interests and cultures, all of which can lead to discrimination and exclusion. Unfortunately, kids with a disability or are part of a minority don’t have the same opportunities in school, sports, and socially. We encourage the implementation of more inclusive programs and teaching kids to be more inclusive. The media and parents play a big role in this change as well.
Barrier 7: Deficiencies in human resources
Strategy 7: Strengthen training programs
Trainers and P.E. teachers should instill self-sufficiency and confidence in children. Emotional support and interpersonal communication from such trainers and role models are key tools for kids to be motivated to participate and continue to be involved in sports over the long run. The development of apps, platforms, and social programs to certify more trainers, as well as the introduction of P.E. teachers in schools, is crucial.
Barrier 8: Deficiencies in the use of media
Strategy 8: Effective use and optimization of media
The support of mass media and new technologies in the diffusion of activities, events, and community opinion in sport is extremely important. The more we generate conversations about the importance of physical activity and a healthy lifestyle, as well as sports campaigns directed to kids and adults to educate them about the benefits, the more we can increase participation and combat the obesity epidemic in Mexico.
Barrier 9: Absence of evaluation, monitoring, and research in Mexico
Strategy 9: Strengthen research for the development of solutions
We need to create a national evaluation system so that all schools can implement tests that are simple, reliable, and safe to create a control and parameter of advancement in the physical capabilities of children.
To surmount these barriers, it is vital that the key players in our society come together to work symbiotically in service of and for the future of our children. We need engagement from: government, schools, public health organizations, sport associations, businesses, parents, the social sector, the media, and technology organizations.
It is Aspen Mexico´s duty to promote this research and to help permeate these solutions throughout Mexico. In the coming years, we want to develop “local guides,” akin to the community-focused State of Play reports produced in the US, that build on our national report and can help leaders in different areas of the country increase childhood activity levels. Leaders in various cities and states have expressed interest in this goal. We also will work with the Sports & Society Program to adapt and distribute existing resources that may be of use here.
Progress will take time and investment. But we are confident that the work put in by all who contributed to the development of the Aspen Institute Mexico’s work will continue in the coming years, for which I am deeply grateful. This will result in significant changes in the lives of our youth and our society.
Our hope is that everyone who reads or hears about our effort will understand how vital it is that we come together and contribute in whatever capacity we can.
So, please, if you want to believe in the vision we share, reach out if you think you might be able to hop on board and help us implement these solutions.
Dieter Holtz is CEO of Upfield and a board member of The Aspen Institute of Mexico, one of 11 countries where the Institute has affiliates. The project manager for Project Play in Mexico is Tatiana Vertiz, who can be reached at [email protected]. Learn more about how Project Play has begun helping other countries build healthier kids and communities here.