Tom Farrey is director of the Sports & Society Program at The Aspen Institute, a correspondent with ESPN, and the author of “Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children.” Follow him @TomFarrey.
Today, we are pleased to release the summary report of the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit, where more than 80 high-level sport, health, media and other leaders met April 9-12 in Aspen, Colo., to begin to reimagine youth sports in America in a manner that serves the needs of all children. The 10-page report captures the themes that were most widely embraced, and includes links to supporting materials including video clips from featured sessions.
The central question of the two-year project is: How can the nation get and keep more children involved in developmentally appropriate sport activity into the teenage years, as a means of giving them lasting habits of movement, fitness and health? After all, research shows that adolescents who play sports are far more likely to be active as young adults than adolescents who do not play sports. The challenge is conceptualizing a system that meets the public need.
One could argue the US has no sports system. Instead, we have myriad groups and institutions pursuing their own narrow goals, trying to get kids through turnstiles or aggregate talent, and often working at cross-purposes. From the top down, it seems like a chaotic landscape with no organizing principle, and no set of common standards or even language.
But viewed from the bottom up—the experience of a child—there most certainly is a sports system to navigate. In the mainstream sports, there’s pressure to make the grade-school travel or club team, to reserve any chance of later playing in high school. There’s pressure to play year-round in one sport, risking overuse injuries, unnecessary concussions and burnout. Worse, millions of families just can’t afford to join the youth sports arms race. And everywhere, we see less unstructured play, which is where kids of a generation ago got most of their exercise.
Re-imagining youth sports in America in a manner that best serves the interests of children and communities requires stakeholders to envision holistic adaptations. To help with that process, I reached out to David Drummond from Google, a company whose innovations have disrupted the business model of countless industries. At a featured dinner conversation, the senior vice president for corporate development and chief legal officer for the Silicon Valley-based company encouraged the embrace of a systems change in youth sports, by deploying many of the values and concepts that Google has used to grow its cultural footprint.
Below are a few of Drummond’s key insights and recommendations, all of which will help shape the thinking about future directions with the Aspen Institute’s Project Play:
Recognize that the youth sports system is not operating efficiently: “[Youth sports] reminds me of lots of other industry structures, business systems, and ecosystems we see at Google,” he said. “It looks like one that ought to be disrupted. Because it seems like there’s a huge unmet need out there. That’s usually what happens when you have these business structures or systems that have lot of these incumbents that are vested in the situation and are doing very well. Most people don’t think to really question them and say, ‘Is this the way to go?’”
“There’s some financial need or product need or social need that is not being met—but could be met. And as [that need] becomes more obvious, the incumbents turn even more of a blind eye to it. That’s what creates the opportunity for someone to come in who’s entrepreneurial, who thinks differently and is willing to say, ‘I’m going to come up with something that’s actually better,’ and it’ll be so much better it’ll be cheaper, easier, and people will start adopting that.”
My bet is that demand comes from parents, many of whom want better options for their kids.
Develop a common platform that all stakeholders can build on: Drummond highlighted the lessons behind the success of Google’s Android and other smart phones, which transformed the mobile phone market by creating a simple, open-source format that encourages outside groups to build useful, compatible applications. “That’s where a lot of the great ideas are going to come from, the front lines,” he said, noting the parallel for youth sports is entrepreneurs and organizations that provide programs for children. So, Drummond said, “create a platform, a framework that are based on a set of principles, and then try to build the programs based on that, and fund the people who are going to be the great thinkers and leaders.”
Though limited to just one sport, a platform that was later explored and received well at the summit was USA Hockey’s American Development Model (ADM), which creates clear expectations among member clubs about the training and game environments kids need to enjoy the sport and improve as athletes.
Experiment and measure: Drummond extolled the benefits of what Google calls “one percent tests” as agents of change. “We have some new thing, so we throw it up there for one percent of the people who come to Google,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the people who use Google never see it. But the one percent does, and we see how they like it. And there are lots of ways to figure out whether they like it. So that experimentation is super important… You can bring those things into how you think about reimagining the youth sports system.”
Drummond also encouraged what Google calls “disruption by nagging”—introducing a novel product in a system component that is critical to company success but where innovation has been slow to emerge. An example: “We’re not a cable company,” he said, “but we launched this thing called Google Fiber in Kansas City. It delivers Internet access 100 times faster than the cable and phone companies. It’s only in Kansas City and Austin. But guess what happened on the day we announced it in Austin? AT&T announced they were doing the same thing, in Austin.
“If you’re doing something that is really, really good, the people who are controlling all of the resources think, ‘Uh-oh, maybe I should change. Maybe I should get with the program.’”
Imagine if Fort Worth started winning more state titles after training all community coaches in skill development and effective motivational technique, for instance. Might Dallas respond?
Be audacious: One of Google’s wildest projects is helping to create a self-driving car, one that ferries passengers to work then heads home without taking up a spot in yet another bloated, asphalt parking lot that has shaped suburban design. “And it may not work,” Drummond said. “But it turns out the technology kind of works. And it turns out computers are better drivers than humans—they don’t run red lights.” By focusing hard on making a moonshot idea viable, Google has developed sensor technology that can be adapted to make existing cars far safer.
Drummond left many in the room buzzing, imagining the possibilities to improve youth sports. As Project Play moves along, we’ll explore the most intriguing ideas that may bring to life the aspirational model of “Sport for All, Play for Life” communities across the US.
Earlier in the day, we had discussed actions that key sectors might have to take to deliver on that scenario by the year 2030— recognizing that often, oil tankers do not turn on a dime.
“I think you should be optimistic,” he said. “One of the things we have around Google is we all want to have a healthy disregard for the impossible. It may seem like the forces arrayed against changing the sports system are huge, intractable, and invested. But the more audacious you are, the more likely it is that you are actually going to change something for the better.”
For more from Drummond, watch a video clip of my conversation with him:
And please, send your game-changing idea to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The only one taken is self-driving cars for sports parents, relieved of ferrying kids to all those games.