Among the few buildings in the world larger than the Pentagon, the Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest is so colossal, so dense and byzantine in its layout, people here say that only the occupant who commissioned it, the late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, knew how to navigate all its marbled hallways.
Who knew one hallway would someday lead to Project Play?
That day, to be exact, was Sept. 26, 2019, when about 130 leaders found their way to a large ballroom two levels up to participate in the Joacă Pentru Viaţă Summit, or the Play for Life Summit. The goal: Rethink the delivery of sport for youth in the former Eastern Bloc country, to get more of them involved.
The president of the Romanian Olympic and Sports Committee was there. So were top politicians, the acting Sports Minister, officials from the Ministry of Education, and Olympic medalists. The day began with a video message from reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, who offered her congratulations to the Aspen Institute Romania, host of the event.
“There’s nothing better for kids than to be encouraged, at first through play, towards exercise, sports and a healthy and productive adult life,” said Halep, the country’s most celebrated athlete. “Not all of today’s kids will end up winning a Grand Slam or Olympic medal, but they will be representing a competitive generation, ready to face life successfully. Good luck to the Play for Life Summit. I am with you!”
Over the past year, Aspen Romania has used our Project Play framework to convene leaders with the aim of developing a national plan for getting more children active through sports. While Project Play was created for U.S. purposes, two of the 11 countries where the Aspen Institute has international affiliates – Aspen Mexico will release its plan in November – are now partnering with their Olympic committees to create strategies to build healthier children and communities through sports.
These are their programs, and we support them where we can.
In Bucharest, that meant sharing the process our Sports & Society Program and its partners have used to build Project Play as an engine of progress in the U.S. It’s our Theory of Change, if you will, for Romanian leaders to borrow from as needed.
Step One: Organize the Thought
Launched in 2013, Project Play spent the first two years convening leaders – 300 of them at roundtables where we posed questions on a range of youth sport topics. We took a lot of notes, surfaced the best ideas, then packaged the best of them into what became our seminal report, Sport for All, Play for Life: A Playbook to Get Every Kid in the Game, with its eight strategies for the eight sectors that touch the lives of children.
The document was a critical step in laying a foundation for collective impact. It helped define what good looks like in youth sports, and the areas of opportunity for stakeholders. It created the conditions for the energy and money in youth sports – a $17 billion industry, at a minimum – to move less at cross-purposes. While programs that serve low-income youth could use more support, investments need to align with the needs of children and the research around how to build an athlete for life.
As with any country, Romania will need to develop a plan that recognizes its unique assets, limitations, culture and history. In the U.S., for instance, “Train All Coaches” is a key strategy, in recognition that most youth coaches are volunteers who are winging it. In Romania, where government-supported sport clubs provide programs, nearly all coaches are paid, educated and certified.
The training that many of them receive, however, is focused on identifying promising children and developing them into elite athletes – a holdover from the old Soviet-era system. The challenge now is how to train them in competencies like teaching social and emotional skills through sports, in all youth.
Step Two: Organize the Organizations
It’s hard to trigger systems-level change without getting the organizations at the center of that system to develop policies, practices and programs that map to the shared vision. In the U.S., we use a variety of tools to encourage cooperation and action: Project Play 2020 and Project Play Champions, which mobilizes industry leaders and non-profits; our community projects; and the annual Project Play Summit, where last month 550 leaders gathered for two days of panels and workshops.
Romania is well on its way to getting all the right organizations at the table. A key partner is the Romanian Olympic and Sport Committee, whose president, Mihai Covaliu, called for a reboot of the Romanian sport system at the Play for Life Summit.
For a while, Romania was able to rely on the old, authoritarian system to achieve results on the world stage. Romania won 26 medals at the 2000 Olympics, a decade after Ceausescu was executed, ending communist rule. Its female gymnasts dominated the 1990s, building on the legacy of Nadia Comaneci and the authoritarian coach Bela Karolyi in the 1970s.
By the 2016 Rio Olympics, Romania’s medal count had fallen to just four, across all sports. None were in gymnastics, and in Tokyo next year, as in Rio, the women’s team did not qualify.
“Too few of our children know how to run, jump and play,” said Covaliu, a former Olympic champion fencer. “We need to fix that. Mass sport sits at the base of all sport success.”
Step Three: Organize the Gatekeepers
That would be the parents, ultimately the most influential agents in the lives of children. In the U.S., our surveys show that more than 9 of 10 parents appreciate the value of sports and want their child to have positive, sustained experience. But they’re often lost on how to guide their child, leading to high attrition rates. It’s why Project Play 2020 launched the Don’t Retire Kid campaign in August, to drive them to solutions.
Romania faces a different challenge, according to leaders – parents withholding their child from sport activity. Some just don’t appreciate the value of physical activity, sending their children to school with medical notes exempting them from P.E. Others worry about introducing them to sport clubs where coaches demand performance from kids at too early of an age.
“We need to let the children enjoy playing and see what flows from that,” said Ciprian Paraschiv, development manager at the Romanian Football Federation. “As the Pope said last year, ‘Every child has a right not to be a champion.’”
It is impressive to see what Romanian leaders are already putting in place, in support its new vision. A tournament comprised of middle school teams, supported by the Olympic committee. A festival in Bucharest in June where thousands of kids got to sample 40 sports, collect stamps at each station, and connect with local clubs. Downloadable decks of playing cards that coaches can use to talk productively with kids.
Aspen Romania has asked if its staff can translate some of our tools, such as the Project Play Parent Checklists. Here you go. Happy to share, where feasible. Hope it’s useful.
Can’t say any of this was in Project Play’s Theory of Change. Certainly not Romania, 22 hours away by flight from my home in California.
But we’re beyond thrilled to see the framework travels well.
Tom Farrey is executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, home of Project Play. He can be followed on Twitter at @TomFarrey and reached at [email protected].
Learn more about the Joacă Pentru Viaţă Summit here.