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Clinton Global InitiativeFile this under Pretty Smart. Former President Bill Clinton joins NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant and a host of other athletes including Julie Foudy and Allyson Felix tonight in a Town Hall meeting to focus on children’s health and sports. The event, in conjunction with the Aspen Institute Project Play, will examine national trends in participation, which indicate that despite the growth of organized youth sports as an industry, most children between the ages of 6 and 17 do not regularly play on a team.

“Sports give young people the opportunity to be active, stay healthy, and live up to their best potential,” Clinton said via ESPN. “This conversation, as part of the Health Matters Conference, will bring leaders from sports, health, education, and other sectors to address the need and value of good coaching, and access to physical activity for all children.”

We’ve all seen the positive benefits reaped when kids are physically active and involved in sports – especially girls.   Among other issues, Clinton’s Town Hall meeting will point out  the need for universal access and early positive experiences in sports and play.

One organization that already “gets it” is Up2Us, a nationwide leader in sports-based youth development.  Up2Us has  teamed  with over 500 non-profits, schools and recreational organizations to address issues like childhood obesity, academic failure, youth violence and more – all while using the power of sports to create  fun learning environments for kids.

What is so cool about Up2Us is that they educate coaches, member organizations, and community stakeholders on the components of positive youth development as well as the challenges and opportunities of working in urban environments. It’s as much about getting kids involved with sports as giving organizations the tools and knowledge to increase the impact of their programs.

Tonight, Bryant  and others will discuss the need for universal access and early positive experiences in sports and play. Bryant comes to the conversation as a father and a world-class athlete (sadly on the DL for the Lakers). He has strong opinions about how the culture of youth sports has changed over the past generation, with its shift away from casual sport play toward early, high doses of organized sports that many families cannot afford. The pay-to-play aspect is an unfortunate consequence  but only one of many issues that need to be addressed.

Redefining the role of sports in the lives of youth is integral to battling a bevy of societal problems.  Clinton’s Town Hall meeting, which will also include a Q&A session with teens to explore their thoughts from a youth perspective, should focus not only on getting youngsters involved in sports, but in creating change through sports. That is the real power of sports and when it comes to kids, that is where the focus should be.

I think everyone will agree that getting kids off the couch is important – statistics show that active kids do better in school, have better self-esteem and are generally healthier.  But it’s not just teaching sports skills  – it’s promoting positive youth development. Training coaches to be sensitive to trauma, to be aware of developmental issues and to be proactive in situations where kids may not have the tools to thrive. That’s where organizations like Up2Us and initiatives like Coach Across America really make a difference.

As communities, parks, schools and other government officials draft their 2014 budgets, they should look long and hard at the bottom line. The elimination of sports programs can lead to the elimination of a lot of other things including good health and values.  Here’s hoping that tonight’s event – with the input of Clinton and others – draws more attention to the issue and offers up innovative solutions that include girls as well as boys.

An edited version of the Town Hall event will be broadcast on ESPN2 on Feb. 9th.

January 13, 2014
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