Voices From The Field


The most important part of my job is to listen and learn from heroes. All over this country, men and women are sacrificing their time and energy to coach at-risk kids in sports.  These coaches have no money, no equipment, and no uniforms.   But they have a commitment to kids; in many cases, to kids who have been given up on.  Here's a few stories I heard in just the past few weeks:

In Miami, I met a coach who goes into the public schools and asks the principals to give him the most dangerous kids roaming those hallways.  “The kids who have been incarcerated, who everyone has given up on.”  He then plucks those kids out of the school, one by one, and takes them fishing.  That's right, he takes them fishing.   For many of these teenage males, they have never spent any quality time with an older male.  In poorer African-American communities, these kids see gangs and violence as the only way to prove their manhood.  But fishing alongside of an older male who looks just like them but chose a different path in life is all they need to see their lives differently.  "They don't even have to talk to one another," the coach told me.  "Just being in each other's presence is sometimes all it takes."   The coach told me that after a dozen years, he recently received his first donation of tackle boxes.  He's still trying to get enough fishing rods to give one to every child in the program.

In New Orleans, I met a football coach who told me how he spent a year preparing his kids to have the confidence to play in a football tournament.  "They practiced every day," the coach said, "and they committed to staying in school and staying out of trouble."  But when the tournament came, even the coach couldn't change the outcome.   "When the kids got to the field, they were in awe.  The other teams had uniforms and pads.  Our kids only had t-shirts and tennis shoes.  If you could see the defeat on their faces before the game even began. They felt that they just weren’t good enough.  They immediately turned around and got back on the bus.”   The coach is still looking for donations of uniforms.

In New York, I sat with a retired man as we watched a group of boys playing basketball.  All of the boys were from a nearby housing organization where he still sits on the board of directors.  Thanks to Coach Across America, his son was now their basketball coach.    I asked the dad what else these kids needed besides a coach.  "Trophies," he answered, "every one of them.".  He then explained:  "I can point to each of the boys on this court and tell you a story you wouldn’t believe.  Who's in an abusive home, whose brother was just sent to prison, who doesn’t get fed a decent meal, whose parent is an addict, who was sent away to live with an aunt.  Against all these odds, these boys get together every afternoon with my son and instead of joining a gang or doing drugs, they play basketball and commit to their future.  Yet, no one has ever pressed pause and given them a trophy.”  “Why?” I asked.  “Because we don’t have the money to buy them one.”


Donate uniforms or equipment…

Like many of you, I still have my trophies on the wall from when I was kid.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director

20 Questions. Coach Holly. Title IX.


Last year, I was at a training where a dozen adults in attendance were each secretly given the name of an accomplished male athlete.   They were then instructed to walk around the room and play 20 Questions with one another and see how many of these athletes they could identify from amongst their peers.  At the end of ten minutes, a tally was taken to see how the group did.  Every secret athlete had been identified multiple times by multiple participants in the room. Next, the same attendants were then asked to repeat the game.  But this time, each participant was secretly given the name of a female athlete.  The female athletes were equally accomplished as the male athletes in terms of Olympic medals or championships won.  The game of 20 Questions ensued.  At the end of 10 minutes, only two of the female athletes were identified by the entire group.

Now, let's hold that thought, as I tell you about Coach Holly.

This past Friday, Coach Holly spoke to a room filled with the employees of Mercedes-Benz USA.  It was all part of a celebration of the commitment of Mercedes-Benz and the Laureus Sport For Good Foundation to support Coach Across America in cities across the nation.  Holly told the employees of how girls at the school where she coaches were being tormented by boys.  They said, "you girls shouldn't play sports.  Don't you know that girls don't make good athletes".  But her girls quickly snapped back: "That's not true.  Look at Coach Holly.  She's a great athlete."

20 Questions.  Coach Holly.   Title IX.  40 Years Later...

In case you don't know, Title IX was the landmark legislation passed 40 years ago this week that was supposed to level the playing field for girls to participate in school sports.   Despite its provisions, this past year was the first year in decades in which the number of girls playing sports has actually decreased, not increased. It's no surprise when you consider how little recognition we give to female athletes and how few schools actually benefit from a Coach Holly.  We still have a long way to go.

In the meantime, one thing we should insist upon for all coaches, male and female, is TRAINING.  That’s right, training on gender in sports.  Girls socialize, learn and acquire confidence in ways that are different than boys.  But with most coaches being male, "STOP TALKING" is often the acceptable M.O. at soccer or basketball practice.  And while that might work to control a rambunctious group of 10 year-old boys, for girls trying a new sport for the first time it might translate as "STOP PLAYING".  At Up2Us, we believe every coach needs to be trained to engage girls in developmentally appropriate manners that respect their different learning styles and increase their passion for sports.  This is not just because every girl should experience the joy of sports, it is because every girl should experience the benefits of sport.  These benefits are self-confidence, leadership skills, discipline, conflict resolution and determination.  Without them, girls may be at a disadvantage not just as athletes but as future businesspersons and world leaders.

The Up2Us Center for Sports-Based Youth Development is developing training to reach thousands of coaches in the next few years.  Our Coach Across America program is hiring and placing hundreds of women as coach-mentors to girls in urban communities.  It's just a few steps we are taking to make a more equal nation, 40 years later.  We believe in a nation in which gender simply doesn't matter on the field, on the court, or in the stadium…and it shouldn't matter the next time you play 20 Questions either.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director

Treating Trauma Through Sports


Last week, Up2Us and Edgework Consulting delivered a training on the power of sport to help traumatized kids heal.  It was part of a partnership between the US Attorney’s office and local SBYD leaders in Philadelphia to use sport to address the difficult challenge of working with youth in the juvenile justice system. Most initiatives aiming to keep court-involved youth out of trouble fail to recognize one critical characteristic of the population.  Youth who have been exposed to a lifetime of poverty, violence, or both, are traumatized.   Trauma impairs the normal development of their brains and bodies and keeps them from functioning in social situations.

Traumatized youth don’t develop the tools to regulate their emotions or control their impulses.  Sometimes, they are aggressive and self-destructive; sometimes they isolate themselves.   Either way, the behavior is not consistent with social norms and youth are punished for it…even though they can’t control it.  Instead of punishment, what traumatized youth really need is a chance to reconnect with their bodies and redevelop social and emotional skills.

They need to play sports.

Within the lines of a lacrosse field or basketball court, youth have the chance to be in control of their bodies and overcome the paralyzing fear of their past.  They are encouraged to take risks in a safe and supportive environment where the consequences are not a matter of life or death.  They develop a relationship with a caring adult who offers the consistency and predictability that helps them feel in control.   They have the chance to heal.

The potential for using sport in the process of healing traumatized youth is boundless.  And the need is great.  In Philadelphia, they have proposed a simple solution- for probation officers and coaches to work together to provide youth a place where they not only get respite from the chronic trauma of their everyday lives, but also the chance to reverse its effects.  We think they are on to something brilliant.  And we’ll be supporting them in every way we can.

Megan Bartlett Director, Up2Us Center

"Driving" a Nation To Better Health


This past week, Mercedes-Benz USA, in partnership with the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, announced a $1.15 million gift to the Up2Us Coach Across America program. The announcement was made in Chicago with celebrity athletes and Laureus World Sport Academy Members, Edwin Moses and Marcus Allen, in attendance. The funding will sponsor 250 coaches in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and New Orleans. There's something very special about this donation: it came from an automobile company. That's right, an automobile company whose business is not obviously tied to fighting childhood obesity or promoting health outcomes. But Mercedes Benz USA demonstrates that maybe it's business is, in fact, tied to the wellbeing of the next generation of Americans. Maybe all our business is tied to this one single outcome.

You don't need an Italian mother like mine to remind you that "if you have your health, you have everything". Yet, we continue to ignore the worsening situation in which an estimated 25 million children will watch their health erode because of poor diets and a lack of opportunities to engage in regular physical activity. Without their health, this generation will face countless other challenges, that include low worker productivity, low quality of life, low civic engagement and even increased depression. Is this really the future of America?

The 250 Coach Across America coaches will be equipped with the tools to use sports to teach nutrition and wellness and to inspire physical activity for more than 40,000 at-risk youth. This is just the start for this program, which challenges every person to use their love of sports to spend a year in service to kids who need them.

If our nation has its health, it has everything.

At a time in which we face numerous challenges, let's keep this in the forefront of our minds.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director

So Can You: Sports As a Solution to Poverty


The director of an Up2Us program once told me the story of her childhood.  She grew up in a housing project where her mother had her when she was a teenager, and her grandmother had her mother when she was a teenager.  She was told never to expect to leave the housing project or the cycle of poverty that she was born into because it “just didn’t happen.”  But throughout her childhood, she ran track and played sports—and her coach had different dreams for her.  Her coach told her to imagine college, to imagine success, and to imagine a life beyond the projects.  With her coach’s ongoing support, she set goals for herself as an athlete and a student. She used the skills she learned from being part of the team to become successful in college, in her career and in life… Can sports end poverty?  Yes they can.  And I think the model for doing so goes something like this:  we train coaches to inspire young people in areas of extreme urban and rural poverty.  These coaches coach after school, but they also meet with children during the school day to “check in on them” and help them set weekly goals for themselves.  These goals include everything from life skills, educational goals, employment skills, to simply believing in themselves.  The coaches also create expectations for the teams so that the kids can learn from each other on and off the field.  This includes teammates holding each other accountable for being on time, working together, resolving conflict, focusing on common goals, encouraging each other’s success, overcoming failure, and continuously setting higher expectations.  Sounds awfully like employees at Microsoft or Apple.

Through this model, sports can provide children the skills they can use in future careers in businesses, nonprofits and government agencies.  I get to see sports do this everyday.  Not just through the more than 500 Up2Us member organizations that conduct sports-based youth development programming in every state in this country, but through the coaches in the Up2Us Coach Across America program.  Coach Across America is an AmeriCorps program that challenges adults to spend a year in service inspiring low-income youth through sports.  AmeriCorps is a federal program that was started to end poverty in this nation.  Coach Across America is the sports solution that accomplishes this goal.

…and as for that program director who grew up in the housing project: twenty years later, she’s right back where she started from.  But this time she’s not there as a resident but as a coach.  She leaves her day job every afternoon just to be there for her team of girls.  Her message to each of them is a powerful one:

“I did it and so can you.”

Paul Caccamo Executive Director

Doctors Should Prescribe Youth Sports


I’m serious.  There is enough evidence to demonstrate that youth sports programs promote physical and mental health that medical providers could save the healthcare system billions by simply prescribing “3 hours of tennis (or lacrosse or swimming or soccer) per week”.   And for parents, this prescription is safe and comes without harmful side effects. Think about it.  We now know that kids who play sports are eight times more likely to be active as adults.  They are more likely to have healthier self-images and less likely to experience emotional distress.   On the contrary, kids who do not play sports are 60% more likely to be overweight and are more likely to start drinking and using drugs. In the long term, regular participation in sports prevents diabetes, heart disease and other chronic conditions.  It also relieves mental distress and promotes confidence and self-esteem.  What pill does all of that?

But there’s one key to ensuring this prescription’s effectiveness.  The patient should ask their doctor to be prescribed “sports-based youth development”--not just any sports.  Sports based youth development programs prioritize inclusion, fun, safety and health.  And their coaches have received basic training on child development.  They know how to congratulate their athletes not just for scoring goals but for striving to achieve goals on and off the field.  They create atmospheres that are safe for all players to try new things and for any one player to make mistakes.

Where can a patient find these programs?  Up2Us is a coalition of more than 500 of them serving children in every state in the country.   By prioritizing youth development over developing elite athletes, Up2Us organizations are redefining sports as a solution to this nation’s healthcare crisis.  After all, promoting health and wellness was what youth sports were originally about one hundred years ago when sports were first instituted as a free part of our public education system.  Look where we are now that 43 states allow these same schools to charge their kids to play sports: we have the first generation of youth with a lower life expectancy than their parents.

Just two weeks ago, I met with a sports-based youth development program in Los Angeles that targets low-income youth who are otherwise shut out of elite sports leagues.  The week I was there was special for one particular coach at the program.  Thanks to his work, one of his athletes, a young girl, had just learned that she no longer needed eight separate pills to control her type 2 diabetes.  In fact, her doctor told this girl and her parents that they could manage the disease without any medication at all.

The savings to the healthcare system for this child alone is enough to fund ten sports programs in their entirety.  I say it’s time we multiply her story by the other 20 million children who are threatened by diabetes in their lifetimes.

There’s one way to do so.  Let’s get doctors to prescribe youth sports.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director

We Need a National Jobs Program for Youth Sports in America


By now, most of us are well aware of the epidemic of childhood obesity in this nation, and we have seen many moves on the part of the food industry and the schools to address it. However, that's only half of the equation for solving this problem; the other half is how do we inspire kids throughout our country to be more active. The urgency of this effort cannot be understated. If we continue to live as inactively as we do now, the cost of treating diseases from conditions related to childhood obesity such as diabetes will potentially collapse our U.S. healthcare system. Already 20% of healthcare bills stem from preventable diseases like diabetes that afflict only 8% of the population. At current rates, more than 50% of Americans will be diabetic or pre-diabetic by 2020; this will cost U.S. healthcare $3.5 trillion in the next decade alone. Sustainable?

We know that kids who play sports are eight times more likely to be active throughout their lifetimes. We also know that youth who play sports develop healthier attitudes about what they choose to eat. Yet, at a time like this, fewer kids are playing sports in America than ever before, especially in communities where childhood obesity rates are the highest. This is because their sports programs have been cut and eliminated. Their schools have wiped out entire teams and leagues, especially those that serve girls and middle school students.

We can change this now. We should create a national jobs program that challenges adults to be coaches, especially in this nation's most disadvantaged communities. Not just any coaches but trained coaches. Trained coaches are those who can address health, nutrition and other aspects of youth development so that children participating in their programs can get the skills they need to be successful and healthy adults.

There’s something else that’s equally special about creating a national job program for youth sports. It will create jobs for those that need them the most. Right now the highest unemployment bracket in this country is young adults ages 18 to 24 years old. For minorities, the unemployment rate for this age group almost doubles. Yet, it is this very  same group who may hold the key to solving the biggest threat facing our youth this century. If given the opportunity to be coaches, this group can use their passion for sports to change the national health trajectory. They can also get job skills training that can lead to career paths in areas such as health education, youth and recreational services, teaching and nonprofit management.

Up2Us is already proving the cost effectiveness of this model through our Coach Across America program. Coach Across America has placed 280 coaches in 110 low-income communities this past year. Many of these coaches come from minority communities with high unemployment rates. Coach Across America gives them their first job and trains them with skills that lead to long-term employment. In turn, they use their familiarity with their communities to get more than 35,000 youth engaged in regular physical activity, many for the first time. This program is currently an AmeriCorps program and provides minimal stipends to these young adults. Yet, guess how many applied for these low-paying 280 positions? 4500.

The passion is out there and the need is out there. We need corporations to join with the government in growing this program and translating this model into a national jobs program.

We need a national job program for youth sports.

It’s a win-win situation.

It solves our nation's childhood epidemic and it puts young adults to work.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director