As someone who’s made his living for the past 20 years in the sports industry, I’m often asked what my fondest sports memories are from when I was a child. While I find it easy to answer this question, my response typically surprises my interviewers. Some might expect that I’d share a story of some past glory on the varsity basketball court or football field, or a tale of overcoming adversity or injury to achieve an ambitious goal on the ball diamond or soccer pitch. But for me, the reality is that I wasn’t a particularly gifted athlete. I was a little too heavy, a little too slow, and a little too “average” in skill to ever be considered for the competitive teams in my life. I was cut during travel baseball tryouts in 8th grade. I was cut from the freshman basketball team. I quit the high school football team after 2 practices. So, those experiences that make up many a sports enthusiast’s journey aren’t a part of my story.
What IS a part of my story, despite the lack of competitive milestones, is a life that is rich with meaningful memories forged through sport. Thanks to my family, who introduced me to a wide variety of activities starting at a young age (which helped me develop competence & confidence), friends who shared those interests (which provided motivation), and high quality local recreational programs in my community (which provided access and opportunity throughout my childhood) sports still played a meaningful and joyful role in my life.
Now in middle age, I look out at our current youth sports landscape and see something very, very different. I see a landscape that is hyper structured, overly competitive, expensive, specialized and seemingly more interested in identifying the “best” than including and being a source of joyful activity for all. It’s an industry that has seemingly become far more focused on outcomes, results, social media views and NIL potential than serving as many as possible for as long as possible in the best environments possible. For today’s kids, that delivers a clear message that if you can’t play or compete (or can’t afford to play or compete) at a high level, then it’s not even worth playing. This message has real impact, and is reflected in participation declines in the 6-12 age group that have persisted for more than a decade. (https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/youth-sports-facts/participation-rates)
This is why I am so thankful for organizations such as 2-4-1 Sports, based in Hartford, CT, Kidsports in Eugene, OR, and West Allis / West Milwaukee (WI) Recreation, to highlight a few. Organizations such as these are filling a vital need in their respective communities. They have not only recognized, but have embraced the physical, social and emotional benefits sports participation provides for all kids, and they are committed to delivering high quality programming that provides the tools and motivation kids need to engage confidently in a variety of sports and activities throughout their lifespan. They also help send a nostalgic but meaningful message to kids and families that sport doesn’t always need to be formal or hyper-organized. Sport can be a pickup game with friends and neighbors. It can have goofy rules or combine multiple sports. It can have unorthodox equipment. This creativity and innovation, combined with a focus on an inclusive program environment enables more kids to stay engaged in sport (as participants, future coaches, future officials, etc). And… in an interesting and unexpected twist, it ALSO empowers those with competitive ambition to achieve higher levels of success and sustain their competitive success longer. (ref: HERE)
So, what are my fondest sports memories? The easy answer is that my fondest memories of sports are the days spent in the yard, on the driveway or at the park, playing pick-up baseball, football, basketball or “hybrid” games with my school buddies. We made up rules, we kept “stats” and records, we talked and laughed for hours recapping the best plays while having a post-game snack. We had home run derbies, slam dunk contests on 8 foot rims, and field goal kicking competitions using evergreen trees as goalposts. The way these moments filled the days of my childhood, shaped my friendships, and brought joy, laughter and exhaustion to all of us are my very best youth sports memories. The more complete answer, however, is that these memories are still being made. Even in my “advanced age” (I’m 46 now), I still gather with some of those same friends to play pick-up basketball, a little touch football, spikeball, or whatever else strikes our fancy. We find as much joy from those experiences today as we did when we were 12.
In the big picture, that’s what truly matters. Eventually, no matter how skilled or competitive we may have been in our youth, we ALL end up playing the same version of sports in the end… for fun and joy. My hope is that as an industry, we rise to meet the moment we find ourselves in and commit to providing our current generation of kids with the same inclusive opportunities for foundational joy through sport that we experienced.
About Nate Baldwin
Nate Baldwin has nearly 20 years of recreational sports industry experience as an entrepreneur, program administrator, and advocate for inclusive, high quality sport experiences. Nate’s diverse career has spanned from the creation and management of a successful adult recreation organization in Denver, CO, to the revitalization of the Appleton (WI) Parks & Recreation youth sports program (recognized as an Aspen Institute Project Play Champion in 2018). Nate lives in Appleton, WI with his wife Martha and their 3 active boys.