Greater Youth Sports Association: Giving Kids the Tools They Need to Get Active

ODPHP recognizes National Youth Sports Strategy (NYSS) Champions for their commitment to supporting safe, fun, inclusive, developmentally appropriate, and accessible youth sports opportunities. This blog post is part of a series highlighting NYSS Champions that have found new and creative ways to engage their communities in physical activity and sports during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This post highlights how Greater Youth Sports Association helped make sure low-income kids could safely participate in sports programming during COVID-19.

Greater Youth Sports Association (GYSA) is a nonprofit that offers after-school sports programming to children from low-income households in Southern Nevada. But when the pandemic hit and schools suspended in-person learning, many of the kids that GYSA serves had no access to sports programming at all. 

GYSA adjusted quickly, pivoting to virtual programming when they couldn’t engage with kids in person. The principals of GYSA’s partner schools supported the switch knowing it was important to help their students get active safely.

“They believed in what we believe — which is that it’s critical to provide kids with the access and opportunity to play sports,” says Devonte Woodson, Co-Founder and President of GYSA.

Putting a Ball and a Plan in Every Child’s Hands

To continue reaching their participants during the pandemic, GYSA created a new program called Ball & A Plan. Through the program, GYSA provided participants their own basketball, soccer ball, or football to take home — as well as access to a virtual academy. Participants had the option to participate in 1 or all 3 sports.

A man wearing a mask and holding a soccer ball stands next to a young girl holding a soccer ball
Handing out equipment for the Ball & A Plan program.

“Ball & A Plan gave us an opportunity to get back to the basics — which is just kids playing because they want to play,” Woodson says. “They had the ball, they had the equipment, and they were able to get active without so much structure around sports.”

For each sport in the Ball & A Plan program, GYSA’s virtual academy offered sessions on: 

  • Skill development, like dribbling, passing, and shooting for basketball
  • Game play, when GYSA’s volunteer coaches would demonstrate a game that kids could play with their families
  • Social-emotional learning lessons, like how to cope with stress, how to set goals, and how to build confidence 

All of GYSA’s participants were able to access the virtual lessons using laptops they received through school.

“Sports engage kids in a way that other things don’t: it’s fun, it grabs their attention, it gets their energy out, and it speaks to them in a way that sitting in a classroom won’t,” says Annalise Lullo, Co-Founder of GYSA. “That’s why we’ve incorporated social-emotional learning — because sports can be leveraged to teach a lot of lessons that are about more than just sports.”

Helping Families Get Active Together

Because of COVID-19 guidelines related to social distancing, GYSA knew they couldn’t tell kids to go play sports with their friends as part of the Ball & A Plan program. So they encouraged kids to get active safely with their families instead.

“We really emphasized the benefits of families getting outside to play together,” Woodson says. “In addition to the physical benefits of getting active, we tried to foster that deep connection as a family.” 

Woodson adds that parents play a big role in how active their kids are and whether their kids play sports. “Kids follow what their parents do,” he says. “So if their parents are active, then kids are more likely to be active as well.”

Keeping Kids Engaged Virtually

Another challenge GYSA faced as they started the Ball & A Plan program was figuring out how to make sure kids kept participating in the program and getting active through sports. “You can’t reach through the computer screen and physically show a kid how to do something,” Lullo says.

To address this, GYSA made sure their coaches brought a lot of energy to virtual sessions to get kids excited. GYSA also set up weekly challenges, such as having participants film a video of themselves doing a sports “drill” with their families to post on GYSA’s Facebook page. 

Lullo and Woodson say that despite the challenges, they had more participants in Ball & A Plan than they ever had in past programming. And Lullo adds that while in-person activities are a key component of GYSA’s programming, GYSA will continue to offer virtual sessions to make activities accessible to all kids.

“COVID reinforced to us that children still really want to be active — and schools and parents want them to be active, too,” Lullo says. “We just have to find that outlet.” 

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