Rucker’s Legacy: the Game of Life

Harlem’s Rucker Park is widely known for the parade of famous players who have graced its basketball courts. Everyone from Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant has played there. Today, the park plays host to elite prep school tournaments, which often are the gateway for recruitment to high-profile universities and lucrative professional careers.

But as the New York Times‘ William C. Rhoden reminded in an August column, the park’s namesake, Holcombe Rucker, was an early pioneer of what we call today “sports-based youth development.” He started a tournament at the park in the 1950s to help kids from less fortunate circumstances stay off the streets and aim for college careers.

“His life’s mission,” as Rhoden put it was “expanding opportunities, broadening horizons and empowering young, disadvantaged African-Americans in Harlem.” Sport was just an avenue  to better academic and social outcomes for these low-income children, rather than the stepping stone to a professional career that is possible for only a handful of extraordinarily gifted athletes.

The idea that sports are good for children is not a new one. Most of us grew up hearing that participation in youth sports builds character, instills discipline, fosters teamwork and develops leaders. Over the years I’ve learned that while this is generally the case, it is most true when coaches assume responsibility and are intentional about achieving positive social outcomes.

The challenge today is that sport also holds the promise of great fame and wealth for those fortunate enough to make it to the pros. Such benefits are real, and many coaches, parents, and players alike entertain that dream for themselves or for their children. It’s a pyramid scheme though, with only a relative few at the very top getting to enjoy the benefits.

The real value of youth sport, however, is as an engaging platform to help children who make up the base of the pyramid develop knowledge and valuable life skills that will help them become healthy and productive adults.

Coaches are among the most influential people in the lives of children. Kids engaged in sports are typically there because they want to be there — what child doesn’t want to have fun? — and they are eager to learn. That’s a teacher’s dream. Whether coaches leverage these opportunities to the greatest benefit of children has been largely luck of the draw — particularly as the emphasis in youth sports has shifted to winning at younger and younger ages.

The luckiest children get coaches who recognize and embrace their role as major influencers; coaches who are committed to helping their players succeed on and off the playing field. In the past, a few passionate and charismatic leaders, like Rucker, made that their life’s work — often at great personal sacrifice. With the wide range of challenges children face today, we can no longer risk whether they will have the opportunity to enjoy the broadest benefits from their participation in sport.

To ensure these benefits can be attained requires an organized and systematic approach to leveraging coaches as a true national resource with the potential to help with such pressing issues as childhood obesity, academic achievement and juvenile delinquency.  Those of us involved in the growing field of sports-based youth development recognize that many youth coaches would gladly take on this responsibility and derive great satisfaction from doing so — if only they were asked…and trained.

Today the growing field of sports-based youth development is making important gains. Practitioners are identifying specific and realistic outcomes that can be derived by leveraging coaches as educators and mentors. They are putting program metrics in place and evaluating outcomes in a structured way. Curricula have been developed and implemented to incorporate everything from nutrition education to promotion of writing skills. And practitioners are getting results.

The U.S. Soccer Foundation’s Soccer for Success free after-school program received a federal Social Innovation Fund grant after evidence showed that the physical activity/nutritional education program had a positive impact. The findings of a 2011 Stanford University study on the program show:

  • Ninety-one percent (91%) of participants reported that Soccer for Success helped them feel better about themselves.
  • Seventy-one percent (71%) reported that they make better choices when it comes to food.
  • Sixty-one percent (61%) spend less time engaged in video games and/or watching TV.
  • Eighty-seven percent (87%) of participants said that Soccer for Success helped them stay away from violence and fighting.

On the health side, recent evaluation data showed 89% of Soccer for Success participants considered obese and overweight achieved improved BMI percentiles, reflecting healthier weight.

Yes, quality sports-based programs are good for children.

Sports are best for children, however, when coaches are pursuing specific health and social outcomes, as well as wins, and have the training and resources to succeed –  then the children ultimately win both on-and-off the playing surface.

Those involved in youth sports will always search for and cultivate the next young star with professional promise. But those young stars are few and far between.  Just as much thought and energy must go into finding coaches who care about the whole child and sharing the many teachable moments in sport to help all children succeed in the most important game of all:  The game of life.


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