There’s a good reason for calling it the LiFE Sports Spring Football Game
By Adam King
It’s quite the attention-getter, connecting a program’s name with anything related to Ohio State football. That the Department of Athletics chose to promote its own LiFE Sports (Learning in Fitness and Education) program with the upcoming spring football game shows how committed it is to raising that program’s profile.
While on the surface it looks like a sports camp for at-risk youth, its many facets — which include outreach, new research and student involvement — are turning it into a national model.
“We need to do all we can to help those less fortunate than us,” said Gene Smith, Ohio State associate vice president and athletics director. “This program teaches young people life skills, motivates and inspires them to do better in school and helps them grow socially. It is an extension of family and school efforts, and we want Buckeyes to know more about what LiFE Sports does for young people and their families.”
The camp, formerly known as the National Youth Sports Program when it was established in 1968, was once federally funded with the funds administered by the NCAA. But when Congress cut the NYSP from the budget in 2007, founding member Ohio State took it upon itself to keep the program running — more than $250,000 annually to run the four-week camp and six follow-up sessions with the kids to bring a year-round feel to the program and keep them engaged. All 650 kids ages 9-18 attend the camp for free.
Previously a sports outlet with virtually no educational component, the camp is now a full-fledged collaboration with the College of Social Work that teaches a curriculum of life skills such as social competence, communication, teamwork, problem solving and critical thinking. Over the past several years, undergraduate and graduate students from the college along with Professor Dawn Anderson-Butcher have been measuring the effectiveness of the camp on the kids’ demeanor, outlook and self-esteem — all of which increase once the kids go through the session.
The research already has influenced how the camp is managed, from the size of the groups kids participate in to pinpointing which age groups are getting the most out of the camp. LiFE Sports (osulifesports.org) has even made hiring decisions or personnel moves based partly on input from the kids’ experience with their counselors.
“We have all these data that farm into ongoing program improvements,” Anderson-Butcher said.
And the improvements have been having a noticeable effect.
In evaluating the most recent camp, Anderson-Butcher and staff member Rebecca Wade-Mdivanian noted that 77 percent of participants learned to act responsibly when playing sports and 73 percent said they learned to get along with others.
That’s significant, said LiFE Sports Director Jerry Davis, especially when some kids can’t stand next to someone without the desire to throw a punch.
“The kids who come in with the poorest social skills end up with the largest growth curve,” said Anderson-Butcher, who leads the camp’s research initiatives. “That eventually contributes to future success in life and a successful transition to adulthood.”
As an example, LiFE Sports partnered with the Academic Acceleration Academy, a dropout recovery charter school. Students age 16-18 who are too old to participate in the camp are given an opportunity to become junior leaders. In those roles, they learn workforce and leadership skills as members of the team and through mentorship from the LiFE Sports staff. Five of those kids went on to obtain jobs outside of the camp and others have applied to be junior leaders again.
Another key aspect of LiFE Sports is the teaching and learning aspect, where Social Work students and those in Athletics who desire to be coaches are provided paid internships. For most of them, it’s their first time to work with at-risk youth and see poverty first-hand.
“Some of our kids can be hard to handle, but they’re very endearing,” Wade-Mdivanian said. “For some of the Athletics students, it’s opened their eyes that they can work with at-risk youth in sport. For Social Work students, they are learning the value of using sport to promote social development.”
“After that second day, a lot of the OSU students have that look of ‘what am I doing, why am I here and is it too soon to quit?’” Davis said. “But you keep pushing through and motivating them and they turn the corner.”
The camp has become a field practicum for Social Work graduate students and is being tied to a youth development minor that is a collaboration between Social Work, Education and Human Ecology, Arts and Sciences and Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. A best practices clinic for youth sport coaches also is being developed.
LiFE Sports is essentially a hands-on learning experience, Wade-Mdivanian said.
“The most rewarding thing for me is when you see a kid year after year coming back, and you know for them these four weeks of the summer are safe,” she said. “We can’t possibly change their social situation in four weeks. But we have changed their life in some small way and they felt like they were part of The Ohio State University in that time.”
LiFE Sports already has started to change lives, but it could grow to be so much more with the proper funding. There is no full-time staff for what is essentially a year-round endeavor, more programming could be offered for youth and their families and the research aspect could be fully funded — all for $421,846 a year.
It’s a program that positively affects the community immediately surrounding Ohio State and is worth supporting, said Rebecca Wade-Mdivanian, a Social Work staff member and camp leader.
During the Campus Campaign and anytime throughout the year, faculty and staff can make a contribution to the LiFE Sports fund (No. 313428). Activities and locations throughout the LiFE Sports Spring Game also will be reminding fans of the program’s importance and benefits to Columbus kids.
More information about LiFE Sports can be found at osulifesports.org or by calling 688-3875.