Inspiring lessons learned at LA84 Foundation Youth Summit

LA84 Foundation Youth Summit in downtown Los Angeles.
Speakers discuss solutions at the LA84 Foundation Youth Summit in downtown Los Angeles.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

It’s never too late to learn something new, and that’s what I did Tuesday in downtown Los Angeles listening to some high-quality experts at the annual LA84 Foundation’s Youth Summit. It brings together coaches, athletes, academic experts and journalists.

These people know what they’re doing in trying to offer solutions to issues involving participation in youth sports.

Let me offer some of the highlights that I enjoyed:

Former UCLA women’s gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field gave an inspiring pep talk. She said she was a dancing and ballet instructor when UCLA hired her to coach gymnastics in 1990. She had never coached gymnastics and didn’t know what kind of coach she wanted to be, so she tried being a disciple of Bob Knight.


“We were horrible,” she said. “I was being unauthentic.”

She needed to find out the answer to the question, “Why was I coaching?” She said she learned that the job of a coach is “to motivate change, not dictate it.” The old days of “breaking them down to build them up” was gone. The dictator era was over.

“My why was sport teaches the really tough life lessons that our youths don’t learn in the classroom,” she said.

She coached UCLA to seven NCAA titles.
There was a panel discussing why sports matters, and it was pointed out that a positive in being a multiple sport athlete is that you are exposed to different peer groups and different communities, offering invaluable knowledge. One group might like one song and another something different. It’s an early glimpse into adulthood and trying to blend in and adapt.

One expert said a Google survey of the Los Angeles Unified School District determined that kids involved in sports attend school 13 more days than nonparticipants. That means thousands of dollars to the district (the state pays money for each student in school). That’s a great reason to invest in high school and middle school sports programs.

Jim Thompson of the Positive Coaching Alliance reported on the importance of “psychological safety” for successful teams.

Players who can be themselves and not have to put on a mask on top teams are more successful, he said.


Thompson also gave a suggestion to coaches wanting to make an impact on their players.

“If there’s one thing a coach can do, it’s to say, ‘We need you.’”
When I arrived for the conference, I sat down at the Olympics table. The person next me was John Naber, a five-time Olympic medalist in swimming. He told me how in his freshman year of high school, his coach told him to go swim so he could evaluate what he might be good at. He wanted to evaluate his stroke. He told him he looked best as a backstroker. Naber was worried. The team had a better backstroker. But he stuck it out and beat his competitor in a year’s time. The lesson: Don’t run from competition. Show your true grit.
Carrie Wagner is the executive director of the Panorama City-based Girls Athletic Leadership School, a charter school. It’s an all-girls middle school ages 11 to 14, and every morning, teachers and students gather for a physical workout before classes begin.

“It enhances attention, enhances brain function,” she said. “When you sweat together, you bond together. They’re happy, they’re loud, they’re ready for their first class.”

They engage in running, wrestling, hip-hop and other workouts.

“It makes the girls want to be in school,” she said. “They think school is fun because we’re playing these games.”
Sloane Stevens, the 2017 U.S. Open women’s tennis champion, talked about the importance of giving back.

“I think everything in life starts with an opportunity,” she said, “and being able to give back to an area where tennis is considered a rich sport and to give accessibility and the opportunity to the kids of Compton was really important to me. I love seeing kids thrive. I love to see them happy and having those great experiences. Through my foundation, we can give them those experiences and those opportunities.”

Editor’s Note: The Los Angeles Times was a promotional sponsor of this event.