With 70 percent of children stopping their participation in sports by age 13 because the activities just aren’t fun anymore, Mesa’s Positive Play Project is attempting to change those numbers.

Play to win, but play positively, too.

City of Mesa Youth Sports sends this signal to all its teams through an innovative program called the Positive Play Project.

Begun in fall 2013, the program encourages safety and wellness in Youth Sports by partnering with parents/guardians, coaches and local and national organizations, such as Mesa’s A.T. Still University.

Among the areas covered are sportsmanship, positive coaching, concussion awareness, injury prevention, equipment and safety-gear access, hydration, nutrition, financial assistance and scholarships. For coaches, even hard-to-control parents are covered.

Other business and organizational partners are Positive Coaching Alliance, NextCare, National Alliance for Youth Sports and the National Recreation and Park Association’s (NRPA) Commit to Health.

“Each partner provides a unique service for the project and can utilize Youth Sports for research to further their organization’s goals,” said Lacy Bienkowski, coordinator for the Mesa Parks & Recreation Department.

“The idea behind the project came from the realization there was a need not being met in Mesa and that we had a responsibility to fill that void,” she added. “Along with that came the desire to change the culture of youth sports in Mesa. We wanted to be a game changer.”

For instance, 70 percent of children stop participating in sports by the time they are 13 because the activities just aren’t fun anymore, according to the National Alliance of Youth Sports, she said. Positive Play Project is attempting to change those numbers.

To create the program, Bienkowski’s team conducted local and nationwide research and discussed the project with parents, school officials and volunteer coaches.

Then, they investigated funding options and met with local businesses and organizations that might be interested in helping.

“The biggest challenges we faced were figuring out how we could implement the initiative to such a wide and diverse city that includes more than 50 public elementary schools as well as reach our underserved populations that include Spanish-only speakers, low-income families and those that have limited to no access to technology,” she explained.

She noted that the project is available to all youth sports coaches, parents, participants, staff and the community – including spectators.

One of the first partnerships the city established was with A.T. Still.

To date, the university has provided health and safety education, concussion education and baseline concussion testing and dynamic warm-up implementation.

Baseline testing assesses an athlete’s cognition, balance and vision before the season starts, explained Tamara McLeod, professor and director of athletic training programs at the university.

Mesa Youth Sports follows the recommendations and guidelines on concussions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as those from ATSU.

The program has performed baseline testing at health fairs in the past, but this fall, testing will be done on-site, using iPads and iPhones at the start of each sport season, Bienkowski said.

Concussive injuries in young players continue to be a national concern, especially in high school football programs.

“Should the athlete sustain a concussion, we administer the same tests following the injury and provide those to the treating medical provider to assist in making treatment recommendations and decisions about returning to sport,” McLeod said.

She and the ATSU athletic training faculty developed a short educational presentation that focuses on concussions, hydration and nutrition, heat illness, injury prevention and dynamic warm-ups.

“The presentation has been given to coaches and parents involved with Mesa Parks and Rec as a means to help with their understanding of important health issues,” McLeod said, noting that this year the city and the university will be creating an injury-prevention video for coaches.

Topics vary by injury or condition, but in general, the university staff teaches how to recognize the signs and symptoms of a condition, when to remove the athlete from play and determine whether immediate referral to a medical provider is needed, when to refer a player to medical providers and when to return the athlete to sports following recovery.

Coaches receive trainings with expert guest speakers, educational material, first-aid kits, equipment and safety gear as well as awards and recognition for being a positive coach.

Young participants receive financial assistance and scholarships, equipment and safety gear, educational material as well as awards and recognition.

Everyone, not just the coaches, gets coached. Parents, for example, must also attend a preseason coach meeting before each season.

ATSU graduate students in athletic training program offer the sessions on their areas.

Rachel Johnson was one such trainer.

“I grew up playing in community league sports, and I believe they provide kids with a great opportunity to learn valuable life skills,” said Johnson. “It’s important for kids to be involved in athletics and to have fun, but it’s also important for them to be safe and to learn how to take care of themselves.”

The program may be replicated nationally, but for now, the Positive Play staff is just helping other organizations when they request information, and Bienkowski has presented on the program at out-of-state conferences and trainings.

Most importantly, the program is winning in Mesa: with the children, the parents and the community.

“Some of the best success stories are simply seeing the same families with us, season after season,” she said. “We have dozens of sports programs in the area, but when we get the same people back time after time, we know we are making an impact.”

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