Coaching Program Makes Exercise Fun For Kids

By Lyssa Mudd Rome

Todd Whitehead has become a mentor figure in addition to helping kids have fun while exercising. (Photo: Coaching Corps)

On a recent afternoon at BAHIA, a bilingual after school program in Berkeley, a small group of elementary school kids ran around breathlessly. They were playing “wolves and bunnies,” a tag game that takes some of its rules from basketball. Their coach Todd Whitehead played along, occasionally giving directions and stretching his hand out for a high-five. “Todd makes basketball seem fun,” said nine-year-old Kaydie. But this is about more than having fun. It’s a way for these kids to get the exercise they need.

Whitehead is a post-doctoral scholar in public health at U.C. Berkeley who has been coaching at BAHIA for three years. “My main goal,” he says, “is for the kids to have fun, get healthy, and get exposed to activities that will keep them healthy as they grow up.”

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that children get at least an hour of physical activity a day. But for many kids, that isn’t happening. Budget cuts in California have meant there often isn’t enough money for schools to offer PE or include sports in their after school programs. On top of that, low-income neighborhoods frequently lack parks or other safe places to play. Organized sports activities are limited.

That’s where Coaching Corps comes in. Whitehead volunteered to serve at BAHIA through the nonprofit program, which connects college-age coaches with kids from low-income neighborhoods. Here’s how it works: Coaching Corps chapters recruit volunteers from colleges, universities, and the community, then train them to be coaches. The organization then places coaches in existing after school programs in under-served areas. So far, around 1,600 coaches and 19,000 kids have participated.

In the United States, one in three children is now considered overweight or obese. For Latinos and African-Americans that number goes up to 40 percent. Coaching Corps teamed up with the University of California San Francisco to test whether its programs were making a difference. Using cardiorespiratory fitness tests, it found that almost half of participating kids didn’t meet recommended baseline fitness levels at the start of the program. But by the end of a year of playing sports with coaches, their fitness levels went up by 40 percent.

But the program is about more than just exercise. With a coach, kids not only get the physical activity they need, they also get important attention and mentorship from a caring adult. Coaches can teach kids about teamwork, persistence, and leadership. “Children need to know that they have a safe, caring, consistent adult who’s there for them,” says Sheilagh Polk, communications director for Coaching Corps. “That can make a really big impact in the life of a kid.”

Martha Cueva, who directs BAHIA’s educational program, says “If it weren’t for Todd we wouldn’t have a structured program this year. He brings so much energy to coaching. Coaching Corps gives these kids the opportunity to participate in organized sports that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Whitehead recalls his high school basketball coach, whose enthusiasm for the game made a big difference in his life. “It’s nice to pass that on.”

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