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The New App That Promises to Make Youth Sports Fun Again

Julie Foudy speaks with En Fuego about a new app that is hoping to solve a major issue with youth sports.

Julie Foudy once had to coach the Pink Butterflies.

That’s not some gang from the movie "Grease" but rather the team her daughter once played on. It didn’t go as well as she had hoped.

Countless parents are out there right now, wondering how to coach their children and whether what they are teaching is the right method.

“I once had to fill-in to coach for a friend for the Pink Butterflies,” renowned soccer expert Julie Foudy tells En Fuego.

With her daughter’s team down their head coach, it was natural to look to someone who was the captain of the U.S. Women’s National Team, where she helped win a couple of World Cups and two Olympic gold medals.

But as this well-decorated athlete discovered, coaching kids how to play a sport isn’t as easy as it sounds.

“They hadn’t lost; they were undefeated,” Foudy says with a laugh, referring to that dynamo of the pitch, the Pink Butterflies. “The only game they lost, they lost under my tutelage.”

If every athlete is different, that axiom is true exponentially for child athletes who demand varying degrees of on-field education depending on their age.

Enter MOJO, a new app that has been launched thanks to the work of founder and CEO Ben Sherwood as well as co-founder and COO Reed Shaffner.

The aim is to not only bring fun back to youth sports but bring the youth back to sports. And to do that, the MOJO team has created engaging strategies thanks to a team of academic advisors as well as sport paragons like Brandi Chastain, Russell Wilson and, of course, Foudy.

The utility of an app like this, something that puts coaching into the hands of experts and novices alike, is obvious. As kids turn to young adults, sports are doing an abysmal job at retention.

The Washington Post reports 70% of kids give up athletics altogether by the age of 13 due to myriad social and cultural issues as well as the fact that many discover, as the report puts it, “it’s not fun anymore.”

My favorite example from the app is the “Space Wars” training, which is a playful spinoff on that one franchise you know like the back of your lightsaber.

A coach has his respective younglings try to kick the ball, in this case representing a laser, and hit him or her with it. A session of deft passing exercise is turned into a cacophony of laughs and playful shouting. Practice is fun. And the fun, unbeknownst to the children, is practice.

It’s like having “The Karate Kid’s” Mr. Miyagi in reverse. Instead of chores garnering results, it's play that does it. 

To make the practice feel like playing a game, the app offers video tutorials and a breakdown guide of what is needed. Everything is age appropriate and geared to not just get the most out of training but reach as many young athletes as possible.

There are kids out there that would certainly continue playing well after 13 years of age if it weren’t for access to quality training, explanation of fundamentals, and the confidence that comes with that. And there are those that would continue if they just, well, had more fun.

Sport Equity

There remains a stark difference on the field of kids who come from families with money and kids from families that are struggling.

“We also know that there's huge inequality in the world and in the United States between haves and have nots,” Sherwood, who previously worked as the co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney ABC Television before launching MOJO, said.

“Like 66% of the kids and families with money are playing sports and in the lowest quintile, it's only about a third," Sherwood continued. “And at MOJO, we think that's wrong. We think that everybody should get to play sports and we think that everybody should have access to great coaching.”

A 2018 Atlantic report found that rich families were able to take advantage of premium coaching and opportunities such as travel ball.

The disparity is striking: “Just 34 percent of children from families earning less than $25,000 played a team sport at least one day in 2017, versus 69 percent from homes earning more than $100,000. In 2011, those numbers were roughly 42 percent and 66 percent, respectively,” according to The Atlantic.

Apropos of the mission, Sherwood and MOJO are rolling out the app for free. And for the first year, instruction will be free on a one-practice per week basis. After that, there is premium content that can be accessed via an annual subscription.

The company has also partnered with Coaching Corps, which is helping under-resourced communities acquire necessary coaching through recruitment, training and ongoing support.

The partnership will take things a step further for these vital volunteers. The 10,000 that are now helping kids from lower-income neighborhoods will get a boost.

“We're putting the premium version of MOJO into the hands of Coaching Corps volunteers who are teaching soccer across the country, so that everyone has access to the best possible tools and resources,” Sherwood said.

Soccer is the launch sport, but there will be more in the near future, with basketball, baseball and softball joining the app.

Taking Out The Intimidation Factor

Founder Ben Sherwood and son. 

Founder Ben Sherwood and son. 

While the aim of MOJO is the kids, the parents are a major component. Many of whom field the demands from their children to take them to the park and sign them up. Consider that a significant number of those parents never played the sport their kids now yearn to play.

Faking it until you make it just got a modern revamp. Parents may now have the confidence that the skills they are nurturing are indeed helping their children.

“There's the parent who is going to sign up to coach no matter what, and this is going to help them,” Reed Shaffner said.

“Then there’s the parent who may have been too intimidated because they never played the sport and they're not familiar with that. They'd love to have experience with their kid. But it's scary to think I'm going to go out there with eight to 10 other parents looking at me. And I've never done this.”

My oldest is four. Outdoor play for him means running around and inventing his own games. He is interested very little in rules and structure when it comes to these games, so teaching him how to throw or proper kicking technique just isn’t going to fly.

But turning things into Space Wars and a battle for the very sake of humanity is a bit more palatable. The fun is at the heart of the matter. And little does he know, but he is slowly getting the technique. 

With more kids, he would slowly learn about camaraderie, chemistry and the confidence that comes with working together and succeeding at a given task.

“I just yearn for that ability to have this consistency, chemistry and really this culture around what we're doing with youth sports,” Foudy said. "That's the beauty of what we can do with MOJO. You can plant the seeds about team chemistry and being a great teammate and being a great human. I mean, sports is this great teacher, as we all know. It's this gift.”