New York Road Runners CEO: How to find youth sports "champions"

Photo by Da Ping Luo for NYRR

Photo by Da Ping Luo for NYRR

One of the great features about running is it resists, if not defies, monetization. In an era when the cost of playing youth sports has risen dramatically and priced out many children, running remains affordable. The main economic barrier to entry is a pair of shoes, which can be used to run alone or in groups of people of all sizes and ages.

That doesn’t mean there are no other hurdles to overcome. In New York City, that means providing safe spaces to move in a dense, urban landscape, and leveraging the many, disjointed assets that the city provides. That, and making running cool for kids. 

Attacking this challenge is New York Road Runners (NYRR), which over the past 60 years has grown into one of the nation’s largest providers of running programs. Last year, the nonprofit served more than 267,000 youth in the five boroughs and across the U.S. through free programs, subsidized through corporation and individual donations.

Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, caught up with President and CEO Michael Capiraso to understand what has worked and what he hopes flows from Project Play 2020, the multiyear initiative that includes NYRR as a founding member. Excerpts of their conversation are below.

Tom Farrey: What do you see as the greatest challenge in engaging youth through sports?

Michael Capiraso: Access. So we find champions who can help provide access – to programs, information, equipment, whatever. And that happens in a lot of the public schools. We're in more than 1,200 public schools, 700 in (New York City alone). We're going into schools that may or may not have fitness programs, and we find a champion who can give the kids access to programs.

Farrey: How do you find a champion?

Capiraso: We go bottom up and top down. We work closely with the Department of Education here in New York City but we also are really fortunate in that there's a great running community in the city. A lot of the teachers throughout the school systems run with us. So they find out about these programs and they'll say, “Hey, I'd like to look into getting that program into our school.” We'll then hold little gatherings and invite adults to learn about what we offer. From that, we'll find (more) champions. We'll find the principal, the math teacher, the PE teacher, maybe even the mom or dad in the community who wants to get the program in the school. We've got hundreds, even thousands of (champions). Then beyond that, you find kids in a community who can motivate their teachers or parents to get involved. That's your second line of access.

Farrey: How do you look at the challenges around running infrastructure and transportation? We’re doing work in East Harlem, and our State of Play report (to be released April 17) identifies Randall’s Island as a tremendous potential resource. On the other side is Central Park. But the kids in East Harlem have high levels of physical inactivity. They're not accessing these green spaces.

Capiraso: Getting into those spaces is really key and we make a real effort (there). Because you're right, it is important, you've got to get the kids to the places.

Farrey: Buses are expensive. Is there any way to get kids running from their neighborhood to Randall’s Island or to Central Park? Or just walking there?

Capiraso: A number of schools are located near different parks in the city, so what we do is take the kids out to walk a few blocks, go to the park, and they do the activities there. The other thing we've started is what we call NYRR Open Run, which are free runs for adults and people of all ages in parks here in the city. We have 13 of them and a handful are located near schools.

Farrey: What have you learned about how best to coach or work with kids?

Capiraso: Make it fun. They're at an age where they really want to have fun. They want to be active but they want to have a good time doing it. So over the course of the program we've evolved from running laps, which they like, to providing more fun activities that play to the physical literacy side. It's Project Play, right? Keep it fun and make sure the kids feel like it's play at any age.

Farrey: How do you see Project Play 2020 as being part of the solution?

Capiraso: There are a few really important aspects of it which we focus on. We hear a lot about encouraging sports sampling. We think that running and some of the aspects that we're building in to our Rising New York Road Runners physical literacy program really helps a lot. We think that training the coaches to build these programs is really important – that's a key aspect of (Project Play) 2020 as well. We want to train coaches so that they're able to give kids opportunities and access and teach them how to enjoy it and do it right.

I believe that the work that Aspen and 2020 are doing is really critical in giving people the resources, opportunities, information, guidance, and support to make these things happen. The other aspect I would say is as critical as anything is the digital access that we have now that we maybe didn't have 10 or 20 years ago. The ability to connect people and give them information and keep the community going strong, that adds an extra bit of fuel to what we're all trying to do.

Farrey: How optimistic are you that progress can be made if these organizations come together and develop shared actions, mutually reinforcing actions, and the energies in this space begin moving in a coherent direction?

Capiraso: Extremely optimistic. I am someone who believes the greater good can get us there.

Learn more about Project Play 2020 and the Rising New York Road Runners program.