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Two foundational visuals for NICA coaches

The Aspen Institute's “Play for life” model as a new paradigm for youth sports
Photo by Will Ramsey, Nebraska Interscholastic Cycling League
As coaches, we know that people learn in different ways. For those visual learners among us, we want to highlight two key illustrations that have been foundational in the way we teach athlete-centered coaching at NICA. Whether you’re reflecting on your season, or just getting started with a new one, we hope these graphics can help you think and reflect on how you coach athletes to fulfill NICA’s core values and work toward our goal to reinvent youth sports. 


If you’ve attended a NICA leaders’ summit with your league, or joined us online, you’ve seen this great model from The Aspen Institute/Project Play’s Sport for all, Play for Life report.

The first part of this set of visuals shows our current youth sports model: a pyramid that, as you progress toward the top, shows how kids are “pushed out” of participating in activities: 

The current model suggests that success is measured only by performance progression; the only way to “make it” in sports is to play at more progressively elite levels. As we know, not all athletes will achieve elite performance, nor is it a healthy objective for all of our athletes to push toward competitive/performance-oriented goals. By continuing to do so, our modern sports model both intentionally and unintentionally alienates and excludes a large population of kids.

Thankfully, the Aspen Institute/Project Play suggests we can (and SHOULD) re envision this model. Through youth development principles, with a focus on play and physical literacy, we can create a new paradigm for young athletes. Focusing on ability, confidence, and a desire to participate, coaches can “square the pyramid” and create a system in which athletes aren’t just defined by performance, but by helping create pathways for kids to stay active for life:

In the model above, the base of the square focuses on physical literacy: helping kids achieve the ability to simply move their bodies with confidence and competence in a wide range of activities. This means allowing kids in early adolescence the opportunity to 1) be active and 2) sample a wide variety of ways to be active. With a solid foundation of physical literacy, and experiences with myriad sports, kids can have many pathways that allow them to stay active for life: whether it is participating in competitive or elite sports, or pursuing more recreational, social, or independent activities.

You can read more about these models (and the research behind them) in the Aspen Institute/Project Play Sport for All, Play for Life report. This is a quick, engaging read about the need for adults in youth sports to help “flip the script” and actively change the way we “do” youth sports in the U.S. – 10 out of 10 – we highly recommend it!

Did you know that NICA is a Project Play Champion?

Learn more about the Aspen Institute's Project Play, and read the recently published “State of Play: 2023” 

Special thanks to Trek, a NICA lead partner.

NICA Partners are enabling NICA to reinvent youth sports and engage families in a thriving cycling community, for life.

Our partners’ commitment to NICA’s mission has a huge impact on our student-athletes, their families and communities across the nation. NICA partners are changing the world by getting #MoreKidsOnBikes!