Youth Sports and University Partnerships: An Interview with Louis Bolling
By Louis Bolling and Liz Shriver
In light of the upcoming Fall PHENND Event, I interviewed Mr. Louis Bolling about youth sports in Philadelphia, University partnerships and what it means to be a community oriented coach and administrator. Bolling has galvanized his experience as a tennis player, first growing up in West Philadelphia, then as a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I student-athlete in college, into a career in coaching, youth sports and community partnerships in Philadelphia and abroad.
Currently, Bolling serves as an Interfaith Fellow for the Athletics and Recreation Community with the University of Pennsylvania’s Office of the Chaplain, Assistant Women’s Tennis Coach at Haverford College and is a contributing writer for the Philadelphia Tribune. He was recently named to the staff of Villanova University’s Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships.
Bolling is a member of and serves on numerous boards and committees of several professional organizations including the United States Tennis Association, Professional Tennis Registry, National Soccer Coaches Association of America/Black Soccer Coaches Advocacy Group, Pennsylvania Recreation & Park Society, Philadelphia Association of Black Journalist and United Nations Association of Greater Philadelphia. In 2012 and 2013, Bolling was selected to participate in the NCAA’s Leadership Institute, tailored programming to assist racial and ethnic minorities in strategically mapping and planning their careers in collegiate athletics administration.
A tireless advocate for supporting the education and development of individuals and communities, specifically through sports and coaching programs, he believes strongly in the power of university and community partnerships.
Q: How did your experience with tennis and sports compare to the opportunities you see for youth now in Philadelphia?
A: I was blessed to have grown up in West and Southwest Philly. My next door neighbor introduced me to what tennis was, bringing me and his son along to Levy Pavilion here on Penn’s campus, when he and his next door neighbor would play indoors. I never played with them however. During this time I played baseball in the Cobbs Creek Little League, founded by Negro League baseball player Bill Cash, across the street from the home of NFL great Johnny Sample. The summer before I entered the fifth grade, the baseball league folded and I spent the summer learning how to play tennis with the National Junior Tennis League (NJTL – now National Junior Tennis & Learning) at Cobbs Creek. It was $10 for the shirt pretty much and we learned how to play, spending the entire day on the courts or I would hit on the walls of Anderson Elementary School. Daily I passed the homes of Laura Sims, who successfully advocated for the Laura Sims Skate House on Cobbs Creek, and gold medal Olympian Jon Drummond on my way to the tennis courts or Anderson’s blacktop.
I ended up practicing at the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center (now Legacy Youth Tennis and Education), via the NJTL Tournament Team, as well as at the University of Pennsylvania. I could and would walk from my school, Hamilton on 57th and Spruce Street, to Penn for practice. However, I was not explicitly introduced or encouraged to learn about the requirements of earning the opportunity to be a collegiate student-athlete at Penn or otherwise. It would have been helpful to understand that I was regularly on the campus of a world-class higher education institution, what resources it presented and how being in an environment like such could transform my life.
The access to excellent programs like NJTL afforded me opportunities to expand my world, by having to travel throughout the city, eventually nation and internationally. Some of my most transformative life experiences were as a result of formal sports programming in which I cultivated relationships with other student-athletes, coaches and administrators through informal means. The programs are what connected us, but the people are what made the programs.
Today, there are individuals and organizations that are impacting lives and communities, creating experiences similar to mine. Youth sports and its connection to higher education institutions has evolved within our culture and society. With this being the case, we as custodians of youth sports and higher education must evolve collaboratively, not merely exist in our specialized, ego guarded and driven silos.
We have an obligation to broadly present to students, parents and communities what university-community collaborations can provide and achieve for the greater good through sport. Through sound university-community relationships, one major role a university partnership can fulfill is to adopt community based sports facilities that conduct yearlong programs. Through such initiatives, higher education institutions have the opportunity to be truly engaged with communities.
Kids today are challenged with having to choose from a large pool of programs in addition to securing participation fees that have increased exponentially since I was a student-athlete. There are many local youth sports programs that connect to higher education institutions by incorporating college tours, offer tutoring by college students or college admissions exam prep into their programming. The opportunities for kids to be exposed to colleges and universities is much more prevalent in youth sports programming. Not to mention that kids today are living within a society that has an intense and complex college athletics recruiting system, which has increasingly developed into a business much more so than when I was coming up.
Q: What types of events and programs have you seen that help bridge community and university athletics?
A: The NCAA has promoted national programs like Take A Kid To A Game in which universities invite communities to attend sporting events. Penn’s football program, in partnership with Penn’s Office of Government and Community Affairs, have hosted a Community Day in which local schools and organizations have attended for free. There is room for campaigns and opportunities like these to grow, initiate contact and improve communication between communities and universities.
Q: How do you think K-12 students’ academic success could be linked to university athletics partnerships?
A: Students’ academic success can easily be linked to community-university athletics. Through incentives – such as attending games, receiving branded apparel, registration for camps or academic programs – that comply with NCAA regulations is an example of linking K-12 students academic success to community-university athletics. Having a relationship between K-12 schools and universities in which facilities and resources of the university are provided to the students of K-12 schools would aid in building a bridge between community-university athletics partnerships. There are numerous opportunities, based on what the universities offer, to incorporate and highlight the academic success of K-12 students. We have to make an honest effort to make the links if this what we want to do as higher education institutions, athletic departments, community schools and professionals in this field.
Q: What are some of the barriers to community-university athletics partnerships?
A: There are many barriers, however poor communication and poor leadership are two barriers that stand out to me. A lack of genuine and honest communication and leadership that is driven by personal agendas and motivations that are not in line with stated missions, are definitely barriers among others.
Q: Are there more ways that Universities can connect with the community, for example, through recreation centers?
A: Of course. Universities and university coaches, athletic administrators and professors can work more closely with community recreation centers and have it be a win-win for all. Being mindful of NCAA compliance issues, with a bit of effort, community recreation centers are hubs for activities and can be satellites for university related activities that are in line with the mission of the university. This can be done while empowering their ‘customers’ (students) and the community being served simultaneously. Because there is no perfect model of a university-community recreation center partnership, there is room to explore – through research, scholarship, advocacy and policy – on how to ‘get it right.’
Q: What do you think a community-focused university athletics program should look like?
A: A community-focused university athletics program, in my humble opinion, should at least be on par with the level of programming offered to the paying students of the universities involved in the partnership. Coaches and administrators of university athletic programs are vetted, trained and encouraged to pursue professional development. Youth sports coaches and administrators, within communities that partner with universities, should be informed of the resources available to them via the university’s network of colleges, centers and initiatives. Higher education institutions are in the business of education and through community-focused university athletics programs have the opportunity to create or increase their customer base and build loyalty at the least. There are so many people and parts involved in community-focused university athletics program that it looks different depending on the lens one may be viewing through.
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