Impacting Detroit

July 31, 2013



The city of Detroit is a dichotomy of sorts. Few would deny that it’s a place of great challenge. However, there are also many glimmers of hope—particularly for those who believe in the city’s future, those who are intentional about living out solutions.

Dan Gould, kinesiology professor and director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports (ISYS) at Michigan State University, is one of the hopeful ones.

“I believe we are making a difference in Detroit, using the power of the university and the college,” he said. “It really is more than research, it’s really helping people, our being in Detroit.”

Gould has been a leader in a unique, long-term partnership between the institute and Think Detroit Police Athletic League, a youth development organization that works in partnership with the Detroit Police Department and more than 1,200 community volunteers, coaches and staff.

After completing a three-year evaluation designed to collect both quantitative and qualitative data, ISYS helped to design and establish the IMPACT Coach Leadership training program for Detroit PAL’s  coaches and managers. The evaluation consisted of five interrelated studies.

Two missions, one cause

Detroit PAL currently serves one out of every 16 of the thousands of 5- to 18-year-olds living in Detroit. Its mission is to build character in kids through athletic, academic and leadership development programs. Also at the heart of that mission are goals to instill awareness of healthy and active lifestyles and the importance of civic responsibility.

A nationally known authority on youth sport issues, ISYS provides leadership, scholarship and outreach in ways that help maximize the beneficial physical, psychological and social effects of sports participation for children and youth.

“ISYS has elevated us from an organization with really good intentions, but lacking the mechanisms to track success—but the dream has been realized,” said Tim Richey, CEO of Detroit PAL. “Our partnership has created an intentional platform to evaluate the measurable impact we’re having on the kids.”

From its humble beginnings in the 1970s, the nonprofit’s growth speaks to the hard work and dedication that volunteers and staff have poured into Detroit PAL’s sports programs. In its first year, Detroit PAL—then called Police and Youth in Sports (PAYS), renamed in 1996—served around 4,500 children.

Today, with one of the largest inner-city youth football programs, the nonprofit boasts over 80 teams in 11 sports, and serves more than 10,000 kids through its massive, organized volunteer efforts.

“The most important thing is that our programs allow kids a chance to see how many people truly care about them, that they are valued,” said Richey. “There are challenges, sure—the city’s financial straits, having clean and safe facilities—but our program has really been elevated to a new level through the work of ISYS.”

Mutual benefits

The nexus of the partnership between Detroit PAL and ISYS really began when the institute hosted a three-day youth development seminar in 2005 at MSU’s Henry Center. The purpose was to teach Detroit PAL volunteers how to coach and develop character and life skills in young people.

“Instead of assuming that youth will know what character is, a great deal of emphasis was placed on asking questions to get them thinking, versus just telling them to be a good person,” Gould said.

Detroit PAL was most interested in learning more about its coaches, the effects the program was having on participants and what was and was not working in its programming. Researchers at ISYS were not only interested in these key objectives, but also in conducting studies that would contribute to the body of scientific knowledge on how organized sports participation can be used to facilitate positive youth development.

The challenge for ISYS, Gould says, was switching from lecturing to facilitating discussion.

“East Lansing isn’t Detroit, we don’t face the same challenges, and we don’t assume we have the answers,” said Gould. “We’ve really had to listen, to find common interests and then push for change.”

Results suggested to Detroit PAL from the data included:

  • Emphasizing a caring, mastery-oriented coaching climate
  • Focusing on a positive versus punitive approach to coaching
  • Beyond tough love on the field, the need for more effective coaching strategies
  • Preparing coaches for unique challenges within an under-served community (i.e.- gangs, hunger, violent activity)

In addition to ongoing assessments and implementation of more complex analysis of youth outcomes, doctoral student Andrew Mac Intosch has been working on a weekly basis with Fred Hunter, head of Detroit PAL evaluation, to design surveys and set up a computer system that will allow the organization to better track participation numbers, measure retention, program intensity and character-related outcomes.

ISYS is also helping create a one-on-one mentoring program that will match at-risk youth with Detroit citizens, coaches and police officers.

All of Detroit PAL’s programs reinforce their core mission of positive youth development through sport, and the work of Dan Gould and the ISYS staff is truly at the heart of MSU’s land-grant philosophy of outreach, community service and engagement. Leaders from both organizations shared in receiving the prestigious Outreach Scholarship Community Partnership award at the MSU Awards Convocation last February for their work together.

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