It’s maddening to see an athlete, at the height of his or her powers, suddenly fall to one of the worst words in sports: cheating. The hero is not only destroyed, but titles, credibility and influence as a role model are all gone in a vicious cycle that often seems to have become the rule rather than the exception.
It’s an ongoing challenge to create clean, fair sports. But how do we build clean, fair athletes?
TrueSport, a national program of the Colorado Springs-based United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), is attempting to answer that question by changing the culture of youth sports through sportsmanship, character building and healthy performance. “We want to give kids the tools to make good life decisions and teach things like accountability, goal setting and being able to pick yourself up,” says Travis Tygart, USADA CEO. “We want to build a community where integrity is attractive and winning the right way is the only way.”
TrueSport was created after a 2010 USADA survey showed that while 85 percent of adults think youth sports should emphasize positive values, only 35 percent concluded that youth sports actually do a good job highlighting and building those values. That survey brought the realization that pressure to win at all costs had overtaken sports at every level. Life lessons that had been taught through sport were being lost in the shuffle and replaced by pressures that, when carried to the extreme, eventually manifested as elite athletes cheating through doping.
USADA’s connection to the Olympics and Paralympics and emphasis on guarding values in sport make TrueSport a natural fit—fighting for those values starting with kids who will become future high school, college and professional athletes, Tygart says.
TrueSport doesn’t just include teaching life skills and developing character in athletes. The program also hopes to inspire a movement of coaches, parents and administrators.
It’s a big task. That’s why a large part of TrueSport is partnership-based, enabling a distribution pipeline to provide expert content, education and programming directly to organizations, all for free. The platform allows the now 34 partners—which range from sport national governing bodies (NGBs) to youth sports organizations, camps and schools—to tailor program content and its delivery. Content packages can include everything from printed material and videos to social media graphics and athlete ambassadors. Partners pick and choose the resources they find effective.
Landsharks Running Club is a longtime local TrueSport partner. Co-Executive Director Lori Hill says TrueSport provides great value for the Landsharks programs, connecting seamlessly with its own “building athletes of character” initiative.
“We see the teachings every day,” she says, “Kids are doing the right thing when no one is watching. We see kids take a deep breath and congratulate all when they do not win a race, and we see happy, healthy families.”
Landsharks implements TrueSport online training, social media, handouts and more to handle topics from nutrition and fair play to out-of-control parents. Coaches are also empowered to teach the lessons.
The U.S. Air Force Academy has been part of the evolution of TrueSport since the beginning, helping to develop and shape the program through meetings, trainings, brainstorming and feedback. Other local connections outside of NGBs include Colorado College volleyball and the Rocky Mountain State Games, among others.
“It’s a wonderful luxury to be located [in Colorado Springs] and have access to these partners,” Tygart says. “It gives us the ability to dive deep and do pilot events, as well as the opportunity to take risks and see what is effective.”
Travis Oosthoek, assistant director for sports camps and events at the Air Force Academy, says the tools available through TrueSport enable coaches at USAFA camps to impact campers beyond the X’s and O’s. “You can only talk baseball to a 10-year-old for so many hours,” Oosthoek says. “We can break up the day or week and bring in different topics but still relate them to the sport, allowing athletes to take that knowledge forward, just like they would with hitting.”
Air Force Academy camps pull different TrueSport “playbooks” digitally on tablets to allow coaches to interweave additional information about everything from practicing good sportsmanship to positive hydration habits—important for a camp that sits at high altitude with many out-of-state athletes. In a practice, one segment in a group of drills might be on a TrueSport topic while another might focus on catching or positional awareness.
“Most of the coaches really like it,” Oosthoek says. “They’re D1 coaches, they know their stuff. [TrueSport] provides coaches tools and avenues to reach athletes on a different level.”
Last year, TrueSport reached 11 million people through its partnerships, events, social media and more.
“If we ever want athletes to not corrupt themselves at the elite level, we have to reach them early,” Tygart says. “I would love to put our elite level anti-doping program out of business because of TrueSport.”