Parents bundled up on a chilly November Saturday are watching their kids play soccer at Fort Worth’s Rolling Hills soccer complex.

One child does a couple of spontaneous somersaults as he makes his way back to the center of the field after a goal. Mindy Hurtado is there to support her two kids, Henry and Nicholas. It’s important to her that they stay active, she said. 

“I have always thought that idle minds are the devil’s playground,” Hurtado said. “So I like to keep my kids involved.”

The players belong to Fort Worth’s newest after-school sports program. The program aims to lower barriers to participation in youth sports — cost, time and transportation — that prevent low-income students from participating. 

The plan is part of a variety of potential solutions for low participation in youth sports in Fort Worth. In Frisco, 15% of kids under 18 play soccer. In Fort Worth, only 5% of kids play soccer, a 2019 study finds.

The stakes are high, said Peter Weyand, lead researcher in a partnership on youth sports with SMU and Children’s Health. Getting children involved in youth sports and then keeping them involved is a major public health issue, he said. 

“Given the digital world that kids grow up in now, sports are one of the only vehicles, or the only vehicle, to get regular activity,” Weyan said. 

Studies show children who are introduced to sports are less likely to be obese in their lifetimes and less likely to experience depression. As sports have become more critical to children’s health, they have also become harder to access, Weyan said. 

“Two decades ago a lot of the youth sports programs were run out of schools and community centers, but there has been a migration out of that space,” Weyan said. “Kids who grow up in the wrong ZIP codes often have less opportunity.” 

The program is in its pilot phase this year, and is only offered at five Fort Worth ISD schools. The program’s funding, about $387,000, established the league and will fund the remaining two sports leagues. Some of those teams are hosted at Fort Worth’s community centers. Registration for the program’s basketball and flag football teams is also open. 

The city’s parks and recreation department selected schools that fall into minority-majority neighborhoods and have established after-school programs run by Fort Worth ISD, said Todd Vesely, Fort Worth ISD’s athletic director. 

Combining the leagues’ practices with an existing after school program makes participating more convenient for parents. 

“The parents have the commitment of having to pick them up after practice, and they’re done for the week, until Saturday when they take them to the game.”  Marcus Gallegos, district superintendent of athletics with Fort Worth parks and recreation. “That’s the biggest difference right there.”

The cost, $30, is lower than other Fort Worth rec leagues. It makes the program more accessible to families. The next step — expanding to more schools. 

“We still have a lot of expansion to look forward to, not only this year, but certainly next year and years to come,” Gallegos said.

Hurtado, who also plans to register her kids in the basketball and flag-football league, said registration was easy and gratifying. The team practices down the street from their house and the low cost allows her kids to try a variety of sports. 

“It’s affordable for them to try everything without it costing us an arm and a leg trying to figure out what is best for them,” Hurtado said. 

In 2023, the program will likely expand from five schools to 20. How many schools are included will depend on interest and staffing, Gallegos said.

Some Fort Worth ISD schools have after-school programs run by Fort Worth’s YMCA or The Optimist Club. The soccer programming likely will make its way into those after-school programs, too, pending signed agreements with the providers, Gallegos said.

The program relies on volunteer coaches. The city contracts with professional referees and employs coordinators. 

“We have a representative there to make sure (the coaches) have everything they need. They have equipment, they have practice times and even training that we can provide for them,” Gallegos said.

The program also has the potential to include other school districts — there are 12 independent school districts that fall in Fort Worth. 

“I believe we’re talking to Castleberry, Keller, Northwest has some interest in participating in this program as well,” Gallegos said. “Our goal is to have every elementary school covered.”

Rhonda Lykes coached a group of 6-year-olds, including her two granddaughters. She originally signed up to be an assistant coach but was asked to take on the head coach role. 

“We had a lot of fun,” Lykes said. 

The girls attend IDEA Rise Academy, which doesn’t offer a lot of sports programming, Lykes said. By joining a team through a community center, they had a low-cost opportunity to get them involved in sports. 

Improving sports participation at Fort Worth ISD

The process for establishing the league began in 2019. Leaders from across the city met to discuss what areas of the city lacked access to opportunities to participate in sports. 

“We found that there were groups of young people who might not have the same opportunities as others,” Vesely said. 

The program grew, in part, out of that 2019 summit. Now, the goal is to eliminate any pockets of the city where kids may not have access to sports. 

“We want to provide efficient, effective, powerful experiences for young people that are affordable for every kid in Fort Worth,” Vesely said. 

The program allows children to participate in sports at their competency level, helping them develop interpersonal and athletic skills, Vesely said. 

“Parents recognize how important those activities are to interpersonal relationships, personal development, development of their skill. There are many things that students get exposed to just by participating,” Vesely said. 

A variety of sports and activities can be good for a child’s development, Weyan said. It prevents early hyper-specialization in sports, which can result in injuries or burnout — leading to less participation. 

“The trick is to find opportunities for kids that they keep coming back to and prevent them from dropping out,” Weyan said. “We’re hoping there will also be a diversification of the kinds of opportunities that kids get.”

The program also has the potential to improve sports participation in Fort Worth ISD at large, Vesely said. 

“We would suspect that there would be some level of increased skill, some level of increased participation,” Vesely said.

The district is working to create a more cohesive culture of participation in schools by creating a system of direct feeders from preschools all the way up to high schools. The goal is to create a feeling of community in every school. This community is also tied to participation in athletics, Vesely said.

The goal is to create a continuum of athletics from kindergarten through 12th grade. 

“Going from the very simple participation and engagement to the most competitive high school competition that we can possibly offer,” Vesely said.

Broad improvement of sports participation across the city

The program is part of a boarder expansion of youth sports in Fort Worth, said Jason Sands, executive director of the Fort Worth Sports Commission.

Fort Worth has fallen behind in providing enough sports facilities to meet the demand for sports fields and programs, a 2019 study found. Bridging the gap will require a two-pronged approach, increasing the amount of facilities and creating new programming, Sands said. 

While programming exists now, it can be hard for low-income students to access.

“Youth sports has become such a pay to play model,” Sands said. “There’s so many kids that are getting left behind and we’ve got to start to do something about it.”

The Fort Worth Sports Commission advocates for major sporting events to come to Fort Worth. Fort Worth currently has seven locations where residents and organizations can rent fields from the city. By investing in soccer programming and building new fields, leaders hope to make significant gains in sports participation across the city. 

“We can build a facility, but if there’s no programming geared toward getting those kids that don’t have the money to put into sports, there’s still a gap,” Sands said. “So we’ve got to address both.”

Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker supports building a new soccer complex to accommodate Fort Worth’s growing population. 

“Fort Worth is committed to extending youth sports opportunities to more kids by investing in infrastructure and expanding programs,” Parker said in a release

The youth sports program encountered some hurdles in its first season — raising awareness and recruiting coaches proved difficult — but program leadership hopes to workout those kinks next year when the program includes more schools. 

“Certainly next year, we’ll be able to do an even better job,” Gallegos said.

When the program becomes more established, Sands hopes to get professional sports teams, such as the Dallas Mavericks, involved in the program. 

The kids playing soccer at Rolling Hills Soccer Complex are certainly not ready for the professional leagues yet. 

In the final minutes of the game, a child kicks the ball toward the opposite goal. The first-graders, slightly inhibited by their puffy winter coats and gloves, move en masse toward the ball. 

With a few years until Henry and Nicholas might enter the pros, Hurtado is just happy to get her sons in the game. 

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Rachel BehrndtGovernment Accountability Reporter

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report in collaboration with KERA. She is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri where she majored in Journalism and Political...