With Thanksgiving break underway, it was quiet and empty at a Northside Independent School District gym except for for two University of Texas at San Antonio volleyball players demonstrating serving, setting, and other basic maneuvers.

Five-time Olympian Danielle Scott sat nearby, directing them in a steady voice as a set of video cameras recorded their instructional drills.

Scott is the latest star athlete to help San Antonio’s sports commission, San Antonio Sports, make instructional videos for kids across the city who were in the organization’s i play! afterschool program before the pandemic began.

Scott, who has won two silver Olympic medals and played volleyball professionally until 2014, flew in from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, this week to spend Monday shooting the videos that will be edited into a set of lessons for introducing basic volleyball skills.

Like many other community programs, San Antonio Sports’ after-school sports program was paused this year because of the pandemic, according to Russ Bookbinder, president and CEO of San Antonio Sports. The program had been implemented at 58 local schools, where kids would learn the basics of five different sports in five-week segments, teaching them skills in tennis, soccer, basketball, volleyball, and track.

Designed to spark a love for sports and being physically active, the after-school sports program is for underserved students in third through fifth grades who might not be able to afford the fees associated with participating in organized youth sports. During the 2019-20 school year, almost 1,500 kids took part, culminating in tournaments for each of the sports in which the young athletes show off what they’ve learned. Sports equipment is provided, and participants receive a T-shirt, athletic shorts and shoes, and a backpack.

Bookbinder said he wanted to make the program available to kids at home during the pandemic and wanted a high-quality video series that could be used long-term, so his staff took on the ambitious project of converting the entire i play! curriculum into a script for a professionally produced series.

Mandy Adkins, the director of youth and community programs, was charged with transforming the curriculum from in-person, lessons led by coaches into a series of videos that could teach the fundamentals of each sport to kids at home.

“It was a challenge,” Adkins said, “but it’s been a fun challenge.”

Since most kids watching the track and field videos at home probably wouldn’t have access to batons used in relay races, Adkins suggested that kids could substitute a paper towel roll.

“Soccer goals are another thing – not everybody has a soccer goal in their backyard,” Adkins said. “And so what we did is taught the kids how to take household items, like two trashcans or even two canned goods, put them in your backyard, and that’s your goal that you’re aiming through.”

Tennis is a difficult sport to teach at home because many kids are unlikely to have racquets and balls, Bookbinder said. So in place of a tennis video, San Antonio Sports partnered with Alpha Warrior, a local obstacle course and fitness training organization, to make a series of home exercise videos.

Adkins said San Antonio Sports maintains relationships with many professional athletes, which made it fairly easy to find some willing to help with the videos. The athletes received a small stipend for their help, according to Bookbinder.

Scott said she felt honored to be a part of the project.

“I think it’s awesome what they’re doing,” she said. “We need hope, and this is a great platform in which to inspire the youth.”

In her own life, Scott said she has learned how important sports can be in a child’s development. 

“When I found sports, I was super shy and quiet,” Scott said, “and it was an avenue for me to learn communication, and to be in a family with friends and teammates.” 

Two former contestants on the “American Ninja Warrior” TV show, Kevin Klein and Tawnee Leonardo, lead the instruction in the exercise videos, and former San Antonio Stars forward Sophia Young-Malcolm is the featured athlete in the basketball training series. Michael Lahoud, a Major League Soccer player since 2009, was recruited for the soccer series, and Kendra Chambers, who competed in the 2016 track and field world championships, is the star of the track videos.

Bookbinder said the videos are being financed through a grant from Bexar County and other donations.

“We look at it as more of a capital investment because these videos are going to last for years and years and years,” Bookbinder said. “And the side benefit is when we decided to transfer the i play! curriculum to video we worked with our school district partners and said, ‘As we create these videos, what will work for you in distance learning?’”

Each series consists of anywhere from 12 to 16 videos, and the entire training course for each sport can be completed in about three to four weeks, Adkins said. Students need to register for the i play! program to get free access to the videos.

With four of the video series already edited and available online, 107 schools in 15 districts around San Antonio have requested access to the videos, Bookbinder said. San Antonio Sports has made them available to all schools and the public free of charge.

“That’s part of what we do,” he said. “We’re a nonprofit. We’re not there to charge the school districts or our community. We’re funded by generous donors and this is our purpose.”

Adkins said she has received positive feedback from PE teachers in school districts across the city who are using the videos for their classes.

“It’s just given them the opportunity to not have to create video content” for distance learning, she said. “They can use what we’ve already created and build their lessons plans around it.”

Even though the program is available to everyone this year through the videos, kids who are registered with the i play! afterschool program will still be able to earn their uniform, shoes, and backpack by completing the online course, just as they did during regular school years.

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Jennifer Norris

Jennifer Norris has been working in journalism since 2005. She's a native Texan, but a new San Antonian who is excited to get to know the city.