GameSpeed Sports Academy, an athletic training facility in Eden Prairie, offers athletes of all ages and skill levels intense physical training, academic tutoring, and assistance with improving life and social skills. Training sessions can cost upwards of $700 for a six-week session – putting it out of reach of those who could use it most – poor inner-city youth. But with the help of the E.J. Henderson Foundation, the opportunity for young athletes in the Twin Cities to participate in this high quality program is well within the grasps of youth who have the desire to become better athletes, students, and people.
This article was written for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder and TC Daily Planet.
Most athletes with the skills to compete on the collegiate and professional level have been involved in rigorous development programs that help them build the skills necessary to excel in such competitive fields. These are the types of programs GameSpeed offers to young aspiring athletes.
Mark Ellis is a veteran professional trainer who has worked with many top professional athletes, such as NFL standouts (and Minneapolis native) Larry Fitzgerald Jr., Marion Barber III, and Minnesota Vikings players Adrian Peterson and E.J. Henderson. He is the creator and owner of GameSpeed, which was launched in 2007 with the help of E.J. Henderson.
“We wanted to develop a program that was geared towards developing youth”, says Ellis. Initially starting with a program geared for football players, Ellis soon realized that it would make more sense to develop “a more well-rounded program” that would be geared towards developing the “total athlete”.
Ellis noticed how the college recruits would come to the area to look at young talent, and offer scholarships to talent mainly coming out of the suburban schools. When he inquired as to why the scholarships did not go to urban students, Ellis says the recruiters would tell him, “They don’t have the grades”.
This led to the creation of the Academic and Life Skills centers at GameSpeed, built with the help of a $50,000 donation from NFL veteran Darren Sharper. The centers are essentially classrooms equipped with computers that are used to meet, lecture, and teach young participants.
“We want to build them from the head down…we want to address the mind, the body, and the soul – that’s the holistic effect,” said Ellis. “They’re no good [to college recruits] without their grades; they can have all the physical ability in the world; if they don’t have grades, it doesn’t matter.”
GameSpeed Sports Academy handles the physical aspect of training the youth – and The Urban Youth Outreach program – which is a part of the E.J. Henderson Youth Foundation – focuses on education and social skills. The program buses kids from various urban neighborhoods from north and south Minneapolis, St. Paul, and other areas in the Twin Cities to GameSpeed in Eden Prairie. There they receive professional physical training, life skills training, and academic reinforcement.
Ty Baker, executive director of the E.J. Henderson Youth Foundation, spends a lot of his time building relationships with coaches, athletic directors, organizations, athletic associations, and businesses to open avenues for recruiting youth and ensuring funding. Baker is also in charge of teaching life skill sessions to youth participants.
Baker is a coach at Wayzata High School, a successful program that is highly respected in many football circles. That sometimes puts him in competition with some of the youth participating in the program. This is fine by Baker, as winning on the field is not the most important thing for him. “I tell them…I’m interested in developing you as a man,” he said. “On the football field when we see each other – we’re opponents – that’s fine. But when it comes to developing you as a man, that’s what my interest is.”
A kids’ program is geared towards developing strong work and training habits to youth under 12. “We take them through a 30-45 minute circuit; we take them out on the field and do some stuff with them,” says Ellis. “Within an hour they’re in and out. But what we’re trying to do is establish habits – training habits; work ethic [and] show them that you don’t just show up on Sundays and play – it takes preparation. I used to say this all the time, ‘our preparation will determine our destination’… and that’s what these kids have to understand. You have to have the willingness – not to win – but to prepare to win.” He hopes to be able to reach the young people at an early age so they can be better prepared for the next stage of development.
Abdirahman Jinad, a fourteen year-old who lives in south Minneapolis, was introduced to the program through EPPSA (East Phillips Park Sports Association). EPPSA provides inner city youth opportunities to participate in various sports and arts activities. The young athlete is excited about the opportunity to learn from professional trainers and become a better athlete. Even though he has only recently started training at GameSpeed, Jinad is already convinced that it is helping him to improve his speed: “I got a 5.2 and a 5.1 [seconds it takes to run forty yards]… next time I’ll do around 4.5,” he said. He really likes the trainers, and is “excited about going back” and working with them.
Although GameSpeed is geared towards training athletes, literally anyone – especially young people – can benefit from they have to offer. In addition to what participants can learn from the life skills sessions, those who are not “serious” athletes can benefit from the physical aspect of the program as well.
“We encourage them to come in, because it’s tied in with their self esteem,” said Baker. “If we could get them to come in, and they see some gains – see a little muscle [growth] and get a little stronger – that could be big [for their self esteem].”
Jamal Denman is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.
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