“I do love a locker room. It smells like potential.”
— Coach Ted Lasso (the beloved protagonist of Apple TV’s latest breakout hit)

Ted Lasso’s rapid ascent and positive infusion into our cultural zeitgeist solidified something I already knew: That coaches are an often unsung force for good, and we ought to be doing more to recognize their unique power and influence in positively shaping lives.

As a former collegiate athlete, I’ve long known the power of coaches, but my current enthusiasm is tied to a more recent journey of discovery and transformation alongside my own personal Ted Lasso, my friend and colleague Eric Reveno, who coaches the men’s basketball team at Georgia Tech.

Like Lasso, Coach Rev looks at a locker room and sees potential in his players — not just as competitors, but as compassionate, caring and capable community members and community leaders. In the past year, Coach Rev added a new element to his coaching focus: civics.

In June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and the public outcry for social justice reform, Coach Rev embarked on a personal mission to help his players register to vote. But his efforts didn’t end with his own team. Coach Rev became the driving force behind #AllVoteNoPlay, an initiative that urged athletics to take election day off from practice or games so players could vote and volunteer. With support from the National Association of Basketball Coaches and the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, over 1,100 coaches ultimately signed the #AllVoteNoPlay pledge. The call to action was so meaningful to players that the student-run NCAA Student Athletic Committee leadership team unanimously passed legislation to make #AllVoteNoPlay an annual tradition.

Coach Rev and I met last year while I was working on my own personal mission to change the way we engage young people in the voting process. I saw a future marred by an increasingly divisive, expensive and alienating political process that didn’t support a healthy, robust democracy. As a designer, educator and futurist, I was curious how practices of design, empathy, and imagination might transform the experience of voting. Together with colleagues, I created Vote by Design, a program focused on turning “apathy” into civic agency through experiential learning and practice. Our aim is to help young voters develop the confidence and capacity to approach voting as a lifelong skill that could be nurtured through intentional practice. Seeking ways to support his new #AllVoteNoPlay initiative, Rev brought Vote by Design to his students. We instantly bonded in our shared belief that young people need and deserve to be not just informed, but empowered to participate more fully in shaping the future they’re going to inherit.

2020 itself was a singular moment in time, and when the immediacy of a highly charged presidential election cycle faded, a new set of questions emerged: How do we ensure that young people continue to learn and engage in our democracy? Who can help them understand their central role in shaping the future? Who, in the lives of young people, holds the position of trust and mentorship to deliver the necessary messages about civic participation without being dismissed as “boring”, “preachy” or what “others do.”

The answer is clear. As Rev said to me: “It’s time for coaches to teach civics.”

The need to educate young people about their personal power and agency in every moment of civic life — from helping a neighbor, to voting for town council, to casting that biggest of all ballots every four years. Research shows that civic awareness and engagement not only help young people find their voice in their own communities, but also increase their success and satisfaction in life. Civically empowered and educated youth are more likely to finish their education, are better prepared for future careers, show greater empathy and tolerance for differing viewpoints, and are more likely to give back to their communities through volunteerism later in life. And the students themselves are asking for more voice and action, as evidenced by the 75 percent of NCAA-surveyed athletes who expressed interest in more civic engagement.

But these outcomes don’t just happen. The research tells us they’re created through practice and active learning. Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Engagement calls it a posture of “growing voters.” And that’s where coaches come back into play. Who knows more about setting up intentional practice to build core muscles and develop necessary skills than coaches?

Coach Rev and I have spent the past several months working to create the practice plan that will help coaches translate their skills as natural leaders in the locker room, to natural leaders in civic engagement. Our work is based on the belief that “civic conditioning” can be just as powerful as “strength conditioning.”

This year, when #AllVoteNoPlay comes around on Nov. 2, we’re ready to help coaches across the country turn the day off from sports into a day on for civic practice.

Working closely with a community of coaches, student-athletes and some of the best minds in the civic learning space, we’ve created the #AllVoteNoPlay Coaches’ Playbook, a nonpartisan, hands-on approach to “civic conditioning” for Nov. 2 and beyond.

According to Rev, “Drills are where the magic happens.” Our vision for #AllVoteNoPlay is not to recreate traditional civics classes, but instead to offer simple, accessible, meaningful “civic drills” that inspire coaches and athletes to learn, engage and gather for community-building experiences. Our aim is to ignite the confidence within athletes that they — as individuals and as teammates — have a voice, choices, the agency to act and the power to make an impact in moments both small and large.

So this Nov. 2, we’re spreading those messages across the entire NCAA. Every coach, every team, regardless of sport or division, can take part in #AllVoteNoPlay. It’s as easy as choosing a civic drill and trying it with your team. Gathering for a team barbecue and movie night, taking an online quiz or engaging in a game of “civic tag” may not seem like a life-changing effort, but Rev and I believe in the power of these micromoments to start building the civic muscles athletes will need for a lifetime of good citizenship and community leadership.

We look at a locker room and see potential.

And I hope that this is just the first of many #AllVoteNoPlay Days ON, rather than days OFF, where coaches seize their moment and realize that potential.

by Lisa Kay Solomon, who is on the faculty of Stanford University’s design school and a creator of Vote by Design, an educational site designed to promote civic and political engagement among younger voters.