On Working With Young Athletes (and Honoring the Kid Within)

How to keep the process fun for our child stars

We've been collaborating and filming with young athletes since the beginning of our careers; it's one of our favorite things about the job. They are passionate and raw, with a vulnerability you just can't fake. It's a joy to be around their energy and sense of fun. 

Because of that history, our most recent project with young athletes, "Project Play"—which we made with Arnold Worldwide for the Aspen Institute in partnership with ESPN and the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation—held particular meaning for us. Project Play addresses the decline in youth sporting engagement due to pressures from "parents, leagues, coaches, everyone." The project was an amazing opportunity not only because it was great creative, but also because this issue of kids dropping out of sports was something we didn't know much about. We weren't aware it had become such a national problem. 

#DontRetireKid

What happened next was honestly a moment of self-reflection. We found ourselves thinking about how we have managed our collaborations with young athletes and looked at how we keep the process fun. We're proud to say that over the years we've developed some practices that have served us well, that help us as filmmakers and ad makers to get a great result for everyone while letting these young athletes still be who they are—kids.

Put ourselves in their shoes.

A commercial set can be really fun. It can also feel high pressure, especially to a kid who may not have experienced that environment before. The lights, the cameras and an entire crew just staring at you can be intense for a young kid, no matter how talented they are. It is our responsibility to remember this and make the process as fun as possible. 

Treat kids as collaborators.

Ask kids to bring their own ideas to the table and improvise. This allows them to connect with the material and take ownership of it, which in turn allows them to open up more. It's not about "doing what you're told," or doing everything "right." It's more like a form of play. 

For one project we created with Major League Beaseball, we had almost 50 Little Leaguers, including Mo'ne Davis, doing their best Derek Jeter impressions. This collaboration helped us create a film that was so much more than your typical sports spot. It was a love letter to one of the sport's brightest stars, told through a new generation of athletes he's influenced, and shot with a playful spirit. It was amazing watching kids from all walks of life give their best impression. 

Create real, lasting relationships.

Kids are so young, and commercials happen so fast. The age range in commercials is definitely trending younger and younger. It's our responsibility as filmmakers to treat the kids with respect and build a sense of trust—that's how we build relationships with them. 

One young athlete comes to mind—Jaliyah Manuel, whom we filmed years ago for "The Future Is Fearless." She was just 6 years old at the time, but already such an unstoppable force. We remembered her when we were recently casting a Gap project and were thrilled we could find a place for her in the spot. It was like a little family reunion when we saw her and her dad on set. The comfort level we had with her (and she had with us) was the result of that ongoing relationship. 

Look, the pressures are always going to be there for kids—whether they're playing sports, taking tests or making films—but it's up to us to make sure that, no matter what, they're having a good time.

The hashtag for "Project Play" was #DontRetireKid, a call to find ways to keep kids in the game. When you honor what makes kids kids—their energy, their sense of play, their pure love of the game—it not only makes the finished project that much better, but you've also given them a great experience, and a reason to stay.

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Michael Kuhn and Niles Roth
Michael Kuhn and Niles Roth, aka The Hudson Dusters, are directors represented by Greenpoint Pictures.