Nearly a year after coming up with the idea of a community-based coaching and mentoring program for her hometown, Westport’s Ally Schwartz is about to see her vision become a reality.
Next Step Athletes, described on its website as “a one on one program run by students with the goal to help students with their sport while inspiring them to develop a passion, just as we have,” is open for business.
“When I was a freshman I met a lot of upperclassmen and had some friends who were upperclassmen,” Schwartz, now a junior who plays volleyball and softball for Staples, said. “Even when I was younger, older girls served as role models for me. It was cool looking up and seeing them as really strong and athletic and powerful girls. It is a powerful thing being young and looking up to an older athlete.”
Schwartz is the president of Next Step Athletes. Her vice president is Sydelle Bernstein, a junior and three-sport athlete, who stood out when Schwartz started putting together a coaching staff.
“Sydelle showed the most interest in this and helped me to get this started so she’s been my right-hand man through all of this,” Schwartz said.
Bernstein said she saw a void that goes beyond just offering technical expertise to younger athletes.
“I was honestly shocked that nothing like it had been done before because I think that it’s so important that high school athletes can teach young athletes as well,” Bernstein said. “You are able to learn a lot from people who are sort of around your age and you are able to just connect more. The kids are able not just to get better at their sport but learn a familiar face in the town.”
There are six other senior and junior female coaches, including Gaby Gonzalez, an All-FCIAC soccer player, Jen Westphal, Annabelle Iannone, Jess Leon, Alex Wasserman and Gabby Lantier.
Next Step Athletes has just about every sport covered. Some of the coaches prefer working with kids at specific age levels. The plan is to offer sessions to girls from the second grade up to rising freshmen about to enter Staples.
“We want to give kids coming into Staples afraid of playing a varsity sport, we want to give them a familiar space,” Schwartz said. “Someone they can say hi to in the hallways. Someone they can train with before the season, before tryouts. Not just these structured lessons, but they can say play soccer with me today and develop relationships.”
Parents can sign up their children by sport and request specific coaches. Next Step Athletes also doesn’t just cater to females; the girls have a stable of male athletes at Staples on call. The staff plans to use town fields where available and their own homes. Schwartz, for example, has a volleyball net in her backyard.
Each hour lesson is $35; five dollars goes for equipment and the rest to each coach.
“We wanted to promote athletes for athletes because it is the same thing,” Schwartz said. “We wanted to promote the connection. If kids have a passion and want to purse their sport, we didn’t want the same expenses as professional coaching. We wanted to have hopefully a more accessible program for kids in this community.”
The pandemic delayed the start of the business. The girls had hoped to start booking sessions just as schools shut down. They see this as a year-round enterprise and are already eyeing future growth.
“Start one on one, kids around Westport,” Bernstein said. “Ultimately we want to do group lessons. We want to find space where we can work. A specific area where we can always count on having the lessons. More coaches.”
Schwartz said she hopes Next Step Athletes will become a town fixture, with graduating Staples athletes handing it off to a rising class.
“We wanted to figure out how to make this an athletic-based outreach kind of thing,” Schwartz said. “We wanted this to be based on the community connecting younger athletes to high school athletes. We’ve been waiting for this for a long time because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were ready in March but now we’re excited to get our clients in and coach.”
To learn more about Next Step Athletes you can go to its website.