The two former student-athletes run the FUNdamental Athletics Academy to teach kids about sports.
Ann and Paul Erickson, two former Texas Tech University student-athletes, cannot remember a time in their lives when they were not passionate about sports. Ann has always loved challenge, competition and bonding with teammates. Paul cannot think of a sport he does not enjoy playing.
Now, the former football and volleyball players are passing that passion on to future athletes.
In Lincoln, Nebraska, far from their alma mater of Texas Tech, Paul and Ann are using their degrees to educate young students about all types of sports.
The FUNdamental Athletics Academy opened in 2015 and hosts around 83 students per week, an increase from last year's 31 at the beginning of the school year. At the academy, students come before and after school to learn the basics of sports and play games such as dodgeball or kickball.
Paul graduated from Texas Tech in 2001 with a master's degree in exercise and sports science and was an offensive tackle for the Red Raider football team.
Ann graduated in 2003 with her bachelor's degree in health and exercise sports science after four years on the Red Raider volleyball team, where she served as the captain for three years.
Paul wants students to learn about all sports and not feel like they have to start specializing in one or two sports at a young age. The Ericksons started the academy so kids could play sports and be active.
“Kids like to be active after school, so we try to have fun with them,” he said. “People see their kids have a good time when they're there, so we've gotten positive reviews from parents.”
At the academy, Paul said, they urge the kids to stick with playing multiple sports for a while.
“We don't want kids to give up a sport too early because they think they need to be the best soccer player in the world at 10 years old,” he said.
Paul and Ann met through mutual friends at Texas Tech and were later married. Two years after graduating, Paul started pilot training for the military; he is now a full-time pilot for FedEx.
Paul flies across the country, usually starting around 10:30 p.m. and flying until 4 or 5 a.m. most days of the week. He also flies for the Nebraska Air National Guard in the U.S. Air Force is deployed in 30- 60- or 90-day rotations.
Paul has been deployed eight to 10 times in his career. He has been to Guam and Turkey plus other shorter missions.
When at work, he refuels military airplanes. He has also flown a medevac plane, an airplane with a small hospital in the back to fly injured people to get medical attention.
His time in pilot training was intensive. Often he endured 12-hour days for five days a week and had to know his training like the back of his hand. Paul had to recite entire paragraphs of what he was learning verbatim.
“The best part is getting to defend our country,” Paul said. “I know I keep my family and friends safer at home.”
Paul pursued flying for the military because his dad did, and he wanted to be like him. He hopes one day his children might want to follow his footsteps, too.
“Serving our country is an important part of being a citizen and I think it's good to give back,” he said. “I'm hoping it's something my kids find pride in, something they could hopefully take up.”
Ann has always been passionate about coaching, she said. She coached club volleyball in Lubbock while at Texas Tech and continued when she and Paul moved to Nebraska. She also coached junior varsity volleyball and volunteered with the varsity team for eight years at Lincoln Southeast High School.
In December 2014, the Ericksons met with their business partners, Jayme Shelton and Sean Mulvaney, and began weekly meetings the following January to start the FUNdamental Athletics Academy.
The original idea came from Shelton, director of strategic partnerships, who thought it would be a good idea for kids to have an after-school option where they could be active while parents were at work.
Mulvaney, director of business operations, said there is a high demand for off-site, after-school care in the area, and there was not anything like this academy. Kids in the area get physical education time only once every six days in school, so there also was a high demand for events allowing kids to be active.
In the fall of 2015, the FUNdamental Athletics Academy opened its doors to 31 students who wanted to learn the basics of sports before and after school.
“We started it because we want kids to enjoy playing sports,” Paul said. “My wife and I wanted them to be exposed to everything, so they're playing but not at a practice.”
Ann said they have worked to build a curriculum which focuses on building confidence, emphasizes teamwork and leadership, skill level, exposure to multiple sports and basic athletic movements that are not taught in youth sports. Boys and girls play all sports at the academy.
The curriculum includes volleyball, football, basketball, soccer, baseball, softball and tennis. Ann said they also do balance and coordination exercises and proper form for push-ups, planks, squats, etc. to help the students learn how to prevent injuries.
The academy, open to students in kindergarten through fifth grade, offers time to do homework, have a snack and work on the curriculum. The facility also can be rented out to teams for practices and parties. It has a basketball/volleyball court, batting cages, turf and a locker room.
There are summer day camps in addition to the before- and after-school care program. The academy also provides pick-up services at some local schools.
“I really didn't know what to expect when we started,” Ann said. “I did think if we do it right, pay attention to the details and, first and foremost, care about the kids and their families, we could have some success.”
Success did not come without some rough terrain to cross. Running a small business can be all-encompassing, and the FUNdamental Athletics Academy is no exception.
Mulvaney said the biggest challenge to starting the academy was a lack of examples.
“Our biggest struggle is, this concept hasn't been done and isn't being done,” he said. “We were dealing with uncertainty and asking ourselves, ‘Why hasn't someone else started this, what are we missing?' But we've had a ton of success.”
Additionally, finding a balance with their families can be hard at times, Ann said. As the director and managing partner, she is at the academy working every day, overseeing everything. The employees also want the best for everyone involved, including the families.
For Paul, keeping up with the high energy of the students is difficult, among other challenges with running a small business.
“Three of the partners have different full-time jobs and Ann has 80 kids every day, plus our three boys when I'm deployed or out of town with FedEx,” he said. “Without Ann keeping the day-to-day challenges to a minimum, we would have a great idea without proper execution.”
With all of those challenges come the benefits of helping kids be active and teaching them the value of sports.
Shelton said the smile on the kids' faces is what he enjoys the most about working at the academy.
“I love hearing kids tell their parents they are not ready to go home,” he said. “The long-term goal is to create self-respecting student-athletes who contribute to the community. I feel we have established a foundation to accomplish this.”
For Mulvaney, however, the most rewarding part is the students' tears.
“The first week we were open, we had kids leave here crying because they didn't want to leave. They wanted to stay here, play and have fun,” he said. “Since they only get PE time once every six days in school, them being able to get energy out and instructed development techniques has been fun.”
Ann said watching the students have fun while building confidence is fantastic. She is an advocate for kids playing and trying all sports, and the academy lets her do just that.
In one year, the academy has already seen exponential growth, and with the success it has seen, it is possible it will keep growing.
To handle this business and working together as a married couple, Ann said she and Paul have tools from Texas Tech to help accomplish their goals.
“I believe since both of us were former athletes at Texas Tech, we are both good at communicating, supporting, solving problems and knowing our roles,” she said. “We are able to separate and focus on the tasks and goals at hand, even if we disagree, for the betterment of our team.”
Paul said they would like the academy to grow, but they want to make sure it is executed the right way. The product has to be great from the start. The main goal is for the kids to be active and have fun doing it.
“I truly think being involved in sports and being a part of teams that compete at a high level at Texas Tech helped prepare both Paul and I to do life,” Ann said. “With the challenges of being apart quite often through deployments and missions, raising three boys, opening a business, starting new jobs, etc., we were prepared to take them on.”