Providing For An Entire Population
Having spent my entire career in sports—particularly organized sports for kids—I feel like I have seen it all. What started as a way to give kids the joy of simply playing sports for the fun of it has taken a turn—a very disappointing one.
Public-recreation facilities that once were organized by local recreation departments are being given away to private-interest groups, known these days as “travel teams,” that appear only interested in the elite, athletically talented kids. These groups hire “professional” coaches with the sheer intent of selling families on the idea that their involvement in training kids will have a much better chance of securing scholarships.
But what about the other 90 percent, those players who maybe aren’t as talented but still need (and I emphasize NEED) to play sports? Isn’t it the role of recreation professionals to make sure facilities aren’t given away to elite groups at the expense of these other youngsters?
After all, the facilities I’m speaking of are built and maintained with tax dollars from the community. As a taxpayer, I certainly would want to know that on all those ball fields there are hundreds of kids playing sports—not just the elite-level youngsters.
With the growing emergence of Certified Youth Sports Administrators (CYSAs) in recreation departments across the country, I checked in with some to see how they’re tackling this ever-growing issue:
Josh Stacey, Recreation Supervisor for the city of Bentonville (Ark.) Parks and Recreation: Travel teams impact our local rec softball league in a major way. In Bentonville, recently, there has been a massive push for all girls who develop their skill to advance to a travel team and compete in other cities’ tournaments. Our struggle has been enticing them to stay in our league and continue rec play, so we try to make the league more fun. We’ve instituted rules allowing girls to remain on the same team year after year to allow for growth and development with a coach, but also to allow for friendship, bonds, and camaraderie with the girls on their team. We’ve attempted to focus more on foundational work to improve the competitive aspect of the league. If our league is more competitive, we believe the girls will want to remain rather than leave for better players and teams. We’ve also started holding rules, practice, and fundamental coaches’ clinics to improve the quality of coaching. For those players who aren’t interested in travel teams—or who do not qualify because of their skills—we provide age groups up to 16U, and we offer local rec-only class brackets to allow every player tournament experience and a shot at playing for more than their own league.
Separate But Equal
Carson Revell, Athletic Program Supervisor for the Columbus (Ga.) Parks and Recreation Department: We assign the travel softball and baseball teams at separate fields from where our Little Leagues are assigned. All travel teams have to sign a field-use agreement with the department, and we require them to have 60-percent county residents in order to get assigned practice times. We have seven Little Leagues in Columbus that have different boundary lines, so kids will play in the league based on where they live or where they attend school. Little Leagues are open to all children.
Rich Dixon, Assistant Athletics Manager for Greenville County (S.C.) Parks, Recreation, & Tourism: This has become a Catch-22 for many parks and recreation departments, including mine. Many departments have had to cut their athletic staff to accommodate tighter budgets, which causes programs to be eliminated or reduced. The way many departments, including ours, has faced this struggle is by creating partnerships with outside groups in order to serve an ever-growing population. One great example of a partnership we have is with the largest youth soccer club in South Carolina. The club serves over 5,000 players annually, from the rec level all the way up to the travel-club levels. We are able to have a 16-field complex that keeps games and practices at one location. This facility also allows us to bring in large tournaments to the area, which helps the local economy. We can now serve the community from all levels of play and also bring in tourism dollars to the local economy. And the rec department is able to accomplish this large task on a limited budget. Yes, there is a definite need to keep recreation squarely in youth sports, though we also realize there is a population in the community that finds the travel/elite way of sports as the way to go in the future. As Youth Sport Administrators in a public environment, we have the duty to serve all backgrounds.
Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit www.nays.org or contact Emmy Martinez at email@example.com or (800) 729-2057.