From Dream to Reality

Editor’s Note: Fred Engh is the founder of the National Alliance For Youth Sports. This is the first of his monthly youth sports columns written exclusively for Parks & Rec Business. Enjoy!

I’ll never forget hearing the great musical arranger Quincy Jones’s comment about the day he turned 65. He said, “I woke up that morning and said to myself, ‘What happened?’” That’s the way it feels as I look back as the National Alliance For Youth Sports (NAYS) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

The 25 years have just flown by. But within that time, some amazing things have happened, and it’s all because of one miracle after another. Those “miracles” were the result of the dynamic, forward-thinking people stepping up to help us along the way. The people I’m referring to are the parks and recreation folks committed to supporting and effecting change at the grassroots level. But there are two people in particular without whom NAYS might still be a dream.

Nurturing The Dream

I’ll always remember the 1981 meeting I had with John Davis, the then-executive director of the National Recreation and Park Association, and his assistant, Thad Studstill, a man I came to admire greatly. Thad eventually became the executive director of the Georgia Recreation and Park Association, and I credit him with helping to guide me along the way with his wisdom as our original organization, the National Youth Sports Coaches Association (NYSCA), struggled in its early years.

As I told John and Thad my idea that coaches of children in sports should be trained and held accountable for their behavior, never did I believe that there were others like John and Thad who totally agreed, and in turn would encourage every park and recreation department in America to get involved. It was the boost I needed to know that what I was about to do was not “crazy,” as some told me in the beginning.

That was 25 years ago, and I only wish Thad could have lived long enough to see that what he and John had helped me start has today evolved into a worldwide effort to bring the value of sports to the lives of children from as near as Hamburg, N.Y., to as far away as Luzaka, Zambia, in Africa.

The Mission Grows

What started as a program to sensitize coaches to their roles and responsibilities in coaching children has expanded well beyond its original mission. Almost 3 million volunteer coaches have become members of NYSCA since 1981. Since then, NAYS has added several programs to benefit all the major players in youth sports, including parents and children as well as coaches.

There’s Start Smart Sports Development, which allows children to gain the necessary skills along with their parents to enter the world of sports at an early age with the confidence and knowledge that will help guide them along the path of sports.

We also have the Parents Association for Youth Sports (PAYS), wherein parents – long before their child steps on a field or court – are given guidelines about their important role in making their child’s sports experience one that is totally focused on their child, and not themselves.

Our Hook A Kid On Golf program has helped introduce golf to close to 50,000 children who might never have had the chance to play.

NAYS has reached across America to help build the value of sports with the cooperation of hundreds of local parks and recreation departments, military bases and other organizations, and today, many of those same people are donating new and used sports equipment to our Global Gear Drive, which puts equipment in the hands of children in developing countries around the world.

Throughout the Caribbean, Africa and Mexico, children are learning and playing sports through our worldwide Game On! Youth Sports initiative, which we started with the help of several dedicated recreation professionals from around the United States. Game On! is all about building the “outdoor classroom,” as we call it, to help children gain the many social, physical and mental benefits that sports provide.

A Big Thank You…To You

The one disappointing thing about this column is that I can’t focus on the many people who have helped NAYS be what it is today. The list is simply too long, and the risk of forgetting someone is too great.

But I will say this: Everyone who has helped NAYS become what it is today shares a couple of the same traits. They are – like most recreation professionals – hardworking, dedicated people who get little recognition, and whose only wish is to see they made a child smile that day. On behalf of our Board of Directors and the fabulous NAYS staff, I say thanks for the past 25 years.

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance For Youth Sports (NAYS) which is in its 25th year of advocating for positive and safe youth sports and offers training and education programs for all coaches, parents, administrators and officials involved in youth sports. Visit for more information.