The More Things ChangeЙ

Since I’ve started writing for Parks & Rec Business magazine, I have touched upon some of the trends and changes in youth sports over the last 25 years. However, you might be surprised to find out--even I was--that things haven’t really changed all that much.

The other day I came across an interview I did exactly 25 years ago, when I had just founded what was then known as the National Youth Sports Coaches Association (NYSCA). The organization has since evolved into the National Alliance For Youth Sports. I was astounded at the similarities in trends and issues in youth sports 25 years ago and the scope of the landscape today. It reminded me why I started the NYSCA in the first place.

I also realized one very important thing. See, while the problems of 25 years ago are, for the most part, the same things suffered today, one thing has certainly changed: We have made a lot of progress in developing new ways to deal with them.

On The Adult’s Role In Youth Sports

Youth sports are a serious phenomenon in this society, and they need serious attention. There are more than 2.5 million youth league coaches nationally influencing the lives of close to 15 million children.. Someone must claim the responsibility for whether the youth sports experience is positive or negative.

On What Should Be Expected Of Recreation Professionals

The name itself tells the story. “Recreation professional” is someone who has been adequately trained to offer and conduct a quality recreation program for people of the community, and youth sports are a big part of recreation, whether directly or indirectly sponsored by the local recreation department.

Several parks and recreation districts throughout the U.S. simply lend their facilities to independent youth leagues. I believe the local recreation department still has a responsibility to see that these programs get off to a good start so that every participating youngster has a quality experience. As I mentioned before, more than anyone else in a community, the local recreation director possesses the knowledge that can help inform volunteers of their responsibility to provide a positive experience for kids in sports.

On The Main Problems In Youth Sports

Ask nine out of 10 people associated with youth sports, and you’ll get the same responses.. First, it’s the win-at-all-costs emphasis of many coaches. Second, parents simply become too involved, and third, youth sports coaches have no training for their role and responsibility in working with young people.

Let’s address the win-at-all costs problem first. A survey when I was with the Athletic Institute found that more than 75 percent of youth coaches volunteered because their son or daughter was on the team. Not a bad motivation if they understand what the real purpose of youth sports is. But most volunteers don’t understand. Their only model is high school, college and pro sports, and at those levels winning is the most important element. Some high school coaches would disagree, but it’s still true.

Coaches often fail to realize that a 10-year-old simply lacks the hand-eye coordination, speed and agility, of college and professional athletes. This discrepancy between the reality and the model angers the coach, leading him or her to take the frustration out on the youthful players. Fortunately, these coaches are in the minority. But, as a past director of a program with more than 5,000 kids, I saw some ugly situations.

As for parents, we’re all the same. Our kids are an extension of ourselves in whatever they do. That’s why you see fathers teaching three-year-olds to throw a baseball. Some parents are more in control of themselves emotionally than others sitting in the stands, but when one parent is out of control, look out. As for the coach’s knowledge of his or her role in youth sports, it’s great to see so many groups like amateur hockey, youth soccer, YMCA and others develop meaningful training programs. The problem is that there are almost 3 million youth sports coaches, and none of them should spend five minutes with a youngster in sports until someone tells them to show more concern for the kid’s experience, and less concern for the championship.

On Understanding The Importance Of Youth Sports

I firmly believe that youth sports provide a positive experience for young people when the league, the parents and the coaches look at the program from the proper perspective. But my concern has always been that there has never been, since the development of youth league sports more than 30 years ago, a national awareness program to tell local administrators and coaches that they are dealing with a serious business--young people.

I think it’s ironic that, as parents, we are very concerned about what kind of teacher Billy or Mary has in school, but couldn’t care less about what qualifications our son’s or daughter’s youth league coach has. After all, think of the tremendous number of hours a youth coach spends influencing a child’s emotional, social, moral and physical life.

Plato said it best 2,000 years ago: “A child is at his best while playing.” We’d never think of letting our child take swimming lessons from someone who wasn’t a qualified instructor, would we? Why have we, then, for the last 30 or so years, let children risk drowning psychologically, socially and emotionally?

On Accountability In Youth Sports

The blame goes on us, the professionals who have been trained to know better. The youth coach simply agreed to coach. But where were we when he or she needed training?

On Asking The Volunteer Coach To Complete Training

The recreation director who rationalizes that it’s asking too much of a volunteer coach to attend a training program is copping out. That’s why there are so many problems in youth sports--the coaches, particularly in independent youth sports leagues, have the upper hand even though they are using public parks and recreation facilities.

Fred Engh welcomes any opinions, comments or questions readers have about the topics he’s written about, and youth sports in general. He can be reached via e-mail at