Problem Solving

Some days recruiting--and retaining--officials for a youth sports programs can seem more daunting than scaling Mount Everest.

Yet it doesn’t have to be.

I’m still amazed by the number of administrators who continually struggle with this problem, and whose valuable time is monopolized by it.

As a former youth sports administrator, I believe I’m qualified to dispense some useful advice. It shouldn’t be this difficult.

Recruit From Within

The next time you’re at your facility while games are going on, which in all likelihood--knowing the crazy schedules administrators juggle--will be within hours of reading this, take a look around. All those kids running up and down the soccer field, circling the bases on the softball field and lofting shots on the basketball court are officiating candidates for your programs, now and in the future. Sure, some will be too young at the moment, but it never hurts to start laying the groundwork to build a strong pool of officials that you can rely on down the road.

Umpiring a baseball game or officiating at a basketball game for some extra cash in the summer may be more appealing to many youngsters than flipping burgers or washing dishes at a local restaurant--if you promote the activity in the right way.

Drawing A Crowd

Many years ago, while I served as the youth sports administrator in Wilmington, Del., the staff took a rather creative route to developing officials for our programs. You may find these ideas useful--particularly if you’re one of those administrators who is always reaching for the antacid tablets every time the issue of filling officiating spots comes up.

We formed our own officials association for girls. We sent letters to all the players who had competed at the highest age level in department programs, which at that time was age 16.

We created a great market with this group of players whom we knew loved sports and had been active participants for several years. We announced a sign-up, and 18 girls jumped at the chance to become officials, so we knew that we were onto something good. They met every Saturday and really embraced the club-type atmosphere that evolved. We brought in a local official to train them, but it was all done under our recreation program’s banner.

A Place For Everyone

Keep in mind that many of these youngsters weren’t good enough to play for their junior varsity or high school teams, so the bulk of their playing career had come to a grinding halt. That can be pretty devastating for a teenager who suddenly doesn’t have the same opportunities to step on the court as they did in their younger days.

Leaders of parks and recreation departments sometimes develop such tunnel vision that their only focus is providing programs for children, forgetting that once kids no longer qualify under the age-eligibility requirements, they are often cut loose with nowhere to turn. They may be tempted by drugs, alcohol and tobacco, as well as other unproductive and unhealthy activities, when they’re searching out ways to fill their new-found free time.

In our program, many of these kids still had a deep-rooted love of the game, so working as officials allowed them to be involved and a part of the action--just in a different, but equally important, role.

When you can make this happen in your own recreation department, it’s a win-win for everyone involved. It’s less of a strain on a department’s budget, plus it’s the chance for the kids to make some extra money in the process. It’s also great experience, and for some, an ideal training ground as a few will advance to officiate at the high school level and beyond.

Once you establish a sound recruitment policy, you can devote your energy to those other important areas of the job that tug on you daily. So go ahead, encourage participants to take active roles as officials, and embrace this aspect of the sport, too.

You’ll be glad you did and, most importantly, you’ll be creating opportunities for youngsters to enjoy other aspects of sports that they never knew were available.

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla., which has been advocating positive and safe sports for children since 1981. He is also the author of “Why Johnny Hates Sports,” which is available on He can be reached via e-mail at