A Refresher Course

I’ll never forget one of my professors at the University of Maryland many years ago. During final exam week--that caffeine-fueled, sleep-deprived time that college students despise--he stood in front of the class and presented us with an intriguing scenario: The superintendent of the local school system has just announced that physical education classes will be dropped in all grades unless he can be convinced otherwise.

Our task was to write a paper building a case to change his position.

During my 40-plus years in the recreation field, I’ve often thought of that class and that final exam project. Although the subject was physical education, it’s easy to draw parallels to organized youth sports programs today and the important role they play in a child’s life.

A Final Exam

Let’s fast forward from that Maryland classroom I sat in decades ago to today. What if I were to challenge you? In your community, the local parks and recreation department will be disbanded--and all the fields, courts, rinks and other facilities that it leases to private youth groups for games and practices will be off-limits to everyone--unless you can make a convincing argument how important youth sports really are.

Do you feel strongly enough about them to make a good case? Since you’ve chosen this field as your life’s work, I’m confident that you do.

Do you have enough ammunition to take a strong stance? Since you’re in the trenches every day overseeing the programs and constantly evaluating the proceedings, I’m sure you have an abundance of material to work with.

Do you have any first-hand accounts to help make a convincing argument? Whether it’s seeing the happy looks on kids’ faces or a conversation with parents about how much their child has enjoyed and benefited from a program--you have an uplifting tale to share.

Searching For Answers

From time to time, I like to challenge the board of directors of our organization--the National Alliance for Youth Sports--with probing questions to get their insight on related topics and issues.

I recently sent an e-mail to them asking for their thoughts, in just a few sentences, on what the power of sports means to them.

I did so because I think many of us--due to a seemingly endless string of responsibilities--deal with so much on a daily basis that we take for granted the true power of sports.

I believe it’s important from time to time to remind ourselves that what we do in the field of recreation and organized youth sports programming really does matter to a child. It truly makes a difference in a youngster’s overall development.

I’d like to share with you a couple of responses I have received:

“In a world where prejudice and bigotry still exist, the playing field often overcomes these negatives, and helps individuals view people in a different light. It is about teamwork and skill, not the language spoken or the color of a person's skin. There is no better picture than a team shaking hands with another team following a well-played and competitive game. This does not always happen at school, work or in neighborhoods. Respect through sports has changed the attitudes of many. Sports transcend race, gender, nationality and age. No better lesson can be taught to a child: everyone must play together.”

--Marty Johnston, chairperson of the NAYS board

“Sports are the outdoor classroom because they teach life-long lessons. The benefits of developing sportsmanship skills and the character-building opportunities learned on the field are endless, and having fun while learning these skills is always a plus. Just as in life, there are rules and regulations that must be followed in sports, or there are consequences that must be faced.”

-- Al Handy, recreation supervisor at the Ocean City (Md.) Recreation and Parks Department

What does the power of sports mean to you? I’m sure you have an insightful and interesting take on the question, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop me a note anytime at the address below.

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 Amazon.com. He can be reached via e-mail at fengh@nays.org