During my 20 years in the parks and recreation industry, I’ve seen the benefits of sound recreational sports programs within a community.
I’ve also seen the opposite, in which programs become harmful to the development of their participants and compel children--at a young age--to drop out of team sports altogether. Why are some programs detrimental while others promote sound fundamentals, teamwork, and fair play?
There are many variables that contribute to the development of a well-rounded and confident athlete, all of which are important. However, as someone who has spent his career in developing and implementing sports programming, there is one variable that stands out, one that is the core of my “philosophy” on youth sports: Be nice.
Superior customer service is predicated on treating people with respect in a congenial or favorable manner.
A comprehensive sports program should include programming for participants from age 3 to adulthood. Although there are different “levels” and challenges for each, the key to success is making sure customer service is the first priority.
Since children learn best by encouragement and positive reinforcement, they need to feel as if they can achieve anything; the administrator of this program has to boost their self-confidence at every possible opportunity.
This behavior, however, doesn’t stop with the children. Parents, grandparents, siblings, and even friends of the family should all be treated … nicely!
I know most people think that being nice should be a given and explaining the importance of it is a waste of time. Unfortunately, behavior such as screaming at officials and coaches, booing at children, and sometimes even partaking in verbal and physical abuse occurs at sporting events for children as young as 3 years old.
This is why it’s so important to have trained administrators leading during these influential years, so the children as well as the adults learn acceptable behavior.
The Introduction Enrichment Program (Ages 3-5)
Every sports program should have an introduction that allows children to learn in a relaxed, non-competitive setting. Usually, most municipalities host these programs for children ages 3 through 5.
This is the most important level because it establishes the framework of a program, teaching the fundamentals of sports to children as well as to their parents. In this age bracket, it’s also important to let children enjoy the sport so they continue to participate in programs as they get older. Therefore, games with strict rule interpretations are discouraged.
This is where “being nice” starts. The person leading and/or supervising these introductory activities must be someone who displays exemplary customer service. He or she should have a background, preferably a degree in physical education or a related field, in dealing with children and parents.
Ideally, the director of this level is able to commit to teaching/coaching directly. This way, he or she will be able to personally model the behavior of a positive youth coach to all participants.
However, in some communities, such a commitment is not possible due to other responsibilities. In this situation, the director needs to properly inform the coaches of the leagues of the goals of the program. He or she would also need to be as hands-on as possible, and quickly address any situations that might be detrimental to the children’s development.
Instructional Team Play (Ages 5-7)
This is where children fine-tune the fundamentals they learned in the enrichment program. Games are actually played; however, keeping score is optional, and standings should not be recorded. Rules that are somewhat lenient encourage progressive development.
Whether the administrator (preferred) or volunteers coach this stage, it is extremely important to schedule a meeting with all participants and parents regarding the program’s goals as well as any other pertinent information.
The director should be prepared to explain rule interpretations and answer general program questions, as this is the level where the majority of children begin to play sports.
Tweener (Ages 8-9)
Competition starts to creep into most sports at this age. It is important to stress that competitive sports are not bad; however, coaches who put winning over skill development are detrimental to growth.
All coaches should be certified and observed closely. This level typically has higher participation numbers than the previous levels, and players are more dependent on volunteer coaches. If the models of the first two levels were followed, then there should be plenty of parents who witnessed positive coaching.
The administrator at this level needs to stress the program goals and enforce them, all the while maintaining an amiable demeanor! If a volunteer coach begins to exhibit negative qualities, the administrator needs to act swiftly. This discipline should be conducted away from the children.
Pro (Ages 10-17)
This is where coaching becomes serious! As children grow older, competition naturally increases, which usually leads to more instances of coaching neglect in the form of unsportsmanlike conduct. Again--competition is not bad, but children should be encouraged to give their best and understand that reasonable behavior is expected.
Every parent and participant needs to understand the importance of sportsmanship and fair play, and if either is compromised, there will be consequences. These consequences should be spelled out in the rules and distributed and reviewed well before the season starts.
Veteran (Ages 18+)
Some parks and recreation directors will spend 15 years or more with certain families in the community, and just when you think you’ve seen the last of them, they are eligible to register for adult sports!
Obviously, this league is the most competitive, and unsportsmanlike incidents are unfortunately common. And many times participants have children who are beginning to participate in a sports program.
Stress that the rules are just as important at this level, and model the behavior volunteer coaches are expected to display, even in stressful situations. And there will definitely be plenty of stressful situations at this level! As the administrator, remain calm and always be nice!
The impact made in this profession is tremendous, and the commitment should be taken seriously. You are not merely forming teams, supplying uniforms, and handing out trophies at the end of the year. You have the potential to change the lives of numerous children and parents in an extremely positive way, simply by running a seemingly insignificant T-ball program.
So, when instituting a sports program in your community, be sure to start with the basics, and be nice!
Jim Henegar, CPRP, CYSA, is the Athletic Supervisor for the city of Boca Raton Parks and Recreation Department in Florida. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.