Take It Day By Day

As one might imagine, overseeing a youth-sports program that caters to more than 6,000 children, ranging from 3 to 18 years old, requires having a solid foundation of policies in place--and the courage to stick to them.

Karen Puskas, program manager for the town of Westport in Connecticut, certainly understands the importance of this approach.

It’s a task that poses a variety of challenges too, since the majority of the program’s 11 sports are conducted with local providers, such as the Westport Little League, Westport Soccer Association, and the Westport Police Athletic League.

“All need to use town facilities for their programs so they must abide by the rules, regulations, and policies that we set forth,” Puskas says. “We work with each provider to make sure the community’s needs are being met at an affordable price, and that a safe, positive experience is being made available to the children.”

Here’s what else Karen had to share regarding the good and the not-so-good of overseeing such a large program:

What is the best idea your staff has come up with, and how has it impacted your programs?

We all know how overscheduled many children can be with several activities going on daily. It can cause havoc when parents continually call in to say their child cannot practice on the day assigned because it conflicts with another activity. As a result, children are constantly moved around, making trades on teams and so on, and it becomes very involved when dealing with a couple of thousand children.

My staff decided the best way to combat this problem was to ask parents up front to indicate one day that would not be good for their child to practice. Of course, many parents could offer several, but we assured them that their child would not be assigned to a team that practiced on that day.

It has worked out great, and while it was more work on our part to put together, it saved us hours upon hours of work in the end because we didn’t have to keep rescheduling. We knew initially when children could practice and made sure they were assigned to a team that was compatible.

That simple question has enabled us to get more children involved in our youth-sports programs, and has attracted more volunteers to coach. It has been a win-win for everyone.

What was your worst day on the job?

Sitting at my computer on September 11, 2001, I went “blind” when the planes crashed into the twin towers, and then I had to listen to the events of the day on a transistor radio. The phones were constantly ringing as parents scrambled to pull their kids out of school and programs in order to get them home, while 500 yards outside my office window, I could see the smoke from the attack over the horizon on Long Island Sound.

What is the biggest mistake you have seen a volunteer coach make, and how was that situation handled?

A coach was continually yelling at his own 9-year-old son during games. His son finally broke down and cried on the bench. His mother came from the stands and took him out, giving her husband a stern and annoyed look. The entire gym went silent as the coach stood there, totally embarrassed.

My staff alerted me to what had happened, and I spent some time speaking with the coach after the game. Like many parents who coach their own kids, he didn’t realize how tough he was on his own child, embarrassing him in front of his friends. The father said he expected more from his child, and was disappointed when his performance didn’t meet expectations.

We had a good talk about 9-year-old sports, what our purpose was as coaches and parents, and how we as adults need to lower our expectations and realize it is all about the kids.

He agreed, and the following week before the game started, he stepped to the middle of the court and spoke to the spectators, apologizing for his actions and swearing he would learn from the incident and become a better role model and coach. He did this on his own, and I have to say I was quite proud of him.

He went on to coach in our league for the next nine years until his son graduated from high school, and he was one of the best coaches I ever had.

Share a story from your job that put a smile on your face.

A 9-year-old girl came into my office to register for the youth basketball program, and told me she had a great time learning basketball and making new friends, and she really loved her coach. She couldn’t wait for the season to start and for the pizza party during March Madness.

How does that not put a smile on your face?

What is the most challenging parent/spectator situation you have dealt with?

An angry parent ran out of the stands at the end of a game and confronted a coach about not playing the father’s son enough during the game. It started with a lot of finger-pointing and yelling, and the worst part was it occurred in front of the third-grade teams that had just finished playing.

We quickly escorted the two men out of the gym and into an office so they could calm down and talk things out. The parent was able to explain his frustration, and the coach was able to discuss how he coached his team. In the end, both men shook hands, and the season went on with no other disruptions. The child involved went on to have a great season.

What is the best advice you have received that enabled you to perform your job better?

The best piece of advice I ever received came from a good friend telling me to read Phil Jackson’s book "Sacred Hoops." I can’t tell you how that book changed my life, my way of thinking, my way of performing my job, and my working with kids. Zen philosophy has helped me guide my own future, to see what it has to offer and prepare for it.

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at fengh@nays.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit www.nays.org or contact Emmy Martinez at emartinez@nays.org or (800) 729-2057.