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Oh, To Be Czar Of Youth Sports

Red-faced coaches screaming at officials, out-of-control parents and players kicking the ideals of good sportsmanship to the curb--Kyle Kebaugh saw it all as a young athlete.

“I would say in my 11 years as a youth athlete, I saw my fair share of coaches and players who did not represent a quality level of sportsmanship on the playing field,” says Kebaugh, the sports coordinator for St. Mary’s recreation and parks in Maryland.

“So now I work to educate our coaches and parents on what true sportsmanship is, and take pride when I see it displayed in our community.”

St. Mary’s caters to more than 10,000 athletes ages 4 to 17, and offers indoor soccer, roller hockey, indoor field hockey, indoor lacrosse, gymnastics, cheerleading, tennis, and basketball. Volunteer youth leagues conduct more than a dozen other sports, ranging from baseball and cheerleading to wrestling and kickball.

With such a large program, the challenges of providing top-quality experiences are varied and many.

Kebaugh shared his department’s efforts to make a difference in the lives of children through sports:

What is the best display of good sportsmanship you have ever seen in your program?

Kyle: Prior to the start of basketball season, players complete an individual offensive-skill routine in front of coaches, other players, and parents to give coaches a chance to view players before teams are selected. There were about 150 kids in attendance, so the gym was packed. While all players are placed on teams, this day still can be nerve-wracking because of the kids’ exposure to everyone in the gym.

This particular age group consisted of 3rd and 4th graders, some of whom had never played organized sports before. The first child completed his routine, which consisted of dribbling, layups, and shooting. Afterward, parents, siblings, and players clapped and cheered. I was somewhat surprised because the player was no Michael Jordan.

Sure enough, every single child who played that day received a hearty round of applause no matter if they made all their shots or threw up air balls. The parents did not have to show this type of support, nor did they need to stay for the entire tryout, but almost everyone did, and the kids really seemed to brighten up after they left the court, knowing everyone was cheering for them.

Share a story that has made all your hard work and long hours worth it.

Kyle: Every year we provide program scholarships to county residents who are in financial hardship. Our department does not receive any financial assistance to aid low-income families, so we very much depend on our annual special events to raise funds to assist our participants.

Recreation and parks pays for 50 percent of registration costs for families in need. Each year, this equates to more than $6,000.

As a recreation professional, it touches my heart to know we are able to provide recreational opportunities to over 100 children who, without our help, may not be able to participate. Recreation should be a component in everyone’s lives, and I feel that every bit of help we can provide will truly make a difference for these families. It makes this job well worth the time and effort.

If you were made the czar of youth sports nationwide, what would be your first order of business to improve them?

Kyle: Safety is number one when it comes to youth sports. The best way to ensure a long and injury-free athletic career is to play it safe from the start. To reduce the risk of injuries and/or to make sure they are cared for properly, head coaches would be required to complete basic first-aid and CPR training.

I would also like to see sports opportunities available to all children, regardless of income. Many sports leagues offer assistance to cover registration costs and some equipment, but many kids are still left sitting at home because of the costs involved. I would like to see more state and local governments come to the aid of these children.

I also think an equipment-donation program should be put into place for those who cannot afford to purchase new items.

What is the worst parent situation you have ever dealt with, and how was the matter resolved?

Kyle: As a parent myself, I can understand the time and money parents devote to their children’s sporting experience. While most parents are respectful and supportive, there is always a handful every season that can make your job particularly difficult.

We once had an incident during a youth-football practice. A custody situation involving divorced parents and their current spouses culminated in an assault in the parking lot in front of the child’s team. This was a frightening experience for all the young athletes.

We spoke to the individuals involved, as well as to law enforcement to obtain all the facts. We didn’t want to single out the child for the behavior of his parents, and we certainly didn’t want to end his participation by revoking his registration.

After our investigation, the parties received suspensions from the park, and were required to re-sign a code of ethics. They also wrote separate letters apologizing to both the football league and recreation and parks. There were no further incidents with these families, and the child still participates.

How do you deal with the fact that no matter what you do, there will always be some kids who don’t have an enjoyable experience in your program?

Kyle: It’s always difficult as a youth-sports administrator when a child has not had a favorable sports experience. However, we do not give up. Sports are more than a game; they are a set of life lessons. Kids growing up without them are really disadvantaged.

A bad sports experience can often be traced to a few causes: The child simply feels he or she is not talented enough to continue; the child is playing on a losing team; the parent(s) undermine the child’s experience, based on their own ideas; the coach is not a good fit; or the sport is not of interest. Most of these factors can be adapted until a child is able to find a fun experience.

With plenty of great coaches and over 21 sports offered in our area, there are ample opportunities for children to find an enjoyable experience in both individual and team sports at all levels of competition.

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.

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