Life-Changing Programs

By Fred Engh

Four years ago Dave Parks, program administrator for youth sports for the city of Englewood (Colo.) Parks and Recreation Department, received a call from a concerned mother of a fifth grader.

Photo Courtesy of NAYS

Photo Courtesy of NAYS

She explained that her son was painfully shy and struggling with social anxiety. She wondered if there was a sport he might be able to play, though he wasn’t interested in baseball, football, or basketball. Parks suggested that the boy give hockey a try.

The department set him up with some equipment, placed him on a team, and as it turns out, changed his life.

“He had a hard time getting started, but thanks to some patient coaching, he started to slowly improve,” Parks recalls. A few weeks ago, Parks received another call from the mom--and it’s a conversation that will stay with him forever.

“She called to tell me that he has made such great strides in life, and attributed it all to his involvement in hockey,” Parks says. “Playing a sport and being around positive adults gave him the confidence to improve his grades in school, make friends, and get involved in other activities, such as being a tutor for kids with learning disabilities.”

Parks shares his thoughts on providing a varied youth-sports programming menu for kids ranging from ages 3 to 17.

What is a mistake you made with your program that you have learned from?
When I first started working in youth sports, the department had post-season tournaments as part of our summer baseball program. This was great until some parents decided to attack umpires and staff, and things got out of hand. We decided to stop running the tournaments at the end of the season, and the program continued to do well for years. I then decided to try to bring back a tournament for one age group, and it completely blew up in my face. The kids had a great time, but the parents went nuts, accusing umpires of fixing games, complaining about team seeding, and fuming over game times and duration. It was disappointing to see how adults can ruin a fun time for kids by losing perspective on what is really important. So, I learned that if our program is to be recreational in nature, then maybe a tournament is not the right way to end the season, since it seems to bring out the worst in some people. While I understand that competition is important and coaches and parents should always encourage kids to do their best, having winning be the only focus after a season of fun and learning can be detrimental to the integrity of the program.

Share a story that occurred in your program that symbolizes what youth sports are all about?
I was coaching one of our 8-year-old youth baseball teams several years ago, and one of the kids wanted to be the catcher. We put all the protective gear on him, put him behind the plate, and encouraged him to keep the ball in front of him. On the first pitch, he turned and took a ball in his back. Of course he fell and started to cry. He sat on the bench for a while and then went back in the game at a different position. Two innings later, he told me he wanted to try catching again. We put the gear on, and as he went to the plate, his teammates, players and coaches from the other team, and parents in the stands erupted in cheers for him, and he did a great job for the rest of the inning. After the third out, he returned to the dugout and his brother, who was also a teammate, gave him a big hug and exclaimed, “You did it! You faced your fears!” The rest of the team and parents chimed in and made his day. The support for this kid to succeed was overwhelming and unexpected. It was such a great moment that I get a little choked up thinking about it.

In your opinion, what are the top three keys to running a quality youth-sports program?
The most important part of youth sports is having positive, qualified people to coach, officiate, and supervise the programs. These people are the face of our programs, the critical link in the success of our sports offerings. Another key is understanding the needs of the community, and making programs accessible for everyone. Prices need to be reasonable, scholarships need to be available, and, in my position, I need to be involved in the programs so I get to know these people, and they can get to know me. Finally, it takes a ton of support to provide quality youth-sports programs. Directors and supervisors who are passionate about the community are important. Support from schools and the city council are crucial to have everyone buy in to what we are doing. Creating partnerships and fostering relationships make for a stronger community and a great place for kids and sports to thrive.

Tell me about your best youth-sports memory and how that has affected how you approach your job today?
My best memory playing sports as a child was finally convincing my youth baseball coach that I could play shortstop. I was the youngest kid on the team, playing up two age divisions. He routinely stuck me in right field, if I played at all, and I started to lose interest. Thankfully, my parents would not let me quit, so I asked my coach if I could try shortstop during a practice scrimmage. He let me do it, and I was able to make a couple of plays that day. My performance was good enough to merit some playing time at short in the next game. Things went well, and I ended up making the all-star team at the end of the season. I am thankful to my parents for not letting me give up, and my coach for giving me a chance. That experience has caused me to encourage coaches to give kids opportunities to try different positions, regardless of the sport, because you never know who might step up and surprise you. Also, I can pass along to kids that they should not give up when things don’t go their way, and to persevere, work hard, and keep trying to get better, and good things will happen.

Not every child will have a positive experience no matter how great a job you do. How do you deal with that aspect of the job?
While I am passionate about my job, I have had to accept that sports aren’t for everyone. I still believe that every kid should have an opportunity to try as many sports as possible, and if it doesn’t work, at least they tried. There are many reasons why kids don’t have an enjoyable experience playing sports, and some of it can be attributed to unrealistic expectations. At the start of each season, we try to educate parents on what they should expect from their chosen youth sport. In addition, not all coaches are created equal, and some are just better than others, which can have an influence on a child’s experience. That said, I continue to offer the best programs possible, and try to focus on the experience of each child and make it an enjoyable one.

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