Family Ties

By Fred Engh

Growing up, Sheila Lillis had a front-row seat observing the power of sports and what it takes to provide quality youth programming.


“In my family, growing up with sports played such a large role in how we engaged with each other, and my father was a volunteer coach and volunteer athletic director at the school we all attended,” Lillis explained.

And she puts those valuable lessons learned—from the playing field and from her home—to use every day at the City of Gladstone (Mo.), where she has worked for 25 years, including the past 10 as director of parks and recreation.

With 3,500 children ages 3 to 14 annually participating in youth sports, ranging from soccer and volleyball to flag football and track and field, the challenges for Lillis and her staff members are constant.

Lillis shares more about what it takes to put smiles on kids’ faces and keep the kids coming back year after year:

Fred: You learned a lot from your dad, but what was the best piece of advice he gave you that has helped you perform your job better?

Sheila: My dad always felt that every kid wants and deserves an opportunity to be part of a team. Despite family and financial situations, abilities, and experience, opportunities must be made available. He constantly said we need to remember that without opportunity, a child might never know what he or she is capable of achieving. So I try to provide an opportunity for every child.

Fred: How did the youth-sports experiences you had as a child affect how you handle your responsibilities today?

Sheila: When I was growing up, it was hard to get coaches who had playing experience and training to mentor and coach young female athletes. Therefore, I spend a tremendous amount of effort recruiting good coaches and giving them the basic skills and fundamentals of the game so all kids will have a positive experience.

Fred: If you were speaking to a group of inexperienced recreation professionals taking over youth programs for the first time, what would be the three most important points you would want to share to help them succeed?

Sheila: Never underestimate the positive influence your efforts have on a child and their experience with youth sports.

Always know that volunteer coaches are the key to a successful program. Set the bar high with coaches, and give them the parameters in which you expect them to work.

Communication is the key with coaches and parents. As league administrators, we must keep all parties informed of changes of practice times, game changes, and facility modifications. When dealing with volunteers, part-time staff, school-district site personnel, and parents, the more information provided, the less chance for misinformation to occur.

Fred: What's better for kids—participation trophies for everyone or first-place trophies for the best team?

Sheila: If you have ever had the chance to see children with participation medals hanging from their necks with giant grins on their faces standing next to their teammates, there is no better view. They sense they belong, that they contributed, and that they are part of something. Without a doubt, individual participation trophies or medals are better.

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 To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit or contact Emmy Martinez at or (800) 729-2057.