Passion With A Purpose

By Fred Engh

Duane Smith has always been passionate about sports. So, when he chose to switch careers—moving from education to parks and recreation—he funneled that passion in a new direction, and the roughly 2,000 children who participate in sports programs at the Mokena Community Park District in Illinois have been reaping the benefits.


“When I decided to change careers, I began to see the recreational side of things and how beneficial its components were to social development; in essence, I began to see the playing field as a classroom,” says Smith, in his fifth year as athletic supervisor and a Certified Youth Sports Administrator.

“I see endless horizons of fun, opportunity, and learning experiences that contribute to the well-being of individuals; everything that is applicable to becoming positive and active members of society. If handled delicately and with the best interests of all participants at heart, youth sports programming can have such a profound impact on a child's life.”

In the following interview, Smith shares more on the rewards and challenges in administering traditional sports as well as untraditional ones, like ultimate Frisbee, disc golf, and Tai-Kwon Do for children ages 3 to 18:

FRED: What is the best idea your department has come up with since you have been there, and how has it impacted your program?

DUANE: With regard to athletics, I feel the best idea we've generated so far is changing our in-house recreational soccer-league format to 6-on-6 for all levels of play. In an area saturated with competitive youth soccer, I feel the program offers a unique opportunity for its residents while still offering the basic rules and fundamentals of the game. It was certainly a culture shock, especially to those accustomed to the tried-and-true methods of the United States Soccer Federation, but people have responded positively since its inception a year ago. The format, which includes customized field sizes and minimum play-time per player, maximizes ball-touches and forces players to think and react more quickly. These elements are crucial in player development, especially if a player wishes to advance to more competitive play.

FRED: What is your worst memory of playing sports as a child, and how has it impacted how you perform your job now?

DUANE: I tried out and was cut from my junior-high softball team. It was a detrimental experience for me because I loved playing ball, and many of my buddies made the team. Naturally, I felt left out and a little down about my capabilities. In hindsight, I realize it was a competitive situation, and I simply did not have the skills and size needed to give the team a competitive edge. With regard to the programs I coordinate now, we do not cut or prohibit anyone from participating. I believe that environment, which also stresses fair play and fun, provides for a better overall learning situation.

FRED: What is the worst display of parent behavior that has taken place in your programs, and how was it handled?

DUANE: Sadly enough, a parent-coach was ejected from a third-grade basketball game for verbally threatening an official. The coach was upset about a call, and in turn, his inquiry turned into a threatening argument in front of the kids. The coach was escorted out of the building by the site supervisor, and he was indefinitely suspended from his volunteering coaching duties. His assistant coach simply finished the game and the remainder of the season. This was an unfortunate and negative experience for the kids.

FRED: Have you ever had to turn individuals away who wanted to volunteer to coach because of something that happened in their past, or who simply were not qualified to work with kids?

DUANE: Over the years, we've turned away several requests and applications for volunteering to coach. In most cases, it is due to information listed on a background check conducted by the state police, but in other cases, it has been due to past coaching experiences. A coach may not have been suspended or done anything wrong in previous years, but we will look for other options if it is apparent the kids are not having fun and/or not learning from the coach. I think the intention of most volunteers is positive, but sometimes it just isn't a good fit. If it isn't a good fit, the kids will not gain anything from their experience.

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.