Destined To Lead

By Fred Engh

It seems Steve Herrera was destined for a career in recreation. Growing up three blocks from a community center, he spent the bulk of his free time playing sports, forging friendships, and gaining valuable experience.


In his 13 th year as the recreation supervisor for the city of Carlsbad (Calif.), Herrera puts that knowledge to good use, overseeing a diverse offering of sports programs for 1,500 kids, ranging from 4 to 14.

“As a child, I played many recreation sports, and by being around the community center, I was able to get to know the supervisors and coordinators,” recalls Herrera, “which landed me my first part-time job in recreation at 14 years old as a facility attendant, coach, and a sports official.

"I worked my way up the ladder, and being around sports made me decide to become a recreation professional.”

During his tenure, he has put a premium on doing things the right way for the kids’ benefit—and it shows.

“If the kids aren’t smiling and laughing, then something isn’t right,” Herrera says.

Here’s what else he had to say about the many challenges that accompany running youth-sports programs:

Fred: What is the best piece of advice you ever received that has helped you perform your job better?

Steve: The more that you give, the more smiles you receive.

Fred: Are all-star teams good or bad for youth sports?

Steve: Each has its pros and cons. If the coaches’ and parents’ expectations are only for themselves, then it can be a bad thing. If the motives are good and the kids are the primary objective in learning how to win and how to lose, then it can be a good thing. Good competition can be a great life skill, as long as the coaches teach this.

Fred: How does the behavior of today’s parents compare to the behavior when you were growing up playing sports?

Steve: Today’s parents tend to be more involved in the decision-making of the team, while the coach tries to be the leader, and this can create tension. During my childhood, my mother and other parents would just sit, cheer, and watch. Today’s parents tend to be more vocal about every aspect of the game, and even the coach’s decisions. The child should just be allowed to play without getting direction from every angle.

Fred: What is the worst experience you had as a child playing sports, and how has that impacted doing your job?

Steve: I had a coach who just yelled all of the time. When I became a coach, I made sure the kids could learn without my having to yell. Engaging positively and listening to young athletes can go a long way.

Fred: What are your keys for success?

Steve: Communicate, engage, prepare, and make the experience fun!

Fred: Share an example of what puts a smile on your face and makes all the hard work worthwhile.

Steve: Watching the kids smile, laugh, and demonstrate the life skills they have learned in a recreation activity.

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.