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Passionate Leader

Growing up in the 1960s, Jeff Berthney’s days were filled with playing sports—from all-day sessions with neighborhood pals to taking part in a variety of organized programs.

“Although my dad was in the Navy, my mom saw to it that I was always involved in sports,” Berthney says. “Since she did not drive, she did not see me play all the time. As one of the kids who walked to

Photo Courtesy NAYS

practices and games by myself, I remember how I felt. My mom did the best she could, and I thanked her all the time, but I would see all the kids who had family there at every practice and game, and I couldn’t help wishing that could be me.”

The efforts of the outstanding volunteer coaches that he played for—memories Berthney still cherishes decades later—helped fuel a passion to want to make a difference himself someday.

“My coaches were very good to me and took care of me,” Berthney says. “I always thought how kind they were and [I] thought if I ever get a chance, I would make sure kids always have fun in sports.”

He certainly does that these days, and so much more. He was recently promoted to the position of chief of recreation for Harford County Parks and Recreation (Md.), and now supervises all the recreation staff located at 15 different areas. He is also a Certified Youth Sports Administrator.

Berthney shares his insights from more than 30 years in the field of recreation and the rewards and challenges that come with providing top-quality sports programming for thousands of youngsters:

FRED:  Compared to 10 years ago, are youth-sports programs better or worse now?

JEFF: I don’t like the words “better” or “worse.” How about using the terms “more organized” and “confused.” A season never really ends. For example, in soccer the kids go from spring games to summer leagues to fall contests, and then they have to play indoors in the winter for fear of losing their edge. It’s the same with nearly all sports. When kids are younger, they need to experience more than just one sport to find their niche. I feel we are putting too much pressure on youth today.

FRED: What was your worst day on the job?

JEFF: Coming in on a Saturday morning to get ready for basketball, finding the septic system had backed up and raw sewage was coming out of the shower drains and running onto the new gym floor, and being the only person there! Within a half-hour, the floor was covered. That was something I will never forget.

FRED: Who was the best coach you ever played for while growing up, and what made him so special?

JEFF: I was playing in the 9-10 baseball program in Aberdeen, Md. One game was about 8 miles away from home. I rode my bike as usual—it was safe to do that back then—but my mom told me I had to leave right after the game due to darkness. Coach Bill Harrison let me pitch for the first time in my life. I pitched a no-hitter, but at the time I didn’t realize how great that was. I was just happy to be able to play ball. After the game, coach told everyone to meet him at the Dairy Queen for ice cream, but I started for home. The coach asked my friends where I was, and they said I had to be home before dark. That night around 9:00 there was a knock at the door. When I came downstairs, I found Coach Harrison waiting. He came over to give me the game ball and some ice cream. After he became aware of our transportation situation, I never had to walk or ride my bike to another game that season. Mr. Harrison was a coach who cared for his players, and I still think about him.

FRED: There is a trend of younger kids wanting to “play up” an age group to go against better competition, or being pushed by their parents to do so. Is this good?

JEFF: I would just like to see kids be kids. It is not only about their age. It is about competing with kids of the same size, strength, and social groups, too. Playing in the correct age group allows them to be successful and confident players. Playing up creates social, height, weight, and strength gaps, which can lead to more injuries. People are putting too much pressure on these players. Kids will grow up soon enough. I question if the kids want to play up or whether the parents want them to play up. We hear too much of this, “My child is too good to play with them,” or “He is better than the player in the next age group,” or “He is not learning in the under-10 age group.” Let kids be kids.

FRED: Is the behavior of spectators at youth-sports events getting any better these days?,

JEFF: I wouldn’t say it is getting worse, but the outbursts seem to be louder when spectators decide to make a scene. Some parents seem to think they know more than the coach and don’t care that the coach has 14 kids to play in the game.

FRED: Are travel teams good for kids?

JEFF: I would say yes and no; it depends on the child. Some kids are ready for the next step, are ready for this type of competition, and want to learn. Other kids are pushed into it because parents find the status appealing. I have a problem with travel teams for the 8- to 10-year-olds. They are too young and still very much at the learning level. Why do we need to be putting pressure on them at this age? Let them go out and have fun and learn the skills and rules of the game. There is no need to be playing four, five, or six games a week with tournaments every weekend.

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

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