Enjoyable Experiences

By Fred Engh
Photo Courtesy of NAYS

Several years ago Mike Buchanan, the superintendent for the city of Manhattan (Kan.) Parks and Recreation Department, was tending to some business at the park on a warm Saturday morning in July.


A softball team in the department’s 4 th -grade league had begun practice, and Buchanan watched the girls complete some basic warm-up drills rather lethargically due to the heat. Then practice took an interesting turn. An assistant coach placed a bucket of water balloons between home plate and the pitching rubber while the head coach assumed the catcher’s position. The assistant coach tossed a balloon, about the size of a softball, and the batter swung—soaking the head coach as the balloon burst on contact. The director watched each girl bat, laughing right along with them every time the coach took a soaking.

“I spoke to the coach afterward and asked what had prompted him to come up with this idea,” Buchanan says. “Aside from the fact that he wanted his girls to learn to swing the bat hard, he knew that they probably wouldn’t have enjoyed a regular practice because it was so hot. Those girls may not have learned a great deal about softball that day, but for the hour that they were there, they had a terrific time with their friends, enthusiastically encouraging one another, completely engaged in the task at hand, and laughing the entire time. I am sure each one of them went home and told their parents all about it and couldn’t wait to come to the next practice. That is why we do what we do.”

Buchanan, whose department offers sports programming for more than 5,500 participants, shares more in the following:

Fred : Is it a challenge to get kids to keep coming back year after year to participate?

Mike : Part of the message we give to our coaches is to work hard to make the activity something that is enjoyable enough for the kids so they want to do it again. That really is the mission. I think winning is important, but we need to examine what winning really is. For each individual participant, winning means something different. It can be as simple as improving a skill—for a particular child that is a win. We challenge our coaches to re-define winning, and find ways to assure that each player has winning moments throughout the season.

Fred : What is the best idea your department has come up with since you have been there?

Mike : About 15 years ago, we made the decision to offer two types of programs in youth sports—a recreational league and a competitive league. The competitive league has definitely provided a different experience for those who take the game more seriously, and for those who have the skill and ability to play at a higher level of competition. That doesn’t mean we de-emphasize the importance of sportsmanship, participation, and teamwork. In many ways, this approach improved our recreational program because it helped “level out” the overall range of skills of the participants.

Fred : How have your own youth-sports experiences affected how you approach your job today?

Mike : I played in enough youth-sports activities—in team-sports settings and individual-sports settings—to see both the positive and negative sides. Fortunately, most of the coaches I had were really great, and made it enjoyable to be involved. However, I did have a coach here and there who didn’t make it fun—in fact, at least once I remember my parents telling me that I couldn’t quit, regardless of how little fun I was having. This is what I’ve tried to preach to youth-sports coaches during my career—that if it gets to the point where you are not having fun, then you need to figure out why.

Fred : More and more people are questioning if youth football is too dangerous for kids. Where do you stand on this?

Mike : Truthfully, I think tackle football is too dangerous. I will say this—when my son was in 7 th grade, he played flag football instead of tackle football. I coached his team, and we had a great time, and I don’t think he missed playing tackle at all. Who really wants kids to play tackle? Is it the kids themselves? Or is it the adults?

Fred : Why are you so passionate about youth programming?

Mike : I had coaches who emphasized the importance of teamwork, sportsmanship, and effort, and applying those traits to everyday life. When the opportunity came up to begin a career heading the types of programs that taught me these same qualities, I knew I couldn’t pass it up.

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