Changing Course

By Fred Engh

Chris Nelson began his college education at Kansas State University as a business major, but an experience as an intramural basketball official his freshman year completely changed his plans—and his life.


“I was in over my head,” recalls Nelson of that first day on the court. “I was like a deer in the headlights. The game was so fast, and I was officiating my peers. In the long run, I ended up sticking with the officiating and even did multiple other sports. I became obsessed on how to become a better official, making other officials better, and improving the program in its entirety. I also realized all the benefits that recreation has to offer people of all ages, and I loved participating as a kid. Once I started working in the intramural program, I began to look at other options, and here I am today.”

Earlier this year, Nelson, a Certified Youth Sports Administrator, was named Recreation Supervisor of Youth Sports for the city of Manhattan (Kan.) Parks and Recreation.

Here’s what Nelson had to say about the rewards and challenges of providing sports programs to more than 4,000 youngsters ages 3 to 18, annually.

Fred: What are three tips you can share to help youth-sports administrators?

CHRIS: 1. Educate yourself; never stop learning. 2. Educate coaches in your program. If you can get your coaches to “buy in” to what you are trying to accomplish, it goes a long way. Remember, they become role models to the kids as soon as they accept the responsibility of coaching. Participants and parents follow the lead of the coaches. Coaches can be part of the foundation in creating an excellent program. 3. Educate the parents of your programs. Parents often find themselves devoted to their players and the team. Put the reason for participation in perspective for them.

Fred: What would you like to see more of in your programs?

Chris: I would like to see more sportsmanship in my programs. Not that the sportsmanship in our programs is bad, but you can never have enough great sportsmanship. I would also like to see more focus on process over outcome. Most people reading this article most likely know what I am speaking of, but for the few that may not, process is what you do to become a better person/athlete. The outcome is what may show up on the scoreboard. If you focus on the process and focus on items that are within your control, the outcome will follow.

Fred: What would you like to see less of in your programs?

Chris: I would like to see people worry less about how great their kid is going to be as an athlete and more of what type of person their child is or is going to become. A while back a good friend of mine tagged me on Facebook with a sign that I would love to post at all of our facilities. It states: “Your child’s success or lack of success in sports does not indicate what kind of parent you are.” It then goes on to state: “But having an athlete that is coachable, respectful, a great teammate, mentally tough, resilient, and tries his or her best IS a direct reflection of your parenting.”

Fred: Who is your favorite professional athlete?

Chris: If I had to choose one today, it would probably have to be Andrew Luck. He’s such a competitor. I read a story in the Wall Street Journal a few months ago about whenever he gets hit or sacked by a defensive player, he says something like “great job” or “what a hit.” That makes me laugh because that’s what sports are about, having fun and respecting your teammates and opponents.

Fred: What is one story that puts a smile on your face that makes all the hard work and long hours worthwhile?

Chris: This past summer I had the pleasure of coaching my youngest daughter’s T-ball team. There was a great group of girls and parents. The education and training  I acquired over the past few years led me to positively promote the game in a fun, enthusiastic, and effective manner. The smiles and excitement I saw each time we were together absolutely filled me with joy.

Fred: What’s your biggest pet peeve when it comes to youth sports?

Chris: Overzealous parents who yell at officials and the young participants, and expect each group to be able to officiate and play at the college/professional level. Come on, they are kids and amateurs.

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.