Facing Fears

By Fred Engh

As the founder of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), I’ve been asked many times, “How is it that you were the first youth-sports organization in America to require coaches to go through a certification program?”

My answer has always been, “Because I knew it was the right thing to do.” But the bigger question these days is, Why doesn’t every youth-sports program require some type of training for coaches? Why are some people so afraid?

When I was working in Wilmington, Del., as a rec professional, the center had about 15,000 kids year-round in a variety of sports programs. Not long after I was hired, I began to see the ugly side of my job: win-at-all-cost coaches abusing kids in programs, and parents doing the same as they lived vicariously through their youngsters, whom they envisioned as the next superstars.

After I had had enough, I declared that, beginning the following fall, all coaches would go through a certification program—and all hell broke loose. My bosses told me that the coaches would quit, and that would be the end of the program. The local newspaper even ran a front-page story in the sports section with the headline: “Coaches: Sharpen Your Pencils.”

I didn’t buckle. Instead, I came up with a plan.

Before football season, and after months of abuse from various leagues, I told the individual head coaches that they didn’t have to go through the program, but if they didn’t, any team that won the championship without a certified coach would forfeit the title.

Guess how many people declined to attend the first training program. That’s right—zero.

These days, countless programs across the country offer some type of training for their coaches, while others remain handcuffed by the fear of change. Check out what these Certified Youth Sports Administrators had to say about the issue:

Jeff Ryder, Athletic and Fitness Manager for the Huntley (Ill.) Park District: “We have been doing mandatory volunteer-coach training for all our head coaches for over 10 years now. Assistant coaches are also invited to attend, but it is not required. Over that period, we have seen a significant decrease in incidents involving head coaches, especially in relationship to sportsmanship aspects of the game. The training outlines our program philosophy and sets a very specific list of expectations for volunteer head coaches. It also provides a solid tool to use when discipline of any coach for violating those expectations is required. Additionally, we have a parent orientation day before each season. At this orientation, we emphasize the key points that have been given to the coaches so everyone is on the same page. We also distribute uniforms for the players, which is a great incentive in boosting attendance.

“Our training sessions are very interactive, and we encourage coaches to share their experiences. In this type of setting, even coaches who might otherwise resist the concept of mandatory training find value in the sessions, because the information is typically reinforced by their peers, and they also have the opportunity to present their own ideas and thus feel a sense of ownership in the process.”

Rance Gaede, Athletics Supervisor for the City of Tamarac (Fla.): “Mandatory training for volunteers has improved the quality of coaching in our programs. Coaches are now able to enter a season knowing what to expect from the children they are coaching in regard to their development and corresponding skills for their age. We are also able to teach coaches how to appropriately plan practices so the participants are active throughout the time they are in practice. Finally, we are able to give coaches tips on dealing with parents to better cope with the experience as a whole. By entering a season with basic knowledge of the participants, the program, and the parents, the coaches are better prepared and have been helped to elevate the quality of the programs we offer.”

From the above experiences, the NAYS took over programs that were operated by outside organizations. Many of the volunteers who coached for those organizations stayed around to coach in our programs. The comments from those coaches after the first set of trainings were all positive as they truly understood their role in the program. Beyond that, we were also able to provide tools for them to use throughout the season, and were available to add more to their “toolbox,” as needed. Many felt they “knew” what they were doing, but once we had a chance to show them some different techniques and give them the opportunity to put the techniques into practice, the coaches experienced a new level of understanding and comfort. Since they were more comfortable and now more confident, we were able to increase the quality of the programs and, as a result, grow them.

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.