The Big Question

By Fred Engh

Several years ago, I remember reading an article titled “Are You Running Youth Sports or is It Running You?” The article took a jab at the subservient role that recreation professionals sometimes play when it comes to youth sports in their respective communities.

Being a former recreation professional responsible for the administration of close to 15,000 kids in organized sports, I knew immediately what the writer of the article was getting at. And so do hundreds of youth-sports administrators out there today.

I have always wondered why someone would have to write an article that spelled out how people trying to oversee sports programs for children would have to be subservient to volunteer-parent interest groups who use public facilities.

My experience has been that these volunteers feel they have the right to do and say what they want when it comes to organized sports in the community. They organize leagues; they coach; and they sit in the stands and, in far too many cases, abuse kids (mostly their own) because they simply don’t like what they see. And all the while, the professional youth-sports administrator looks on, feeling helpless because he or she is not “running” the activity.

Some recent headlines are examples of what is going on in the field: “Convicted sex offender arrested after attempts to become children’s coach”; “Little League coach arrested on child porn charges”; “Ex-treasurer charged with embezzling about $20,000 from Michigan youth league.”

Take The Reins
So how do recreational professionals position themselves in their communities when so many programs are being offered by parent-run volunteer organizations? If these groups utilize public facilities and fields, they should be held to some standards. Not only do administrators need to be the go-to persons for all things youth sports, but these professionals must educate those in the organizations (mayors, councils, boards, etc.) about how programs (internal and external) should be run. With the support of community leadership, administrators must demand that all organizations that use the facilities meet certain minimums. The headlines above occur so often because many volunteer groups are marching to the beat of their own drum.

I asked the following Certified Youth Sports Administrators (CYSAs) how they ensure they’re running youth sports in their community—instead of the other way around. Here’s what they had to say:

Scott McClain, President of ESCRA Sports and Director of Hope Athletics in Memphis, Tenn:

“The value of your league is truly defined in the perception of your community. To run a successful youth-sports program, you must first start with foundational expectations for coaches and parents. Through training and education, your message must be clear that the league is focused on teaching the fundamentals of the sport, encouraging the social development for players through team sports, but, most importantly, having fun. When parents and coaches have a thorough and non-negotiable understanding of the league’s purpose, players’ actions and attitudes will follow suit. Every team dynamic is different when it comes to player talent and ability level. However, sportsmanship toward teammates and competitors should be held above winning. A strong and experienced league administrator must hold ALL participants accountable to acknowledge individuals who display exemplary sportsmanship, but also to discipline those who do not and cannot follow league expectations. Having a healthy value and perception in your community will be the direct indicator between growth and demise of your sports program.”

Kerry Sullivan, Program Coordinator, Waterford (Conn.) Recreation and Parks Department:  “We have a number of co-sponsored youth groups, and all of their programs must follow specific rules and regulations when it comes to volunteers: They must go through a police background check, as well as sign a contract stating they will follow all rules and regulations for good conduct, etc. This same contract is signed by the parents of all participants. The facilities used are either under the jurisdiction of the recreation and parks department, leased to the town of Waterford, or school facilities that also fall under the recreation and parks department through our Community Use of Schools agreement.

“The leagues are responsible for policing their own events; however, should notice be brought to the recreation and parks department, we then take over and strongly recommend an outcome. We have a strong volunteer community for youth sports that runs these leagues. If we did not have volunteers, it would be a challenge for the department to run the leagues, and I strongly suspect we would not have as many children involved because there would not be enough adults to supervise.

“This town has always been strong on parental volunteers; however, they do know there are guidelines that must be followed to protect the children, town, and themselves. We also have a youth-sports council that meets a couple of times a year to discuss co-sponsored programs, and a member from each league is invited to be on the council, as well as other individuals in the community interested in youth sports.”

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.