What’s Your Secret?

By Fred Engh

Kids today have a lot of options when it comes to choosing sports and activities to fill their days.

Plus, an ever-growing number of parents are pushing their children toward travel teams, personal instructors, and camps.

And that combination makes a recreation professional’s job more challenging than ever.

Not only must you consistently provide top-quality programs for kids, but you have to offer an array of them to match continually changing interest levels—and then you’ve got to make sure the community knows all about them.

I checked in with some Certified Youth Sports Administrators (CYSAs)—recreation professionals who have completed special training to earn the CYSA credential—to find out how they deal with the issues of getting kids involved in their programs and keeping them involved season after season. Check out what they had to say:

Roberto Ramos, Recreation Specialist I, City-Wide Athletics for Virginia Beach Parks & Recreation (Va.): We are all faced with declining numbers and trying to find ways to improve our programs. Virginia Beach Parks & Recreation hosts end-of-season meetings with program coordinators from all of the recreation associations. We address rules, coaches, officials, and the good and the bad from the season. We also look at ways to improve the program, including offering additional sports or trainings. One highlight from our youth tackle-football, end-of-the-year evaluation meeting was the need for more marketing, and a spring program for kids not playing a sport in the spring. From this, we created our first season of 7v7 passing-football league for youth ages 10 to 18. This coed league will be the first in the area, creating a Friday-night atmosphere of youth football. The goal of the program is to increase our youth-football exposure and an understanding of the safety of the game. We also choose to have games on Friday nights and not Saturdays so youth can play two sports (baseball and soccer on Saturdays) and football with us on Friday nights. The days of two sports may be dwindling, but we must find ways to make two sports coincide and not compete for numbers. The creation of spring volleyball has been ongoing in Virginia Beach for years and helps bring more youth to the game in the fall season.

Casey D. Wooddell, Director of Oxford (Ohio) Parks & Recreation: When it comes to knowing what programs to discontinue or start new, we talk directly with our users. What do you want? What else have you seen? What is missing in this community? (Example: We don’t focus heavily on the arts because the Arts Center handles those programs, and we don’t consider martial arts or self-defense because there’s already a local organization for those.) We take a big-picture look at the community and work to collaborate with others, rather than have conflicts. We have built these relationships, and I feel there is now a positive culture where community members come to us, saying, “Would you be willing to try this?” This is more productive than, “Why don’t you offer this?” The department is inviting, my door is always open, and suggestions are always welcomed. We’re a small department in a small town, and that makes the relationships easier to build.  I’d say my main points to take away are:

  • Getting new children involved is all about making sure both the kids and the parents know what’s happening, and putting it directly in front of them (i.e., on their phones). Referrals from other parents are also huge. Is anything really more effective than direct referral?  
  • Keeping children coming back year after year is about mixing up the offerings and keeping things exciting. The same, exact program year after year loses flavor.
  • Knowing what programs to add or remove is about relationships with members of the community. What do they really want? What gaps need filled? When do they want it?

Dan MacLean, Assistant Director of Recreation for the Tapply-Thompson Community Center in Bristol (N.H.): We try to use many different ways to get the word out about programs by using flyers, social media, regular email-distribution groups, and school distributions. We use pictures of past events when advertising as well because we get a better response, especially on social media. As far as keeping kids in the program, we contact the previous year’s players individually to see if they are playing; we’ll use text messaging, Facebook messenger, email, face-to-face, or phone calls—all are different ways to get in touch with players who haven’t signed up yet for an event. It’s also important to evaluate each program so that if there are any issues, we can address them and improve each program year to year. And finally, as far as offering new programs, we follow trends and see what other successful programs are out there in the community. We use Pinterest and other online sites for ideas as well. It’s also well-known that we’re open to suggestions, so if there is a program that someone wants to try, it just needs to be brought to our attention, and we’ll do our best to get it off the ground!

Fred Engh is founder 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.