Focusing On The Entire Season

By John Engh

When you hear the phrase “youth sports,” what is the first image that comes to mind? Maybe it’s a bunch of kids in uniforms running up and down a soccer field. Or maybe it is parents and other family members sitting in the stands, yelling encouraging words. Or perhaps—because you are a recreation department employee charged with overseeing these scenes—your thoughts veer to the negative: two coaches arguing on a field or a parent with a suspicious cup refilling it from a cooler. Or maybe your mind recalls a decision you made to cancel games due to approaching bad weather and the backlash you received from coaches and parents who wanted to finish the contest.

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I am sure that, if 100 people were asked, we might get many different responses. Hopefully, most of them would be positive. But we know some would be negative.

But I think a common theme among all those images would be from game days. The kids would have their uniforms, moms and dads would be in the stands, team parents would be prepared for distributing those all-important post-game snacks and drinks, and administrators would be roaming the facility—hopefully in recognizable uniforms themselves—just in case they would be needed.

Everyone is so focused on game day that it is easy to forget that the majority of time coaches spend with children is actually during practices. This is one of the most challenging issues of youth-sports administrators. Depending on the sport, coaches may have more contact with children in pre-season than in the entire competitive season, and that doesn’t include in-season practices. And, most importantly, coaches have the most focused time to work on skills and drills with players.

Why do I say it’s challenging? Because all of the policies that are created to make these experiences as fun and safe as possible tend to be focused only on games. We make sure that all of the fields are game-ready, all of the kids have appropriate pre-game nutrition, and all of the volunteers know specific requirements. In most cases, coaches and team parents must have completed training and had their backgrounds screened to be on the field during games.

Bad Judgment
Here’s a scenario from a T-ball game that I witnessed not long ago. One of the coaches was wearing a T-shirt with a popular beer logo on it. In the middle of the first inning, the umpire stopped the game and asked an administrator to have the coach change his shirt, and then he could return to the game. The coach understood immediately that he had made an error in judgment, but I heard him tell his wife that he had worn that same shirt in practice and none of the parents ever said a word.

Even though an inappropriate T-shirt may not be alarming, this scenario should make you think about policies and how they apply to all the times volunteers come in contact with children in various programs—not just on game days.

This issue surfaced for us recently because of a new initiative called the Better Sports for Kids Quality Program Provider. The purpose of the designation is to give parents a feeling of confidence so that when an organization says it is doing something like screening or training, its approach has actually been evaluated and approved. So far, many applications for this designation have come into question because of the issues in this article.

If you require something of volunteers, is it OK that the policies begin with the actual games or when the season starts? Or should these requirements start before you have any interaction with children at all? To me, there is no middle ground on this issue. We must focus on every aspect of the entire season, not just game days. The children who participate in our programs deserve it.

Here’s what some Certified Youth Sports Administrators (CYSAs) had to say:

David Guthrie, youth sports director at MCCS Cherry Point Youth Sports in North Carolina: Youth-sports directors have a tendency to make sure all of the requirements—background checks and NAYS training—for their volunteer coaches are met prior to the first game. In almost all programs, however, coaches spend much more time with their players in practices—with a large number of the practices coming before the season starts. Why would anyone want to risk putting an untrained and non-verified volunteer on the floor or field with the kids they’re responsible for protecting? It just doesn’t make good sense. To me, it’s critical to have all of the required background checks and training completed prior to the start of practices, not games.

Wendy Rubin, Director of Parks & Recreation for the Town of Coventry in Connecticut: Games are the culmination of the efforts put into practices. To have a successful program, I believe we should do as much as we can to ensure that the time coaches and athletes spend in practice is effective. In order to do this, coaches need to be properly trained to teach and not just how to play a sport. It is important that league organizers provide the coaches with every possible method of preparation, from clinics to lesson planning. And in return, coaches need to invest in their team, taking the time necessary to be prepared and knowledgeable. Lesson plans and time spent preparing for practices require a solid commitment from coaches, as does the time spent post-game in analyzing what went right and what needs improvement.

Coaches must understand that their success is measured in smiles, fun, and the kids’ desire to keep coming to practice, not in the game win-loss columns. Kids also need to have time to goof around and have fun with their friends during practice. A parent I know told me her child’s coach takes a holistic approach, and during practice they take time to check in with their parents. Coaches also make sure the players know that coaches expect good behavior off the field as well and the importance of earning good grades.

Parents, too, need to be committed—staying at practice and watching their child’s progress, being encouraging and supportive, being attentive and listening, and trying to be in line with the coaches’ message and reinforcing at home what is taught at practice.

John Engh is executive director of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at jengh@nays.org. To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS Member Organization, visit www.nays.org, email nays@nays.org or call (800) 729-2057.