What It Takes To Shine

By John Engh

For years, the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) has touted itself as the leading advocate for positive and safe youth sports in America. And from time to time, we get people who ask what exactly that means. For us it’s simple: The word advocate means being a champion or a supporter in a public way, and for us this translates to leadership.


When my dad started this organization in 1981, there wasn’t a national voice for leadership in the realm of youth sports. And now—37 years later—we feel confident that our status as “the leading advocate” has only strengthened.

In today’s world, most families are introducing their children to sports and physical activity through recreational, organized sports mostly run by volunteers. So it is especially important that those activities are overseen by leaders who will ensure that the activities are appropriate and safe.

It starts at the top: Strong and effective leadership can ignite quality youth-sports programming. We checked in with several Certified Youth Sports Administrators (CYSAs) to get their thoughts on leadership, how they approach their important roles, and what it takes to be a real difference maker: 

Demetrius Allen, Division Head of Athletics & Special Services for the City of Norfolk (Va.) Recreation, Parks & Open Space: It’s an honor to be considered a leader in my community. One of the privileges of working in youth sports is having the opportunity to positively affect the life of young people. As a leader, you have to be an active part of your staff’s personal and professional development. Discuss their five-year plan, provide a “playbook” for their professional success, and celebrate their accomplishments. A leader must have the ability to communicate a vision. A clear destination justifies the directives. A leader must also be a great listener and an example of what is expected from staff members. You can’t treat everyone the same because people are different, but you can be fair with everyone.   

Georgeanne Soberay, Park Manager for the City of Phoenix (Ariz.) Parks and Recreation: I enjoy meeting with the community through our programs and attending their block-watch and neighborhood-association meetings. Depending on their needs, I bring current youth-sports information and trends and make myself available to attend their events as a speaker and a resource for information and guidance. My staff members have stated they like my positive attitude, smile, and the “thank you’s” given daily. I inspire my staff by keeping them engaged in programming processes and decision-making, implementing their ideas, and encouraging them to be out there in front of our participants. You must lead by example. If you are not willing to put in the time and effort, how does one expect staff members and volunteers to want to put out that higher level of customer service and commitment to programs and communities? Be humble and grateful for the opportunities given and created. Serving the public through youth sports is a selfless profession, and all our rewards are sweeter than the titles we hold or the money we earn. Be yourself and give of yourself. If you speak and act from the heart while doing something you enjoy, or even love, you will be a leader whom your staff members, co-workers, and community will enjoy being around and collaborating with daily.

Eduardo Martinez, Park, Recreation and Open Spaces Manager III for Miami-Dade (Fla.) County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces: Being a leader in my community can be challenging at times due to the cultural diversity that makes up Miami-Dade County. To make good decisions, you need to first understand the different cultures and the different ways youth have learned to play the game. All our youth-sports programs are offered through community-based organizations. So, to be an effective leader, you must ensure you have a positive working relationship across the board with these organizations; you need to be involved in policy and decision-making; and you need to ensure that your upper management is in tune with the changing trends of youth sports. Inspiring staff can be a long, tedious process, but what I have learned is you have to involve them in all aspects of the task at hand. What I do is have roundtables where we discuss deficiencies, ways to improve, and ways to set ourselves above the rest. I also praise them when they do a great job, and I mentor them when failure comes knocking. Mixing the good with the bad has proven to be an important tool for further development in their careers. An effective leader must be a great communicator, a person quick to respond to emergencies, and someone able to make sound decisions under pressure. Sometimes the political climate gets involved in youth sports, and you must be one who embraces it and incorporates that in decision-making. An effective leader sometimes must make unpopular decisions. You cannot be afraid of making those decisions. Also, you must be a person of good moral character and values. Your beliefs play a role in how you conduct yourself in the community. Be yourself. You don’t need to be someone whom you are not. Be sure that, before you make decisions, you have all the information available and network with other administrators. Chances are they have been through the same situations.

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 chapter, visit www.nays.org or contact Emmy Martinez at emartinez@nays.org or (800) 729-2057.