Recognizing outstanding youth sports programs

In a world in which winning remains everything, it's often left up to youth sports administrators to help kids keep things in perspective. And that's not an easy job, considering that some communities offer traveling tee-ball teams for three-year-olds.

Fortunately, there are plenty of positive role models in youth sports. In fact, some of 2003's five Excellence in Youth Sports Award winners cite previous winners' programs as having influenced their own approach to success. Other winners this year have carved niches in their respective communities by offering opportunities unavailable elsewhere. All of them pledge to make a child's playing experience fun, educational and memorable - usually in that order.

Developed by the National Alliance for Youth Sports and Athletic Business, the Excellence in Youth Sports Awards recognize outstanding organizations that conduct diverse programs with a focus on providing safe and positive experiences for all participants, including children, parents and coaches.

The five winning programs were among 101 youth sports organizations that submitted applications for this year's competition, which was open to military bases, parks and recreation departments, YMCAs, Jewish Community Centers and Boys & Girls Clubs. A panel of judges reviewed each application and selected the following winners, in alphabetical order:

• Fort Campbell Child and Youth Services, Fort Campbell, Ky. • Kadena Youth Sports and Fitness, Kadena AFB, Japan • Peoria Community Services, Peoria, Ariz. • Pleasant Dale Park District, Burr Ridge, Ill. • Southeast YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Each program will receive $5,000 in prizes, including $2,000 worth of background screening services from Southeastern Security Consultants, $2,000 from Tony's Pizza for coaches' training and other expenses, and $500 in XLR8 mouthpieces from Dental Concepts, as well as an additional $500 from XLR8 for more coaches' training.

Rick Pitino, men's basketball coach at the University of Louisville, presented the awards at the Athletic Business Conference on Friday, Dec. 5, in Orlando, Fla.

Congratulations to this year's winners, and thanks to all the organizations that entered the 2003 Excellence in Youth Sports competition.


Fort Campbell Child and Youth Services

Fort Campbell, Ky.

In most communities, youth sports programs are considered an outlet for fun, sportsmanship and physical activity. But at Fort Campbell, Ky., and other U.S. military bases all over the world - where reminders of the war on international terrorism are everywhere - youth sports are all those things and then some.

"The normal everyday activities in life are more important right now than ever," says Stacia Holland, program manager for Fort Campbell's financial services and support division, which oversees the recreation division of the base's Child and Youth Services program. "The best thing we can do for our kids is say, 'We are having soccer season,' or 'We are playing basketball.' That way, the kids aren't constantly focusing on and worrying about mom and dad in the Middle East. They can see that life goes on, and they'll come out of this better adjusted."

Active military personnel at Fort Campbell were deployed to the Middle East in summer 2002 for a tour of duty that lasted until February 2003. Then, a few weeks later, they left again on a deployment that may not end until spring 2004. As a result, some of the anxieties that kids experience regarding not only the separation from one or both of their parents, but also the possibility that a parent may not return home manifest themselves at the base's youth center and indoor/outdoor sports complex.

Holland admits there have been some behavior problems among the children in her programs during these most recent deployments, but that's to be expected, she says. "And if we're seeing it on the field, the parents are seeing it at home," she adds.

That's why it's crucial for Holland and her staff to have a solid relationship with parents. In fact, staff members often will approach parents about concerns regarding their children. That good rapport is generated early on, as the ground rules for parents are laid out in parent orientation programs. "Letting parents know what is expected of them is important," Holland says. "We tell them, 'You're not going to drop your kid off for practice and come back an hour later to pick him or her up. This is not a babysitting service.' "

If they're not coaching, most parents are involved in team practices in some way - from helping coordinate drills to taking care of the equipment to standing on the sidelines offering encouragement. "They're participating more than the kids sometimes," Holland laughs.

That kind of involvement leads to husband-and-wife coaching tandems, an arrangement that proves valuable when deployment time comes. If one spouse is called to active duty, the other one can step in immediately with little if any team disruption. Holland says using military personnel as volunteer coaches also makes them more cognizant of their responsibilities. "These people are trained to win," she says. "But when they come to our youth sports program, they have to make a conscious effort to say, 'OK, winning isn't everything. I'm not dealing with an 18-year-old recruit. I'm dealing with a 6-year-old soccer player.' "


Kadena Youth Sports and Fitness

Kadena AFB, Japan

The First Steps "Fun"damental Sports Program, an instructional approach for young children used at Air Force bases worldwide to emphasize the fundamentals of a given sport in a non-threatening atmosphere, originated at Okinawa's Kadena Air Force Base with youth sports director Lori Phipps. In the late'90s, Phipps says she attended a training program aimed at developing children's gross motor skills without specifically identifying the sports being taught.

"I sat down and wrote First Steps to help the younger children - who I had been told wouldn't understand - learn a sport and to help the parents learn how to teach the fundamentals without the pressure," Phipps says. "It takes everyday activities and turns them into learning opportunities for our preschoolers. For example, in baseball, they learn to 'buckle their seatbelt' - throw the ball across their body. This enabled them to identify with daily activities."

More than 1,200 three- and four-year-olds around the globe have graduated from the Air Force's First Steps program since its inception in 1999. What's more, about 30 percent of all parents who participate in First Steps with their children at Kadena AFB become coaches. Phipps also says the level of play in programs for five- and six-year-olds has increased significantly as a result of First Steps.

That early training serves the kids well and helps them gain the confidence to participate in youth-sports activities on an international scale. In August 2002, for example, Kadena AFB fielded two baseball teams in the Okinawa International Baseball Festival, which also included teams from Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brazil and the United States. Prior to each game, opposing teams exchanged gifts to symbolize their global friendship off the field, and Kadena AFB's teams later hosted a night game and an American-style barbecue for the U.S. and Filipino teams. "This allowed our youths to be exposed to several different cultures and still share the love of baseball," Phipps says.

Coaches at Kadena AFB are also primed to excel, via a mentoring program that matches new coaches with veteran coaches for one year. Plus, a so-called stepping-stones program allows newer coaches to ease into coaching at the same time kids are easing into playing. Teams in the younger age groups have fewer players on the field with fewer kids on their rosters, so many rookie coaches are assigned to those teams. Rules are modified to help players and coaches learn more about the game as they progress through the program's ranks, rather than all at once or too much too soon. By the time players are 11 years old, they are typically following all of the rules mandated by the National Federation of State High School Associations - allowing for a smooth transition to high school competition. As a result of the steppingstones program, Phipps says almost 70 percent of the coaches in the lower age groups are first-time coaches, who progress as their teams progress.


Peoria Community Services

Peoria, Ariz.

When Vince Gray became recreation supervisor of Peoria Community Services in 2000 after spending the previous 20 years running programs in nearby Glendale, he had at least one burning question: "The department invited coaches who coached more than one youth sport to an appreciation event," Gray says. "I wondered why we didn't do that for everybody."

After receiving what he considered a less-than-satisfactory answer (in essence, only the coaches who pull extra duty deserve the public kudos), Gray developed three recognition programs aimed at all 350 youth-sport coaches in this community of 108,000. First and foremost is an appreciation day, held each March at Peoria Stadium, spring training home of the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners. Each coach and a guest receive transportation and tickets to a game, a lunch and a memento of the season (usually something that says, "Thanks, Coach"). Guest speakers in the past have included Mariners and Padres coaches, although Gray hopes to book Joe Garagiola for the 2004 event. The coaches as a group are also recognized on the scoreboard and by the public-address announcer during the game. The cost of the entire event. About $7,000. "It's a small chunk of change compared to what it would take to pay coaches to do what we ask volunteers to do," Gray says.

In 2004, the male and female winners of a new Coach of the Year program will also throw out the first pitch at the appreciation-day game. Players can nominate their coaches, who are then judged by an independent panel of employees from other city departments.

The third component of Gray's coaches' appreciation program also took effect this year and allows families to receive financial credit in the form of waived fees (usually $30 to $50 per season) toward other community services programs if a parent coaches his or her child's team. "It's a way of trying to recruit and retain coaches," Gray says. "If we can sweeten the pot for them, then we have a better chance of keeping them for more than one season." That strategy seems to be working, as coaching retention has increased since Gray's tenure began.

So has the quality and number of facilities in the area. Construction of a 50-acre park is under way in Peoria (the first of two new parks as part of a city master plan) that will include four softball diamonds, four soccer fields, a Little League-size baseball field, volleyball courts, batting cages, a skate park and water features. Slated for completion this month, the park will relieve some of Peoria's smaller neighborhood parks from hosting so many events. All of the gymnasiums and open fields at elementary and middle schools in the community, however, will remain open to the city's programs. "Land out here is at such a premium. We're lucky to have the use of facilities that other communities just don't have," Gray says.


Pleasant Dale Park District

Burr Ridge, Ill.

On the first day of Vicky Shaver's first full-time recreation job two-and-a-half years ago, she walked into a municipal program in which veteran coaches were given the best players and parents were regularly involved in physical and verbal altercations with other parents. "You name it, it was happening," says Shaver.

After two other athletic supervisors in three years failed to turn the out-of-control program around, Shaver was brought in and proceeded to, as she says, put the "fun" back into recreational youth sports. Teams were formed according to coaches' evaluations of players, not coaches' longevity. Training became required for all parents and coaches. And "All Kids Are Winners" and "Kids Safe Playing Zone" policies were implemented to promote sportsmanship and self-esteem. "All of these changes came slowly," Shaver says. "You can't throw things at parents all at one time. You have to ease them into it."

While the Pleasant Dale Park District was easing parents into its new way of conducting recreation programs, the old-school parents who had once seemingly controlled the sports program eventually took their patronage elsewhere - usually to privately funded competitive leagues.

Another change, one that Shaver says came about from a local officials' association, involves "teaching refs." Officials working soccer and basketball games stop the clock each time they call a penalty and explain the infraction, why it occurred and how players can avoid committing it again. At the lower levels, players are given second and third opportunities to run a play or inbound the ball. Kids, coaches and parents benefit from the teaching refs, Shaver says, and the number of rules infractions during games falls dramatically over the course of a season and as the players get older. "Not only do the parents now know the rules, but I also get more coaches that way because they better understand the game," she says.

The emphasis on recreational play - standings and scores are not kept in soccer, and basketball has no standings, either - has made some kids move to competitive or travel leagues in the area, which pay the district to use its property. "Many usually wind up coming back because they don't like the competitiveness," Shaver says, estimating that about 60 percent of all kids who leave the district for other programs eventually return. "They don't get the playing time or the atmosphere they get in our programs. That shows that there is room for both competitive and recreational leagues. Not every kid is cut out to play competitive sports."

As proof, she points out that about 150 of the district's basketball league participants live in a neighboring community that runs a semi-competitive league. They pay out-of-district fees and log additional miles to play in Pleasant Dale's programs because of its emphasis on fun.

"By restructuring our leagues and re-educating the families we serve, we have been able to get back to the basics of what park districts do best: Allow program participants to have an enjoyable experience," Shaver says. "Children can do what they do best: Play. And adults can do what they do best: Support and encourage."


Southeast YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids, Mich.

The staff at the Southeast YMCA of Grand Rapids, Mich., continually strives for improvement. Witness the implementation of a new program in 2002 called Making Values a Priority, or MVP. Borrowed from a concept developed at YMCAs in Texas, the MVP program incorporates activities that accentuate the YMCA of the USA's four core values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.

The Southeast YMCA of Grand Rapids - one of seven Y branches in the city - is easing itself into the program as logistics and budgets allow, but a player-evaluation process involving basketball coaches and parents has proved promising. A couple of players' parents from each team, along with each team's coach, serve as "character coaches" and fill out forms after each practice session about how well players demonstrate the Y's core values, citing both good and bad examples. Based on those evaluations, children are awarded certificates and other prizes, and YMCA officials are working on developing an MVP Hall of Fame to honor participants who attain a specific number of awards. The goal is to incorporate the evaluation procedure into other sports, too, while winning grants that will help fund the program. Initially, yearly costs will likely be no more than $2,000.

"The key is getting parents to consistently come to watch the practices," says Jason Snyder, sports director for the facility, admitting that despite special training and meetings about the evaluations, not all parents returned the forms or took the assignment seriously. "The evaluation process was a little rough, but we still have hope for the program. If we didn't do something like this, parents would think ours is just some other recreation program that's nothing special. In this area of Grand Rapids, kids and parents are overloaded with too many extracurricular activities. That makes it tough for us."

Also making things tough on Snyder's staff is a lack of coaches. This fall, five basketball teams were without coaches less than a week before the season opened. But Snyder wasn't concerned. "In my three years here, I've never had to coach a team myself," he says. "I always find coaches before the season starts. The key is helping them understand that it only takes two hours a week - one hour of practice and one hour of game time. And they're most likely going to be at practices and games, anyway. They also think we dictate the practice times. They get to pick the day and time they practice."

Once installed as coaches, they are encouraged to talk to their players about real-life issues off the court or field. "Character-development team circles" take place at practice sessions and can include topics ranging from players describing their own strengths and weaknesses to discussing the ramifications of stealing and vandalism. Says Snyder, "We're training our coaches to talk to their kids about how they can become better people."