Recognizing Outstanding Youth Sports Programs

The five organizations chosen to receive the 2005 National Alliance For Youth Sports' Excellence in Youth Sports Award prove that persistence pays off. Not only are four of them previous runners-up in the competition, but all of them recently underwent significant program changes that played a factor in why they stood out among this year's 98 entries.

One municipal parks and recreation winner took to heart its city's designation by Sports Illustrated as "Sportstown Ohio" by effectively extending its reach throughout the state. Another of this year's award recipients forced parents to behave better after a soccer mom was arrested for assaulting a referee. A third winning organization realized that it wasn't devoting nearly enough time to training its game officials.

Developed by NAYS and Athletic Business, the Excellence in Youth Sports Award honors programs that do superior jobs of conducting diverse activities with a focus on providing safe and positive experiences for all participants - including children, parents, coaches and officials. It is open to military bases, parks and recreation departments, YMCAs and YWCAs, Jewish Community Centers, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Catholic youth organizations and independent leagues and organizations. Here are this year's winners, in alphabetical order:

Each winning program receives a $500 E-gift certificate from BSN Sports, $250 in cash and $250 in coaches' and parents' certifications from GeneralSPORTS Turf Systems, $1,000 in photography services from The Sports Section, 12 months of voice-messaging services from VoiceBulletin, a bean-bag toss game from BAGGO and one free registration to the 2006 International Youth Sports Congress in Washington, D.C., on September 21-23.

Congratulations to this year's winners, and thanks to all the organizations that entered the 2005 Excellence in Youth Sports Awards competition.

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Gainesville (Ga.) Parks & Recreation Agency

After four years as a perennial runner-up in the Excellence in Youth Sports Awards, Gainesville Parks & Recreation Agency finally claims its share of this year's spotlight.

"This program helps show us some of our weaknesses," says Missy Bailey, who became the agency's recreation program coordinator in March. "When I came in, I had a list of things that were not being done as well as they could have been. So I built on the strong things and then tried to improve in other areas."

One of those areas was officials' training. "We are a recreation department - not a high school, not a travel program - so our pay for officials is not as high as it is in other organizations," Bailey admits, explaining her hesitation to require referees and umpires to participate in meetings and training sessions. Although the Gainesville Parks & Recreation Agency beefed up its voluntary programs for officials in spring 2005, Bailey hopes to convince officials of the importance of training at all levels of play and begin mandating education for them beginning in 2006.

Training for officials only makes sense, especially in light of the fact that coaches and parents in Gainesville already undergo rigorous mandatory education. All volunteer coaches must apply for the job, submit to background checks and sign off on a job description before participating in up to three hours of classroom instruction and up to four hours of sport-specific, on-the-field training.

The involved process works, though. "We do seem to be getting better-quality coaches," Bailey says, "and we always hope we'll have enough to be able to take the best and weed out the rest."

Parents typically receive their training at the first practice of a given season. "The parents are going to be there, anyway," Bailey says. "Otherwise, we're asking them to come to another place at another time. If we make ourselves available to them, the parents don't have to do anything out of the ordinary, and we still get to cover everything we need to. If anything, it makes it easier for everyone."

Other opportunities for the agency's continued improvement come via participant evaluations, which have helped foster facility upgrades, increase the number of games played per season and identify problems with instructors or coaches. "We take every negative complaint we get, investigate it to find out if it's relevant and see if we can solve the problem," Bailey says. "Honest points of view can only help."

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City of Greensboro (N.C.) Parks & Recreation

In 1999, a Greensboro soccer mom was arrested for assault after she slugged a teenage official. Although the incident did not happen during a Greensboro Parks & Recreation-sponsored event, it still forced department officials to rethink their programs for parents. "We were looking at national trends and also seeing some situations locally that made us think problems could arise," says A. Jean Jackson, athletics director for the department. "So we wanted to be proactive."

To that end, Greensboro implemented the mandatory National Alliance For Youth Sports' Parents Association for Youth Sports (PAYS) education program in 2001. Parents must watch a 19-minute video that airs six times a week on a local-government cable channel prior to the beginning of each sports season. (Although Jackson says the city opted for the cable-access programming as a way to feasibly reach parents of up to 8,000 participants each year, group meetings during which the video is shown are held for families who live in outlying areas or don't have access to cable TV.) They then meet face-to-face with a parks and recreation administrator to pay the $5 program fee and sign a code of ethics promising to act their age.

Making the program mandatory from the get-go was a bone of contention among city leaders, so the city hired an outside firm to conduct a random survey of parents who participated in the first year of the PAYS program. The results revealed that 82 percent of parents thought the education was necessary, and almost 70 percent of those parents agreed that it should be mandatory. Thus, Jackson and her staff were able to convince high-level city leaders to maintain parents education as an essential and mandatory element of Greensboro youth sports.

Additionally, the city set aside funding to send department employees to a variety of conferences and training sessions - a privilege unheard of prior to Jackson's arrival as AD in 1997. "Everybody is seeing that we're serious, and we've been maintaining that seriousness in a very positive way for five years," Jackson says. "We've now won a national award, so I think that people would naturally want to buy into what we're doing even more."

Greensboro Parks & Recreation does not mandate the PAYS program for area organizations with which it has co-op agreements - lacrosse, softball, teen baseball and soccer - but that is something Jackson also hopes to change.

For now, though, she's pleased with the progress Greensboro city leaders, not just parks and recreation administrators, have already made in youth sports: "We've gone in the complete opposite direction from where we once were."

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Mountain Home (Idaho) Air Force Base Youth Programs

While many youth sports programs ask parents and coaches to fill out evaluation forms at the conclusion of each season, administrators of Mountain Home Air Force Base Youth Programs also solicit the opinions of those who matter most: the participants. Those responses - given orally by children as young as first graders and written down by a team mom or dad - have led to changes resulting in more playing time and coaches who are better listeners.

"The kids take it pretty seriously," says Diana Lawson, Mountain Home AFB's director of youth programs, which encompass everything from sports to 4-H activities. "The questions are simple: Was your coach nice to you? Did you get to play every game? Were practices fun? Were games fun? Did your coach listen to you? Did your coach treat everyone fairly? Did your coach set a good example? Kids can be pretty honest about that kind of stuff."

That honesty usually packs greater punch with coaches than a reprimand from program officials. "Most coaches are out there giving their time because they care about the kids learning to love a sport and having a good time doing it," Lawson says. "They are open to improving the way they work with kids. And a kid telling a coach, 'I don't think you treat everyone fairly,' is much more powerful than if I tell him that."

Most coaches for Mountain Home AFB's sports programs are parents (either active-duty military personnel or their spouses) and young airmen without families. Lawson's staff tries to stack teams with multiple coaches and even a mentor or two, so one or more of them can step in when another coach is deployed.

Mountain Home's efforts to enhance the experiences of its young participants no doubt helped the base receive a grant from the National Military Family Association and the Sears American Dream Campaign to sponsor Operation Purple Camp, a weeklong outdoor-adventure experience held last summer. Designed to help military children cope with the stresses resulting from a parent's deployment, most Operation Purple Camps sponsored by other bases target younger children, not teens -which is why Mountain Home AFB drew 50 teenage campers from Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Utah and Washington to the Sawtooth Mountains in July. Lawson is trying to figure out ways to host another Operation Purple Camp in 2006. "A lot of teens feel they have to take the place of the parent that's deployed and be responsible for their younger sisters and brothers," she says. "This was an opportunity for them to get outside, challenge themselves and do some things they've never done before."

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Peterson Air Force Base Youth Center, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Running a youth sports program on a military base differs radically from operating a municipal or nonprofit program in the civilian world. But there are similarities, too - especially when it comes to the perceived value of such programs.

"If Mom or Dad is deployed, our philosophy is to be an outreach activity that alleviates some of the stress for both parents and children," says Les Stewart, fitness/youth sports director for Peterson Air Force Base's Youth Center. "We need to make Mom and Dad feel at ease knowing that their kids are in our programs, because these kids have a lot more things on their minds than sports."

That's why one of Stewart's goals is to give kids a full slate of things to do "besides sitting on the couch playing Nintendo, and get them to try things they've never experienced before."

A highlight of Peterson AFB's flag football program, for example, is spending a day at the Denver Broncos training camp at team headquarters in Englewood, Colo. Kids from the base have the opportunity to meet and chat with coaches and players, pose for photographs, request autographs and watch a practice session.

Participants in Peterson AFB's youth sports programs also enjoy other off-base opportunities, such as traveling to other facilities for games and interacting with non-military teams. The base hosts games with outside teams, too, although each Peterson team must meet its opponents at the entrance to the base and then escort them off the base. "We can't just open the gates, especially because all military bases around the world are on terrorist alert, and there are certain procedures that we have to follow," Stewart says.

That kind of interaction between base-stationed youths and the children of civilian parents is the result of a complete revamping of Peterson's youth sports programs that began in 2004 and encompasses everything from marketing games via more visible promotional efforts to managing camps by expanding the hours that the camps are open. Among the simple but effective changes has been the publication of yearly sports calendars, fliers and posters that notify base personnel of registration and season-start dates, programs, age requirements and other important details. As knowledge of the programs increased, so did participation.

Today, Stewart tries to plan most activities a year in advance, giving parents plenty of time to schedule family vacations and determine whether they might be able to volunteer. "Technically, I work for the parents. That's how I look at it," he says. "If my parents didn't enroll their children in my programs, I wouldn't have a job."

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Westerville (Ohio) Parks and Recreation Department

In 2003, as part of Sports Illustrated's 50th anniversary celebration, the magazine chose one community in each state that the editors believed epitomized everything that's right about sports in America. Westerville was thus named "Sportstown Ohio" - an honor that the city took to heart.

The Westerville Parks and Recreation Department, for example, began sponsoring a Community Sports and Fitness Festival after its recognition in SI. Held each summer at a city park, the event highlights activities the department offers (plus five major co-op programs) with interactive "try a sport" stations, carnival games and live entertainment. Held each summer at a city park, the festival helps Westerville live up to its "Sportstown" designation by providing recreation opportunities for residents.

But Jeff Althouse, the city's recreation manager, also feels a compelling need to extend the department's services beyond Westerville. In 2004, the Westerville Parks and Recreation Department was selected to serve as one of 38 cities deemed Magnet Centers for Quality Youth Sports by the National Recreation and Parks Association. These "centers of excellence," as NRPA describes them, have held youth sports summits to help area administrators and volunteers focus on more effective coaching strategies, pay closer attention to skills development and expand parent-education tools.

Indeed, Westerville's department convenes semi-annual Youth Sports Facility Task Force meetings with all organizations that use the city's 32 baseball and softball fields and 22 multipurpose soccer fields. The department also is active in the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association, spearheading a statewide committee to help improve youth sports.

According to Althouse, Westerville Parks and Recreation has essentially expanded its role from simply a community-based organization to a statewide advocate for youth sports and recreation. "Playing off our 'Sportstown Ohio' designation, we thought we should take the lead and provide Ohio, especially central Ohio, with more resources," he says. "A lot of communities probably don't know what resources are available to them, and we're trying to spread the word and help them realize that they do have choices."

Among those choices are a variety of available grants. In fact, that's how Westerville paid for the first phase of a skateboard and BMX park that opened in mid-2004. The park, designed with the assistance of a committee of young citizens and funded with money courtesy of a local organization and a NatureWorks grant from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, includes a 1,150-foot-long BMX track with 22 jumps and four banked turns. The 11,000-square-foot skate park boasts quarter pipes, a bowl, banked ramps and other obstacles.