2011 Excellence in Youth Sports Award Winner: Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Youth Sports Program (Alaska)

This has been a tremendous year for the youth sports staff at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) Youth Sports Program in Alaska. A joint-base merger of armed services and a wealth of updates to programming and facilities have provided both challenges and opportunities, resulting in a high-quality youth sports program for local families.

As a result, JBER Youth Sports is one of five recipients of the 2011 Excellence in Youth Sports Awards presented by the National Alliance for Youth Sports and Athletic Business. The awards recognize five youth sports programs every year for doing superior jobs of conducting diverse activities with a focus on providing safe and positive experiences for all participants - including children, parents and coaches.

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"The biggest challenge we faced this year was the merger between Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson," says Paul Caron, JBER's youth sports and fitness director, who had to break down the "us versus them" attitude that had been going on between the bases for years. "We deliberately created our teams with both Army and Air Force coaches and mixed the teams with children of parents from both services." Games and practices also are scheduled evenly on both bases in an effort to keep things fair.

Caron reports that, after some initial rough spots, the merger has gone smoothly. "Now, the kids, coaches and parents have built up friendships within both services," he says. "It's not a divided community anymore."

Caron found that by introducing new sports like volleyball and cheerleading for flag football, as well as bringing back Little League All-Stars, program participation has increased by as much as 45 percent. More than 1,500 youngsters currently play on JBER teams, and that may increase in 2012 with plans to add an NFL Punt, Pass and Kick camp and the NFL Play 60 program, plus a possible Olympics-style "sports day" with track and field events.

Another factor in the participation increase may be the effort Caron and his staff have put into providing a better playing environment. They now contract with paid scorekeepers and officials, which has improved the caliber of activities. "It helps to have an experienced official controlling the game," Caron says. "Parents tend to believe an official about a questionable play more than another parent."

Caron also credits recent successes to the recruiting and training of volunteer coaches. JBER Youth Sports abides by the NAYS-affiliated National Youth Sports Coaches Association, which provides a thorough education on topics such as the psychology of coaching youth sports, communication, child abuse, injury prevention, nutrition and hydration, as well as skills and drills specifically applicable to the sport each coach oversees. Since 2010, JBER Youth Sports has trained more than 400 volunteer coaches.

The organization also provides coaches' shirts with three simple adult rules listed on their back: 1. Make it FUN! 2. Set a good example! 3. Cheer for everyone! "I have witnessed coaches deal with parents being a little loud just by pointing to the back of their shirt," Caron says.

The five winners of the 2011 Excellence in Youth Sports Awards, sponsored by the National Alliance for Youth Sports and Athletic Business magazine, are being announced in this space during the week of Nov. 14. The awards will be presented to program administrators at the Athletic Business Conference & Expo in Orlando, Fla., on Friday, Dec. 2.
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