2011 Excellence in Youth Sports Award Winner: Town of Westport (Conn.) Parks and Recreation Department

For the Town of Westport (Conn.) Parks and Recreation Department, winning the Excellence in Youth Sports Award not only recognizes the work of its staff, but also the longstanding relationships with several community youth sports providers that are crucial to offering quality youth sports to local children. "While the department has led the effort to make youth sports a safe and positive experience in Westport, it could not have been accomplished without the cooperation of the providers themselves," says Karen Puskas, program manager at the Town of Westport Parks and Recreation Department.

The only sport that Westport solely offers is basketball. The department's relationships with such outside providers as Westport Little League, the Westport Soccer Association and the Westport Police Athletic League allow it to offer additional sports like lacrosse, softball, baseball, soccer, football, track, wrestling and more. "We work with each provider to make sure the community's needs are being met at an affordable price and that a safe, positive experience is being made available to the children," Puskas says.


That approach has paid off. The Excellence in Youth Sports Award, presented annually by the National Alliance for Youth Sports and Athletic Business, recognizes five youth sports programs across the country that are doing superior jobs of conducting diverse activities with a focus on providing safe and positive experiences for all participants, including children, parents and coaches.

Since Westport works with several providers to offer 11 sports to more than 6,000 children, Puskas and her staff have learned that communication is essential to keeping everybody on the same page. For example, Westport coordinates each provider's games and practices in a way that does not make parents choose which child's event to attend and works with the management of each provider to facilitate review of complaints.

Additionally, each provider is aware of Westport's youth sports philosophy and is required to follow its policies. "All need to use town facilities for their programs, so they must abide by the rules, regulations and policies that we set forth," Puskas says.

One of those policies is that every volunteer coach be trained by the NAYS-affiliated National Youth Sports Coaches Association. Recreation staff members at Westport believe that it is their responsibility to ensure that the volunteers working with children in a youth sports environment receive appropriate education. NYSCA training is designed to prepare youth sports coaches for their responsibilities by educating them in the psychology of coaching youth sports, communication, child abuse, injury prevention, nutrition and hydration, as well as skills and drills from nationally reputable sources specifically applicable to the sport that the coach is teaching.

"We became an advocate for the kids," Puskas says. "Mandating that all providers have NYSCA training gives us the comfort of knowing that their volunteers have had some basic training in working with kids and gives the volunteers some guidelines to follow and be held accountable to."

Despite winning the Excellence in Youth Sports Award, Puskas knows that now is not the time to slow down. "It's always a challenge to try and find a way to stay on top," she says. "We have come a long way and offer a great, positive youth sports program. So what's next?"

For starters, Westport will continue to strive toward keeping the youth sports program fresh with newly involved parents by holding a "youth sports fun day." This will include hands-on clinics to introduce youngsters to sport offerings and parents to volunteering opportunities. "We hope this event opens a few doors for everyone," Puskas says. "We want to keep the programs vibrant."

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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