Life-Changing Programs

All it takes is a nudge from a coach 

By Fred Engh 

Four years ago Dave Parks, program administrator for youth sports for the city of Englewood (Colo.) Parks and Recreation Department, received a call from a concerned mother of a fifth grader. 

She explained that her son was painfully shy and struggling with social anxiety. She wondered if there was a sport he might be able to play, though he wasn’t interested in baseball, football, or basketball. Parks suggested that the boy give hockey a try. 

The department set him up with some equipment, placed him on a team, and as it turns out, changed his life.

Photo Courtesy of NAYS

“He had a hard time getting started, but thanks to some patient coaching, he started to slowly improve,” Parks recalls. A few weeks ago, Parks received another call from the mom–and it’s a conversation that will stay with him forever.

“She called to tell me that he has made such great strides in life, and attributed it all to his involvement in hockey,” Parks says. “Playing a sport and being around positive adults gave him the confidence to improve his grades in school, make friends, and get involved in other activities, such as being a tutor for kids with learning disabilities.” 

Parks shares his thoughts on providing a varied youth-sports programming menu for kids ranging from ages 3 to 17.   

What is a mistake you made with your program that you have learned from? 

When I first started working in youth sports, the department had post-season tournaments as part of our summer baseball program. This was great until some parents decided to attack umpires and staff, and things got out of hand. We decided to stop running the tournaments at the end of the season, and the program continued to do well for years. I then decided to try to bring back a tournament for one age group, and it completely blew up in my face. The kids had a great time, but the parents went nuts, accusing umpires of fixing games, complaining about team seeding, and fuming over game times and duration. It was disappointing to see how adults can ruin a fun time for kids by losing perspective on what is really important. So, I learned that if our program is to be recreational in nature, then maybe a tournament is not the right way to end the season, since it seems to bring out the worst in some people. While I understand that competition is important and coaches and parents should always encourage kids to do their best, having winning be the only focus after a season of fun and learning can be detrimental to the integrity of the program. 

Share a story that occurred in your program that symbolizes what youth sports are all about? 

I was coaching one of our 8-year-old youth baseball teams several years ago, and one of the kids wanted to be the catcher. We put all the protective gear on him, put him behind the plate, and encouraged him to keep the ball in front of him. On the first pitch, he turned and took a ball in his back. Of course he fell and started to cry. He sat on the bench for a while and then went back in the game at a different position. Two innings later, he told me he wanted to try catching again. We put the gear on, and as he went to the plate, his teammates, players and coaches from the other team, and parents in the stands erupted in cheers for him, and he did a great job for the rest of the inning. After the third out, he returned to the dugout and his brother, who was also a teammate, gave him a big hug and exclaimed, “You did it! You faced your fears!” The rest of the team and parents chimed in and made his day. The support for this kid to succeed was overwhelming and unexpected. It was such a great moment that I get a little choked up thinking about it. 

In your opinion, what are the top three keys to running a quality youth-sports program?

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