(from Maine Townsman, May 1999)
By Peter Bushway, Superintendent of Parks & Recreation, City of Auburn

More than 20 million children are involved in out-of-school, recreational sports.

Youth sports should be a positive influence on children of all ages. Too often, however, coaches focus in on the wrong aspects of youth sports and the results can be devastating.

Placing too much emphasis on winning and working with only the talented players can ruin a child’s experience in youth sports. The coach’s philosophy should be to focus on all kids, not just those who can run faster, throw harder, or catch better. It is important to understand that children whose athletic abilities are less than their teammates will need more encouragement, an extra pat on the back, additional time to develop, and the sense that their contributions, no matter how big or small, make a difference.

The goal of each coach must be to help each child work toward his or her maximum potential. If each child reaches their potential, and has fun doing so, you and the child have already won, regardless of what the scoreboard says. The true skill of effective coaching is to ensure that each child comes away with a positive experience, gets a chance to fully develop, and sees progress.

Children learn more by doing than by watching. Therefore, having a child play a very limited amount of time each game because their skills are not as polished as others on the team is not helping that child. There have been countless studies done that have shown children join teams to play and not sit on the bench and watch. Regardless of the circumstances during the game, the coach should stick to a game plan of playing everyone as much as possible. Maximum participation for all kids is the way to develop their skills and love for the game. Winning, although important, is not the most important thing. Players would rather play on a losing team than sit on the bench for a winning team.

Players are going to make mistakes, sometimes a lot of them. A recent study was released that examined a 10-team league of 6-year-old boys participating in T-ball. The league’s bylaws stated that, "the purpose of the program was to teach the basic skills and strategies needed for a smooth transition into organized baseball." The study found that:

• 62% of all balls hit into play resulted in fielding errors.

• 42% of the time the fielder committed a throwing error.

• 85% of all fly balls resulted in errors.

• 84% of all balls hit into play were directed toward infielders.

• 34% of all infield grounders resulted in errors.

It should come as no surprise that these statistics would hold up in most T-ball programs. After all, the purpose of T-ball is an introduction to the great game of baseball and players are going to make mistakes.

The children come into the program with little or no experience so why would we expect them to perform flawlessly? At this age, we need to capture their interest so that they want to participate in the sport.

T-ball coaches who capture the interest of developing athletes by making their programs fun and exciting can keep kids involved in baseball and softball for years to come. This is true for any sport and all ages. Even at the professional level mistakes are made, and a lot of them, so why should we expect more from children who are still learning the game?

By focusing on the basic skills and strategies of a sport, keeping it fun, and keeping the kids wanting more, they will stay involved longer and enjoy the sport for a long time, perhaps a lifetime.

Youth sports risk management is necessary to help reduce the chance of abuse, injury, discrimination or negligence to participants. For youth sports organizations, this means doing things to improve the protective shield that surrounds organizations.

Risk management in youth sports must be comprehensive including protection, promotion, and prevention.

Protection involves, clear policies and procedures relating to child protection and the creation of an emotionally and physically safe environment. Volunteers should be screened and background checks should be conducted in addition to proper training, evaluation, and supervision. The final step in the protection process, is the assessment of the situation and reporting.

Promotion includes actions that provide children and organizations with the strengths, assets and protective factors necessary to be resilient and thrive. Organizations can help volunteers, parents, and youth to be good sports by reinforcing values.

Prevention includes actions to stop problems before they happen. Prevention also involves the development of skills to more effectively handle high-risk situations or to resist abuse.

Sports are one of the greatest tools we have in society to help children develop positive character traits and life values. We have an obligation to provide children with a positive introduction to sports, to provide training resources for coaches and to inform parents of programming organization.

In conclusion there are coaches certification programs such as the National Youth Sports Coaches Association, which in conjunction with the Maine Recreation and Park Association last year certified more than 1,100 coaches throughout the State of Maine. The training discusses the psychology of coaching children, maximizing athletic performance, safety and first aid procedures, and how to teach the basic fundamentals of the sport.