There are a lot of issues surrounding youth sports — playing time, specialization, travel teams and cost.
Is cost preventing kids from participating in sports? In some cases, most certainly. Many youth sport organizations are constantly searching out grants, government funding and simple fundraisers to help support the opportunity for kids to keep playing.
But another major issue involves the coaches and auxiliary assistants who most, if not all, are volunteers.
Think about it.
Where would your youth sports teams be without the volunteers who spend many hours planning practices, ordering uniforms, setting up transportation and, yes, finding the money to be able to play in the first place?
“Volunteers make youth sports work,” said Trevor Bollers, founder of Iowa’s 7v7 Football organization. “More money from the government will not provide more opportunity for lower income kids unless there are volunteers that can be trusted to put that money to use for the kids.
“I see travel tackle football teams decked from head to toe in better gear than my high school team and how they were able to play and travel is through the time and energy of the volunteers putting together fundraisers, bake sales and all so their kids can play.”
The coaches are the most visible of all volunteers and could be the most important because they are usually the first point of contact for the kids and their introduction to a sport. The most fortunate youth athletes have coaches who know what they are doing — they probably played the game, they might be middle or high school teachers, they understand kids.
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Too many volunteer coaches, however, don’t have those credentials. They volunteer because they want to be with their kids and to make it possible for them to play.
According to research, one of the primary reasons 70 percent of children quit organized sports is because they don’t have a good experience with an untrained coach. According to John O’Sullivan of Changing the Game Project, only 5 percent of children who play for a properly trained coach quit the next season, while 26 percent drop out after playing for “inadequately” trained coaches. Numbers from several years ago also showed that of the six-and-a-half million U.S. youth coaches, only 19 percent had been trained in “proper communications and motivation for the children they were coaching, and one out of three was trained in the skills and techniques they were supposed to teach.”
I know you’ve been frustrated watching your kids play for a coach who, though with good intentions, seems to be in over his or her head. You might say, “So what? If the kids are having fun, what does it matter?” But if the kids want to continue playing as they grow, isn’t it important to learn while playing?
O’Sullivan said if you want to attract and retain good volunteers, you must:
— Pour knowledge into them.
— Mandate coaching education.
— Help them understand the ages and stages they are working with.
— Train them again and again.
— Provide learning opportunities for all levels of coaches.
Organizations such as Hockey Canada, USA Hockey and USA Rugby have mandated teaching certification, provided at low or no cost. Youth sports expert Ruth Nicholson said treating volunteers like valued employees “results in greater effort and better job performance. By offering clear support, providing clear expectations, and asking for meaningful contributions, organizations discover that their volunteers are willing to give increased value to programs and invest more in organizational success.”
O’Sullivan suggested the following low to no cost ideas for sports providers to provide their coaches.
1. Build an app with a season’s worth of age-appropriate practice sessions for coaches, teach them how to use it and down the road add video showing them what the sessions look like.
2. Sign up coaches and pay a nominal fee for an app or digital database of practices provided by organizations such as US Lacrosse and others.
3. Have high school coaches run a free clinic and make it mandatory to attend.
4. Require the best, most experienced coaches spend time at the grassroots level working with the young kids in the program, and not just with the older kids.
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5. Set up a free email autoresponder. Each Monday it will automatically email coaches two sessions for the week plus other tips and info.
6. Partner with an organization such as Iowa Youth Sports Initiative that provides workshops, online materials and booklets for your coaches.
7. Put together a library of books on coaching, not just on Xs and Os, but on leadership.
Bollers and I have benefited from volunteer efforts from the community. His Youth Sports Foundation program has run for 20 years because of volunteers willing to be around to hand out equipment and schedule practices as league director.
“Volunteers make it happen,” Bollers said. “Support volunteers and you will support the kids in your community. It takes moms, dads, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents to make it happen.”
If we continue to rely on volunteer coaches at the grassroots level, we must raise the bar in terms of mandatory training. Bollers and I are doing this with 7v7 and its coaches with a certification program we developed. We also have a volunteer application template and a Code of Conduct for staff and volunteers we can provide.
Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org