Unsinkable Spirit, the fascinating new book by National Alliance for Youth Sports founder Fred Engh, delves into the shadows of youth sports and exposes the win-at-all-cost behavior of coaches and parents that has put a black eye on kids’ sports for decades. As a lifelong athlete with a career in physical education and youth sports administration, Fred Engh had first-hand experience with parents and coaches who placed their own desires to win over the safety and well-being of children.
In 1976, Engh held a conference with national organizations like Little League Baseball to talk about problems in youth sports. Their consensus confirmed Engh’s observations that the coach and parent problem in youth sports plagued courts and fields across the country. He knew he had to do something about it.
Unsinkable Spirit, recently named Honorable Mention at the 10th Annual Hollywood Book Festival, chronicles Engh’s actions as he created the National Alliance for Youth Sports, including the game changing risk Engh took to make his dream for positive youth sports a reality for children across the country – even when he had everything to lose.
The founder and president of NAYS discusses why he wrote the book, his drive to protect kids’ sports, the initial backlash of coaches’ training and more:
Why did you decide to write a book about the creation of the National Alliance for Youth Sports and its flagship program, the National Youth Sports Coaches Association?
I wrote Unsinkable Spirit for two reasons. One, I just felt that there were many people who would like to hear the “dark” side of how this organization came to being. Second, I hope that those that read the book will be inspired never to give up on their life’s journey…that, if you don’t take that final shot, you’ll never have a chance to win the game.
The reasons kids play sports hasn’t changed since you were a child in the 1940s. Sports are still an activity done for fun, and serves as a physical and emotional outlet for kids. Why have you made it your life’s work to protect what sports mean to kids?
When I majored in P.E. in college, I heard one of my professors say to the class, “Plato said more than 2,000 years ago that ‘a child is at its learning best while at play.’” Those words never left me as I saw sports in a completely new light. I actually saw sports being more important than academics. Why? Because if you didn’t know the lessons of sports such as playing by the rules, perseverance, discipline, never giving up, etc., then how could you succeed in society? We see so many intelligent people in society that cannot get along with others. We see people who cheat and belittle others. Well in sports, you learn that if you don’t follow those rules of life, you lose in the long run. I cringe when I see so many parents who never understand the power of sports in their child’s development.
In your book, Unsinkable Spirit, you explain that NYSCA coaches’ training received resistance by youth sports organizations and leagues across the country in the early 1980s. At the time, the president of Little League Baseball had even stated that formal coach training would destroy Little League in a letter sent to dissuade their affiliates from utilizing NYSCA training. When did you realize that the tide was turning and that the idea you pioneered of coaches’ training was going to take off?
I saw that the moment local recreation department people bought into what I was saying. They saw the win-at-all-costs coaches daily at their facilities, in addition to the many parents who destroyed sports for kids in their community by their over expectations of their children. The real heroes in changing the landscape of youth sports in communities are these recreation professionals. Many of these people had to endure the rebuke of local leagues because many of them mandated that youth leagues could not use recreation department facilities unless their coaches completed our training program. I’m proud to say that more than three million coaches have gone through our program since its inception in 1981.
At what point did you feel that the coaches training program was having the effect you wanted to see?
I’ve been asked that question many times over the years but in a different way. People who questioned the value of what we were doing to train coaches would say, “So how do you know this program works?” My answer to them was, and still is, “Well if it wasn’t working we wouldn’t have local recreation people continuing to take their time in implementing the program. They are the ones who know whether it’s working so obviously it is.”
When did you know it was time to expand your efforts and help fill the needs of children around the world for safe and positive youth sports?
I have always believed that children are children, no matter where they are. By nature, all children want to play. I will never forget being in Africa and stopping to see a young boy on the side of the road who was breaking up rocks for people who were building their concrete houses. It was very hot and there he was in the hot sun breaking rocks for practically nothing. I asked him how long he stayed out by the road breaking rocks and he said, “All day, every day.” I then said, “Well I guess when you get home that you are so tired you go right to bed.”
He replied, “Oh no. When I get home, I play soccer with my friends.”
These stories are typical for children in developing countries around the world and I am so pleased that today we have programs in countries throughout Latin America, Africa, and soon to be in Haiti that help communities develop sustainable programs for ALL kids. To date we have shipped thousands of pounds of sports equipment around the world through the contributions made by so many through our Sammy Foundation.
How did living through Depression-era poverty shape your view of striving for the American Dream?
As I tell in my book, Unsinkable Spirit, my father had lost everything during the Depression and we moved out of town to avoid the creditors. We moved to Ocean City, Md. where I lived at a Humane Society for a few years. It was the only place we could afford to live. My mother had me put dogs to death when I was very young to make room for the next dogs to be delivered to our place. These kinds of things make you very humble. Somewhere along the way, I was determined to rise above it all. However, through it all, I played sports any chance I could. For some reason I grew to not like sports…but to love sports.
What do you hope people will take away from your story in Unsinkable Spirit?
I hope they take away a statement someone made to me that helped propel me to the next big level in my life when he said, “Fred, if you don’t want to make a mistake in life, then don’t do anything.”
The 10th annual Hollywood Book Festival recognized Unsinkable Spirit as an Honorable Mention this year. What does this mean for your book’s early success?
It means that, like in sports, you can never be better than the team around you. My son Dave, who has his degree in journalism, not only encouraged me to write the book, he made the book come to life. Thanks to him, I got the award!
All proceeds from the sale of the book will support the Sammy Wilkinson Memorial Foundation, in memory of Fred's grandson.
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