A country in crisis: Youth recreational sports serves important role moving forward

A country in crisis: Youth recreational sports serves important role moving forward


By John Engh

NAYS Executive Director

Our country is in an extraordinary place right now. In the past couple months communities have begun reopening with the fear that a deadly, highly contagious virus is likely to return before we have vaccines. There is great concern that after all our efforts – among them shutting down youth sports programs in our communities – that we will be back inside hiding from this disease in months. At the same time, the whole country reacted in a variety of ways to another person of color who was unjustly killed in the custody of the police. We keep saying that these are uncertain times and does that ever ring true.

I can’t help to be reminded (and hopeful) that adversity, loss and even a lack of justice can lead to a better future. We have a chance here to change for the better and sports definitely has a role in leading the way. And that especially includes youth sports.

Youth sports professionals are important leaders in our communities, and this is another example why. Youth sports are one of the great staples of American life. You might remember the slogan as American as, “baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and some truck company.” Well, I am not sure about the last three, but baseball was really a reference to a family’s participation in sports in general and an example of how entrenched it is in the American way of life. From fans at the professional level to all those participating as coaches, officials, spectators, or players in the thousands of youth games that happen every day, youth sports are as American as you can get.

The reason I bring this up is that in sports, more than anywhere else, we see the examples of how people of different races, cultures and economic backgrounds can band together to create positive outcomes. 

Coaches have always been viewed as some of the most important role models in a child’s upbringing and that starts at the youth level. In many scenarios, parents are bringing their children to sports with the main goal being to learn the life lessons that are so inherent in sports participation. In fact, when we poll parents why they sign their kids up, life lessons like dealing with adversity, socialization, and learning to win and lose with grace are all always at the top of the list. Plus, we have all seen all the studies done highlighting how kids who participate in sports are better students, are more likely to stay out of trouble and lead more successful careers than those who don’t play sports.

Personally, I can tell you that I vividly remember so many of the life lessons that shaped who I eventually became that are a direct result of all the sports I played, the experiences I had and the coaches who guided and taught me along the way. From my participation on teams with extremely diverse cultures to traveling to locations where the fans and teams looked different than anyone in my daily life, sports delivered so many incredibly important experiences. And all my coaches, from the great ones to the average ones, contributed.

Our youth sports leaders must understand the power they have to help shape the positive identities of our children and help us make better, more tolerant and understanding communities in the future. No one would ever question whether the administrators and teachers in our schools are incredible influencers in our children’s lives. So all you have to do is compare the hours that children spend in our organized sports activities versus the time they spend in school and you can’t help but see the importance of making sure that time is well spent. More than ever, it is crucial that our leagues are run by administrators with an understanding of the reach of their impact and being able to pass on these important factors to the coaches and other adults that ultimately oversee these programs.

Indeed, these are unprecedented times in our country and while the path forward figures to be a rocky one, I am confident that better days await and that organized youth sports programming in our communities will continue to be integral in the overall development of young people – and that the role of youth sports administrators will be more important than ever.

Crisis Leadership Diversity Recreation

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