Decision time: Finding the right league for your child
By Linda Alberts
Perhaps your child has shown an interest in sports, or you are looking for a new activity for them to try. So how can you find the right league for your child?
Taking the time to find the right league for your child to participate in – even for the first time they try a sport – is crucial to promoting a lifelong interest in sports and activity. So many times we hear stories of how one negative experience can turn a child away from a sport, or even all sports in general.
Aileen Henderson, youth sports manager at the Hillsborough County (Fla.) Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department Athletics, has first-hand experience with the importance of a child’s first impression of a sport.
“As a member of the industry, I made a mistake when I registered my son for a fall baseball program. My knowledge of fall ball has always been it is more of a developmental season,” says Henderson. “Boy, was I wrong.”
It turned out that the league Henderson signed her son up for was preparing the kids for a travel team and he spent most of the time sitting on the bench.
“Needless to say, my son’s experience was not a very good one and he has yet to ask to return to play,” says Henderson.
HAVING A GOOD START
Henderson is a member of the CYSA Leadership Committee, a professional organization that is the voice of all professional youth sports administrators and provides support and direction for community youth sports programs.
What can a parent do to give their child the best start in youth sports? First, they have to take an honest assessment of what they and their child want out of sports and ask if they are truly ready to join an organized league.
“All too many times I’ve seen parents register their children in a program and the child was not physically, mentally or socially ready to participate,” says Henderson. “Sometimes it’s ok to allow a child to make those shoebox lizard habitats in the backyard under a palm frond make-shift tent instead of forcing them into sports.”
Henderson adds that her own son wasn’t ready to play sports until he was nine years old.
“Sports are a huge commitment for the child and parent,” she says.
WHO REALLY WANTS TO BE INVOLVED?
Mike Wardlow, recreational program supervisor at the City of Largo (Fla.) Southwest Recreation Complex and fellow CYSA Leadership Committee member, points out the parents need to recognize who really wants to be involved in sports.
“Parents should ask if their child really wants to play sports, or is it the parents who really want the child to play,” he says. “Not all kids are going to want to play sports. Parents should support their child’s decision not to play a sport if they don’t want to. Pushing a child into sports may lead to conflict, poor motivation and other problems at home.”
After it’s confirmed that the child wants to play sports, they get to pick which sport they want to try. Henderson warns parents that children may not follow in their footsteps.
“Parents should keep in mind that just because they played baseball, it doesn’t mean their child must play baseball,” she says. “I would allow the child to lead because if they are not interested in the sport, then more likely than not neither the parent nor the child will have a positive experience. I strongly encourage parents to let their child find their own way.”
However, she adds, “I do believe that if they register for a season, then they must stay committed to the season and their team.”
Last, identify the skill level of the child and the expectations of a potential league. This may be one of the most challenging parts, as described by Henderson’s experience in fall ball.
“As a parent in today’s world of youth sports, we must prepare and research to try and provide our children the best experience possible,” she says.
GETTING TO KNOW THE LEAGUE
Here are some questions to ask to get to know the league better:
Do the children need to try out and are they drafted to teams based on their performance at tryouts?
This will indicate whether the league is attempting to balance the skill levels for each team. “There is no foolproof way to ensure team equity; however, there are processes that can be used to help,” says Henderson.
How are volunteer coaches selected and what are the requirements to volunteer?
If there isn’t a background screening process or standards the league uses to recruit volunteer coaches, then the doors are open to give anyone access to children. Leagues need to take proactive measures to ensure quality volunteers that are part of the program for the right reasons.
“Parents need to ask the league if they have established boundaries to prevent sexual abuse or harassment,” says Wardlow. “This is a critical question that leagues, coaches and parents need to be proactive in addressing. Parents shouldn’t be ashamed to ask this question because it pertains to the well-being of their young athletes.”
Henderson adds that volunteers should pass a background check along with completing a first aid training and sportsmanship program to promote positivity and fun in coaching youth sports.
“At Hillsborough County we take it to the next level and require CPR, first aid and AED training with a volunteer training class,” she says. “The class consists of positive coaching, sportsmanship and preventing sexual abuse, child abuse and bullying.”
Are there minimum play rules?
This question will quickly help you identify if the league is recreation- or competitive-based.
Wardlow says to find out how important it is for the kids to have fun, learn life skills and develop athletic skills.
“There are far too many youth sports leagues focusing all their efforts to winning every game and not focusing on the skill development of the athletes in their program,” he says.
Lastly, if the league you are considering to join is a properly run organization, there will be a paper trail. Make sure their 501(c)3 paperwork is current and ask about their by-laws and insurance, as well as the quality of fields and equipment.
“If a league does not offer these items, then I would seriously question one’s participation in the program,” says Henderson. “Most of all, remember the fun factor. Statistically most kids will age out of a program by 12 or 13 years old and this won’t become their future. Do whatever you can to make sure it is a positive experience.”
Wardlow adds to this message: “Some signs that will indicate to parents that a league isn’t a positive environment are if the young athletes are not having fun playing, not improving their skills, quitting the league and if the coaches are preaching win-win-win.”
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