Fixing Kids' Sports
Rescuing children's games from crazed coaches and parents
"Child abuse." As parents got more involved, some got too involved, and things turned ugly. By the mid-'70s, Engh had seen enough. His daughter played on a softball team whose coach was caught urging his girls to shoplift for him, Engh says. And then, coaching his own son's baseball team, he ran into the father who told his boy with the sore elbow to stay in there and pitch. This was nothing more, Engh says, than "legalized child abuse."
He decided to do something about it. By 1980, he began working out of a tiny second-floor office in West Palm Beach, creating a training manual for coaches. The idea: to make team sports less pressurized, safer, and more child friendly. Engh still remembers the day when the bank called and told his wife, Michaele, they were $440 overdrawn. With seven kids to feed, Engh thought it was the end. Then he opened his mail, and in it was his first order for the new manual, a check for $732. He never looked back.
Today, Engh's National Alliance for Youth Sports has certified 2.1 million volunteer coaches. But that, he says, isn't enough; everyone in youth sports--administrators, coaches, officials, parents--should be trained and sensitized. Indeed, one evening in February 2000, the Jupiter-Tequesta Athletic Association in Florida packed more than 1,500 parents into a stadium to watch a video on how to be a good sports parent, pick up a handbook, and sign a sportsmanship pledge--or their children could not play. Engh's National Alliance has even created a program to teach basic skills to kids as young as 3, so they can enjoy sports from the start. Near Buffalo, N.Y., the town of Hamburg adopted all of the alliance programs. "The coaches used to show up like, 'We're going to war here,' " says Tim Jerome, president of the junior football league. "It was pretty bad." Verbal abuse, shoving matches, parents misbehaving, it's all "changed dramatically," he says.
"The one thing people need to understand," Engh emphasizes, "is that they don't need to put up with this anymore." Mike Murray agrees. "Here in Northern Virginia," says Murray, a high school coach, teacher, and a director of youth baseball training programs, "you've seen a real cultural shift. All the things you'd want, people policing themselves. I think in large part people have bought into this." Murray is a trainer for another organization, the Positive Coaching Alliance. The alliance shares many of the same goals as Engh's organization--and even some of the same tips--but their approaches are different. Engh's organization wants all volunteers trained and certified; the Positive Coaching Alliance is focused more on the zen of coaching.
The PCA is the brainchild of a soft-spoken former college basketball player named Jim Thompson. While studying at Stanford University Business School in the mid-1980s, he found himself coaching his son's baseball and basketball teams. Seeing too many "negative interactions" between coaches and players, he recalled his earlier experiences working at the Behavioral Learning Center in St. Paul, Minn. There he had learned the power that positive reinforcement had on severely disturbed children. He wrote a book called Positive Coaching, which stressed some basic principles: Athletes perform best when they feel good about themselves. The way to keep them confident is with positive comments. Athletes so motivated will be confident, try hardest, take chances, and play "over their heads." And when that happens, the team wins.