A winner-take-all mentality that undermines sportsmanship principles and alienates many young athletes. Parents questioning coaching decisions and harassing game officials. Poorly maintained athletic facilities and equipment shortages.
Add to this list mounting concerns about head injuries and potential abuse in the post-Jerry Sandusky era, and the landscape for youth sports can look pretty bleak. Yet these programs, staffed mainly by well-meaning volunteers, remain vital parts of every community’s social fabric in ways that go far beyond win-loss records and trophies.
Michael Daniliuk, a youth basketball coach and Cambridge police officer, has experienced many of these problems and believes the solution begins with volunteer leaders like him.
“I’ve seen things done the wrong way,” says Daniliuk. “I’ve seen the win-at-all-costs approach. I’ve seen coaches bring older kids to play in tournaments who shouldn’t be playing. I’ve seen them single out the other team’s best player and try to intimidate him.”
Last year, Daniliuk took a pair of training courses underwritten by CHAMPS Boston, a youth-development program launched by the Boston Foundation in 2009. CHAMPS, which stands for Coaches Helping Athletes Through Mentoring and Positive Sports, has helped refurbish playing spaces in the city and encourages youth physical fitness through a collaboration with Celtics captain Paul Pierce’s The Truth on Health initiative. But at its heart, the program involves making coaches aware of the role they play in young lives and the values they impart.
“I know all the names of my youth sports coaches, but not my college professors,” says Robert Lewis Jr., a Boston Foundation vice president. “That’s the kind of impact they’ve had on me.”
With a four-year, $2 million funding commitment by the foundation in hand, CHAMPS has trained more than 3,500 coaches working with 75,000 young athletes in Massachusetts. The sessions are designed and run by Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), a program developed at Stanford University in 1998.
In Cambridge and East Boston, CHAMPS training, which is provided free of charge, has become mandatory for all youth-sports coaches and administrators. Paticipating programs receive vouchers worth up to $1,500, redeemable for team sports equipment. For 2013, the program hopes to train an additional 1,500 coaches in sports that include football, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, swimming, tennis, ice hockey, and track and field.
The classes — an initial training session plus one follow-up a month later — are built around workshops that follow a 70-page PCA guidebook laying out goals, methods, and values such as “hard work, fair play, teamwork, resilience [and] delayed gratification.” The program also encourages coaches to “honor the game” by modeling civility and courtesy at all times.
In video commentaries, Doc Rivers, Phil Jackson, and other coaching luminaries discuss their own approaches to instructing athletes at a variety of ages and ability levels. They focus on setting “effort goals” rather than “outcome goals,” the aim being to encourage young athletes to view improvement as an ongoing process.
Attending coaches then “pair and share,” splitting off into smaller groups to swap war stories and discuss strategies for handling challenging situations. The dialogue might be as basic as: What do I tell a frustrated parent whose kid barely got to play last game? Or it may address thornier problems, like losing a game on a blown call by an official and facing a tense situation with angry parents. (One recommended tactic: Have an assistant coach take the team off to a safe place, while the head coach deals more directly with the game’s aftermath.)
This year the program has broadened its focus to other issues affecting young athletes, among them sports-related concussions and childhood obesity. Park facilities in many inner-city neighborhoods have also been upgraded by CHAMPS money; in return, concession stands at these facilities are offering fruits, vegetables, and water along with less healthy snacks.
But the program’s core mission remains improving how young athletes are mentored, no matter their talent level.
“The first question they ask is, why are you coaching? They want you to think about what you’re in this for,” says Daniliuk.
Teaching kids to be competitive on the court, field, or ice is not discouraged, he notes; the program’s philosophy isn’t “every child deserves a trophy.” However, winning games is viewed as secondary to helping kids see the larger life lessons and guiding them through positive reinforcement. The general rule: five encouraging messages for every negative one.
These issues matter, program officials say, because the dropout rate in Boston youth sports after age 13 is 75 percent, even higher than the national average of 70 percent. As kids drop out, fitness levels decline, too, and many communities see a troubling increase in youth violence.
“That’s really why CHAMPS is around,” says program director Brianna Forde, 30, a former all-scholastic basketball player and Bentley College graduate. “Poor coaching, poor facilities, kids who feel left out.”
Forde, who has coached hoops at Curry College and University of Massachusetts-Boston, and is now coaching at Hyde Park’s New Mission High School, says youth sports basically saved her life, paving her way to college and out of a neighborhood, Dorchester’s Fields Corner, that was plagued by poverty, drugs, and gang activity.
Forde was tapped to run the CHAMPS program by the Boston Foundation’s Lewis, who cofounded the South End Baseball league in 1987 and coaches the Boston Astros, an elite AAU baseball team whose alumni include former Red Sox pitcher Manny Delcarmen.
When Lewis helped launch the foundation’s StreetSafe Boston anti-crime initiative and began attending basketball games in neighborhoods like Roxbury and Mattapan, what he saw disturbed him: a heavy police presence, “almost like they’re waiting for something to happen,” he recalls.
Back at the foundation, which supports training programs for city teachers and youth workers, talk turned to youth coaching. A foundation survey found that more than 60 percent of Boston’s volunteer coaches had never received any organized instruction. Yet they were functioning as out-of-school teachers and, in some cases, surrogate parents as well.
“I realized the big influence that volunteer coaches have — not the Xs and Os but having the tools to deal with angry parents and frustrated kids,” says Lewis. “I knew we could have a direct impact on these kids’ lives.”
In 2009, CHAMPS ran a pilot program in East Boston, modifying the curriculum to make it more urban-oriented than the existing PCA model. Three years later, it’s been embraced by Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, Pop Warner football leagues, the Jamaica Plain Regan Youth League (softball and baseball), and the Boston Neighborhood Basketball League, among others.
According to Lewis and others, the program’s impact is just beginning to be measured. In Cambridge, says Pop Warner president Diane Pinto, the dropout rate for young athletes has fallen from 7 percent to 1 percent. And hundreds of youth football coaches throughout Greater Boston have taken a mandatory online test on identifying head injuries.
“I look at coaches teaching kids to tackle with their helmets, and I cringe, because these are volunteers,” says Lewis. He and Forde have brought in athletic trainer Brian FitzGerald, an expert in pediatric concussions affiliated with Boston Children’s Hospital, as a training resource.
Courtney Leonard coaches girls playing for the Boston Showstoppers, a multiteam AAU basketball program. The program’s 14 volunteer coaches serve 85 girls ages 6-17 from low-income families in Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury.
Many coaches have played basketball at the high school level, says Leonard, but that experience has its drawbacks, too.
“You’re a human being, and if you’ve played sports you want to win,” Leonard says. After undergoing the training, “You still want to win, but you’re taught a better way.”
Eric Eisendrath, a former youth lacrosse and soccer coach who’s been with the Positive Coaching Alliance for six years, runs the sessions. PCA has designed workshops that serve a variety of constituencies: coaches, program administrators, and parents.
“Parents come with different goals, and so do coaches,” says Eisendrath, who’s personally conducted over 100 workshops. “You get a lot of coaches who just don’t have any training. They fall into the win-at-all-costs mentality, because that’s what they assume everybody wants.”
CHAMPS has picked up powerful allies along the way, including the Celtics’ Pierce. Last summer it held a “Cheers for CHAMPS” in Fenway Park that drew 2,000 young athletes and their coaches, along with members of the Red Sox, Celtics, New England Revolution, Boston College Eagles, Boston Breakers, and Boston Cannons. Celtics coach Rivers is also on the PCA national advisory board.
Ray Vega of Dorchester recently completed his fifth year of coaching Pop Warner. Vega, who works for Verizon, also volunteers with a Roxbury summer basketball league. In August, he took the CHAMPS training, bothered by other coaches’ interactions with young athletes.
“I always wanted to get away from adults screaming at me,” says Vega, who played football at Boston English. “And a lot of these kids don’t need to be yelled at. They may not have a dad around, either. Being a positive role model goes a long way.”
Perhaps a small handful, one in a million, will become pro athletes, he adds. “But you can always coach them up. And what we’re teaching them about isn’t just sports. It’s their future.”
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.