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It's the game, not the score

Some school districts are embracing reform -- trying to boost participation while emphasizing sportsmanship.

October 02, 2006|Shari Roan | Times Staff Writer

The elitism and focus on winning that permeates youth sports are deeply entrenched but, as recent progress suggests, perhaps not permanently.

"The recent focus on obesity has the potential to turn this around," says Jim Thompson, executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit organization based at Stanford University that offers workshops for coaches. "People are asking, 'What would it take to get youths to be leaner and more active?' "

Several research and nonprofit organizations now offer clinics and how-to manuals for schools and youth sports organizations attempting to reform their programs. Most aim to de-emphasize winning, boost participation rates and improve the behavior of coaches and parents to make sports healthier and more fun for kids.

The Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, which conducts research on youth sports, has partnered with the Michigan High School Athletic Assn. to provide coaching clinics and a curriculum based on the institute's philosophy of "educational athletics." The program discourages kids from specializing in one sport and emphasizes sportsmanship, says Daniel R. Gould, director of the institute.

"We're not saying winning doesn't count; that turns people off," he says. "But you can't forget the sportsmanship aspect or the importance of physical activity or making sure kids fall in love with the activity."

Among the recommendations for example, Gould encourages coaches to provide students who've been cut with a list of other teams they could join, such as those offered by recreation leagues. "Sometimes letting kids know there are more alternatives is all you need to do," he says.

At the Positive Coaching Alliance at Stanford University, which contracts with schools, school districts and youth leagues to provide coaching workshops and certification, coaches are advised to stop obsessing about winning.

"We help them change their culture away from an entertainment culture to an educational culture," in which lessons about responsibility, teamwork and perseverance can be taught, says Thompson.

Meanwhile, a few school districts around the country are trying to adopt more inclusive sports programs, including the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district this year has added a lunchtime intramural sports program to all middle schools with the hopes of restoring intramural sports in high schools within a few years, says Barbara Fiege, director of interscholastic athletics.

Fiege says she would also like to soften high schools' emphasis on elite athletes. For example, she objects to the practice of weeding out players -- and grooming others -- before school-sponsored tryouts even begin. High school coaches typically operate summer camps intended to prepare all students for try-outs during the school year. But the camps have largely evolved into scouting opportunities for coaches.

"I've gotten calls from parents in the summer who say 'my son or daughter has just been told by the coach that they didn't make the team,' " Fiege says. "There is something wrong with that picture. Selections for the school teams aren't made in the summer."

She also condemns the practice, common among high school coaches, of encouraging prospective players to join expensive, and often exhausting, off-season travel or club teams for year-round development.

Students are sometimes told "if they don't play travel ball they won't make the team," Fiege says. "We're constantly telling people that one thing doesn't have anything to do with the other and that [coaches] can't say that." She says her office is considering barring coaches from discussing travel or club teams with students.

Perhaps the most sweeping overhaul of youth sports, however, is taking place in Maine, where dozens of school districts as well as private and nonprofit organizations are working together to boost participation among kids of all abilities, improve the conduct of coaches and parents, and keep sports fun.

The efforts, part of a program called Sports Done Right, were conceived by the Maine Center for Sport and Coaching at the University of Maine and launched last year after two years of study and input from students, administrators, coaches, sports officials and parents. The program, which emerged from a decision by the university in 2004 that the center should examine problems in youth sports, addresses what each of those "stakeholders" can do to improve youth sports, Brown says.

Twelve districts participated in a pilot program last year and many more are coming on board this year, says Karen Brown, director of the Maine Center for Sport and Coaching. The program has already led to changes. For example, several school districts are trying to reinstate intramural sports.

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