Youth sports are woven deeply into the fabric of many families’ lives. It has become big business, cultivating a love for sport in our children. The competition can be fierce, or just simply placid, ways for many kids to exert energy and passion.
I sat down with two professionals locally in Forsyth County who are at the center of organized youth sports. Andrew Fleming is the Recreation Director of Soccer for North Carolina Fusion and Olivia Gant is the Sports Director for the YMCA of Northwest North Carolina at the Jerry Long YMCA in Clemmons.
What are the overarching benefits of youth sports?
For me, what I love most is that we provide a manageable environment where kids can deal with stress and adversity. We as adults can watch any participating child contemplate, and figure out, how to act and react when things don’t go their way.
For the parents involved, this is where they have tremendous influence. Parents can often witness their child struggling, and parents can provide some guidance about how to deal with frustration.
A lot of time kids can struggle when we are not around. Kids will fail and struggle. In the manageable environment with organized sports, we can help them through competition. But it is important to help kids identify what kind of a winner they can be.
At the YMCA, our goal is to have kids develop character and learn new skills. We strive to teach them the YMCA core values. Our core values include respect, responsibility, honesty, caring, and faith. We always feel we have done our job if we can instill these values into the kids through their love of sport.
What do you see as trending challenges for any organized youth sports?
A lot of youth sports organizations inherently struggle. It is a complex population that we are dealing with. Superstars might be looking to accelerate beyond their lesser opponents, or some kids may only be playing because their buddy is playing. Some kids might be trying something new as their 3rd or 4th sport. As an organizer and director, you must cater to all those members of the playing population.
The challenge for us can be how to make our kids better without having them exhibit their competitive sides in a troubling way. We hope to provide enjoyment without the adversity that can sometimes come with competition. Our challenge is to provide a better sports program progressively with each passing season. We find it critically important to reach our goals for registration and retain the invaluable service of our volunteer coaches.
What are some successes and encouraging things going on in your respective organizations?
We are consistently pouring more resources into all levels of play. We are so fortunate to be able to accommodate more levels of staffing here at Fusion. The recreation soccer program is valued here at Fusion. The partnership with neighboring YMCAs and other leagues is incredible. We are thrilled to leverage our local relationships, even to the point of obtaining fields for underserved communities.
I would say that a win for us is seeing that our coaches really do have a passion for volunteering. The positivity inspires great leadership opportunities. We are certainly proud of our rebuilding process after the depths of the pandemic. It has been a huge success for us.
Please speak to the growth in recent years of youth sports, and what you attribute that to.
You must analyze, of course, from perspectives that are “pre-COVID” and “post-COVID.” Registration has accelerated in recent months. As we started to emerge from quarantine and lockdowns, we saw that last fall was a record breaker, and then the spring of 2022 was even better, and we will break records coming up in the fall of this year.
I think youth sports have grown for us exponentially. The variety of offerings is the key. We now offer lacrosse and field hockey—new sports you didn’t have five years ago at our facility. We have even recently gotten into baseball here at Jerry Long. There are a variety of clinics as well for fundamental training.
What are your deepest concerns about parents’ involvement in their child’s participation in youth sports?
The hot topic unfortunately is umpires—referees being berated. Listen. The kids are pouring their heart into it, so you pour your heart in. It is not an easy thing for any parent just to sit idly by during competition. It is not so easy just to say, ‘Oh, those parents, it’s just a soccer game.’ I will say we have adopted a zero-tolerance policy for abuse of officials. It’s a deep emotional and financial investment for parents, but we need to follow suit and crack down on the confrontational element.
There will always be someone whose expectations were not met or who is not happy with the result of a game or the organization of a league. A common concern involves parents who want their child to be on a specific team, and we may not be able to accommodate that request, given our desire to make teams balanced. But I will say that most parents are flexible.