Solutions to Today’s Youth Sports Challenges

The Promise of Good Sports, a Sugar Land, Texas-based non-profit youth sports organization, has been working with school and youth sports organizations from across the nation preparing them to administer the PGS Team Enhancement Program. A leader from each participating school or youth sports organization is provided with an opportunity to be trained and certified by the staff of The Promise for Good Sports Academy to administer the program to their sports teams.

The Promise of Good Sports Team
Promise of Good Sports Team
From left to right, George Selleck, John Kessel, David Epperson, Paul Arrington, Lily Richardson

At the beginning of each season athletes, coaches and parents are equipped for their respective roles in developing mutually supportive team communities where good sportsmanship prevails.

Below is an interview with Dr. David C. Epperson, president of PGS and the architect of this approach that describes the solutions being offered school and youth sports organizations. The program has been administered by PGS from coast to coast for the past several years in schools and youth sports clubs. Currently PGS is under contract for five years with Fairfax County, Virginia to train in-house leaders to administer the program to 141 sports organizations that serve over 220,000 athletes.

Both Dr. Epperson, and the co-founder of PGS, Dr. George A. Selleck, have been recognized by the Institute for International Sport as two of the America’s 100 most influential sports educators. The honorees include John Wooden, Eunice Shriver, Joe Paterno, Phil Jackson, Billie Jean King, Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Russell, Cal Ripken, Jr. and other high profile figures in the world of sports education. PGS has assembled a group of highly qualified youth sports experts to assist them in administering the program, including Dr. Paul Arrington and John Kessel, both of whom have pioneered innovative solutions to today’s youth sports challenges throughout their long and illustrious careers. And a recent team member is Lily Richardson, a corporate president, youth sports activist, coach and sports mom.

Q. Dr. Epperson, what is the Promise of Good Sports program that you have been administering throughout the nation, designed to accomplish?
A. Our program has been designed to prevent ugly behavior that all too often spoils the sports experiences of athletes, coaches and parents. It has been constructed to get athletes, coaches, and parents on the same page so that they can work together to create sports experiences free from intrusive behavior that is far too prevalent in today’s youth sports communities.

Q. What are the distinguishing characteristics of this program?
A. First of all, let me tell you what our program does NOT do. We do not engage in preaching good sports. We have learned that preaching does not work. Instead, our program provides opportunities for athletes, coaches and parents to work together to reach agreements as to how they are going to enjoy the best possible experiences throughout their season. Preaching good sportsmanship too often creates distance and strain in relationships between coaches, who become the messengers of the principles of good sportsmanship, and athletes and their parents. We believe that we have hit upon a formula that is able to ward off outof- control behavior by athletes, coaches and parents by getting them to come to an understanding as to how they can best support one another in achieving their team’s goals.

Q. What is your long-term goal?
A. We would like to see school and youth sports leaders take bold initiatives to change the culture of sport so that it is able to realize its full potential for enriching the lives of everyone involved, athletes, coaches and parents.

Q. How can sport enrich the lives of “everyone involved?”
A. We have learned that sport can inspire, empower and unify athletes, coaches and parents when they are provided opportunities to work together to achieve shared ends.

Q. In what ways can youth sports “inspire, empower and unify?”
A. Sports programs where everyone is on the same page can energize athletes, coaches and parents to seek out the full range of benefits of being members of a sport team. It can empower them by helping them develop the skills needed to experience the joy of mastering the tasks they have assumed in their team communities. Sport can contribute to developing mutually supportive relationships within a team. Youth sports programs have the potential of strengthening relationships between athletes and their parents, an outcome we believe is a major asset of our program. When parents have developed the skills required to support their children in sports we are convinced there will be a reduction in problems in the youth culture that have become epidemic, the generation gap, drug, tobacco, alcohol and steroid abuse, delinquency, premature sex etc.

Q. How can these objectives be achieved in the present climate of sport, where athletes, coaches and parents witness highly contentious behavior in the college and professionals ranks, with coaches prancing up and down the sidelines browbeating their athletes and trying to intimidate the officials; athletes strutting around the field and taunting one another; and out-of-control fans always ready to harass athletes, coaches and game officials when they fail to live up to their expectations?
A. You have put your finger on one of the major challenges that sports reformers face as they attempt to promote good sportsmanship in youth sports.

Q. How does your program address the problem of athletes, coaches and parents modeling their behavior after what is occurring at the college and professional levels?
A. We address this problem head on. One of the features of our curriculum for the Team Enhancement Program is an exercise that challenges athletes, coaches and parents to identify those features of what we like to call “The Entertainment Sports Industry” that is corrupting youth sports. When the participants have identified those features of college and professional sports that are having a negative impact on youth sports we challenge them to develop the means for reducing their influence on their lives in sports. Then we invite the teams to reach agreements about how they plan to work together to limit these toxic influences.

Q. Are there other things your program does to discourage athletes, coaches and parents from modeling their behavior after college and professional sports?
A. Yes, one of the first things we do is to invite everyone to identify those actions they can take to create the type of mutual support that is necessary for providing a unified front in opposing the kind of contentiousness that is found in the entertainment sports community. During a preseason orientation session we provide athletes, coaches and parents with opportunities to reach agreements as to how they will support one another throughout the season as they attempt to create a positive team climate free from contentious behavior.

Q. Anything else?
A. For sure. We have constructed activities that cause athletes, coaches and parents to identify those factors that lead to the inevitable frustration they face in their respective roles. We help them appreciate that these frustrations often result from the sense of powerlessness they experience because corrective action is out of their control. In athletes this powerless can result from their own failures or those of their teammates to execute their skills successfully. With coaches it can result from their inability to have influence over what is happening on the playing field. And with parents their sense of powerlessness can come from being unable to impact their children’s actions on the playing field. These frustrations too often lead to expressions of anger that introduce elements to the sports experience that limit enjoyment and other benefits. Helping everyone identify those experiences that trigger inappropriate behavior and having them reach agreements about how to plan to limit these outbursts typically reduces expressions of frustration and anger.

Q. Let me see if I’ve got this right. By helping athletes, coaches and parents better understand the sources of the behaviors that interfere with sport’s ability to inspire, empower and unify will help reduce the types of toxic conduct we are observing in youth sports today.
A. Yes, that represents an essential feature of our program. But remember, following the raising of their consciousness about these various sources of influence on their behavior we challenge them to come up with AGREEMENTS about how they can reduce the influence of these factors on life in their team community. Furthermore, we provide them with opportunities to select activities that parent volunteers can administer during the season that have the potential of contributing to developing the unity required to resist these influences.

Q. Why have you chosen to work with athletes, coaches and parents all at once rather than offering workshops for each separate group?
A. If one wants to change the standards of conduct in a team community it is best established in a setting in which everyone is able to get on the same page. Furthermore, we have discovered that athletes become very effective educators of coaches and parents, by being provided with a safe and effective environment in which to share their concerns about how the behavior of coaches and parents often diminishes their enthusiasm for their lives in sports.

Q. Traditionally, parents have not been considered full-fledged members of team communities. Coaches typically like keeping parents at a distance. Does it cause problems when parents are brought into the mix?
A. You have hit upon a very sensitive point for coaches. Far too often youth coaches have suffered from attacks from frustrated parents and therefore have tended to keep them at arms length. We have found through the procedures we follow that coaches learn very soon that by treating parents as citizens or partners rather than clients or customers in their team communities that they actually are better able to limit intrusions by parents onto their legitimate turf. Furthermore, coaches quickly learn that parents can become assets in team communities by assuming responsibilities for the smooth running of the team, relieving the coaches of administrative and team-building responsibilities so that they can focus their attention on teaching and coaching.

Q. Correct me if I am wrong, but as I understand it you and your staff do not work directly with the athletes, coaches and parents but instead you train leaders from each of the youth sports organizations to prepare teams to make use of your team enhancement techniques.
A. Yes, that is correct. We do not want this to be a one shot effort. We know from our experience that unless there are in-house team enhancement experts available to the sports organization there is little likelihood that the program will become a regular feature of their offerings.

Q. Up to this point you have given me a “nuts and bolts” description of how your program is administered. Can you provide me with a better understanding of what’s “under the hood” so to speak, that justifies using this approach over, say, issuing “zero tolerance policies” and strictly enforcing them.
A. Well, first of all “zero tolerance policies” have several limitations. They do not address the underlying sources of the conduct that we want to change. Also, zero tolerance policies are a totally negative approach, announcing to athletes and parents that “If you do not follow the rules you will be punished.” Our approach focuses instead upon positive actions athletes, coaches and parents can take to create a team climate that promotes good sports. In addition, when rules come from “on high” two problems are created. The participants do not assume ownership for the rules. Also when coaches issue rules a gap is often created between them and the athletes and their parents. Our approach avoids these limitations. Furthermore, the bottom line is that zero tolerance policies simply do not work. We feel that they do more harm than good.

Q. It sounds to me like you are making an effort to change the culture of youth sports. Am I hearing you right?
A. You might say that. We feel that youth sports as currently practiced are only beginning to scratch the surface of what they could become. Furthermore, we are very sensitive to the casualties of the current system. Far too many children and coaches leave sports because they no longer enjoy their experiences. We are convinced that this does not have to be the case.

Q. I am beginning to get a sense of your vision for youth sports. Could you provide me with a more complete description of what constitutes an ideal sports program?
A. Underlying our approach to finding solutions to the youth sports challenges of the day is a vision of good sports where “athletes, coaches and parents are deeply involved in what they are doing, closely connected to those with whom they are doing it in ways that allow them to experience the satisfaction that accompanies mastering the skills required to become a significant contributor to life in their team community.”

Q. Give me an example of how you feel your program helps members of their team communities “become deeply involved in what they are doing.”
A. We believe that by reducing those disruptive acts I alluded to earlier that grow out of frustration, a sense of powerlessness and anger will create the conditions for athletes, coaches and parents to totally immerse themselves in their sports experiences. By helping them better understand the sources of the things that interfere with becoming deeply involved will allow them to bring them under control.

Q. How do you help them become “closely connected?”
A. By providing athletes, coaches and parents with opportunities to work together to create a mutually supportive team climate throughout the entire season we are contributing to developing the closeness that is essential for success and satisfaction.

Q. How does all of this relate to the enhancement of mastery of those skills needed to effectively play their respective roles?
A. When members of a team community are free from interference from toxic behavior and feel supported by their sports mates they are better able to invest in becoming contributing members of the team.

Q. But how does this relate to winning, which we all know is the tail that is wagging the dog of sports at all levels?
A. It is widely recognized that team chemistry is essential for the effective performance of athletes. Our program enhances team chemistry, which is essential for promoting peak performance. Few people would disagree with that conclusion, would they?

Q. You’re right. It seem as though your program aspires to create what could be called “Dream Teams” that everyone would eagerly support. What is your vision of an ideal team community?
A. I firmly believe that most everyone in sports would embrace our vision of an ideal team. “Dream Teams” exist when parents, athletes and coaches agree to support one another; where a non-contentious climate is created; team interests take precedence over individual interests; everyone becomes deeply involved in what they are doing; teaching and learning opportunities abound; innovative ways of approaching sport prevail; and initiatives are taken to transform the culture of youth sports. To realize this vision requires a joint effort on the part of athletes, coaches and parents.

Q. Well, if, as you say, most everyone would embrace your ambitious vision of establishing Dream Teams, why hasn’t your vision of good sports become the guiding image for the re-formation of youth sports?
A. Good question. We attribute the failure of youth sport to achieve this universally embraced vision to the fact that athletes, coaches and parents are not provided with opportunities to systematically reflect on how they can make the most of their time together. Clearly there are many, many factors that promote the status quo and deny athletes, coaches and parents the opportunities they deserve. However, we are convinced that a very promising way to free sport from being dominated by the culture of “Entertainment Sports” (that places such a premium on achieving only one of the many outcomes of sport, that is winning), is to establish procedures that allow members of team communities to work together to develop strategies to oppose toxic influences and to create a team climate that opens up opportunities to realize sports possibilities.

Q. It seems that you are aspiring to get athletes, coaches and parents to change their “mindset,” that is, to quit thinking about sport in limiting ways. Can that goal be achieved by anything short of long-term psychotherapy?
A. You are absolutely correct in concluding that to make shifts in ones mindset requires a significant investment. And you are right to conclude that for some people it would indeed require them to invest in the exploration of the deep-seated motives that drive their behavior.

Q. If that is the case how do you expect to make an impact on team communities with your modest intervention?
A. Changing a person’s mindset is accelerated by residing in a social setting where most everyone is making an effort to make a change, witness the way self-help groups work. These groups, like PGS. invest in creating a mutually supportive climate. By making an effort to build team unity, like self-help groups, we are taking the first step toward supporting the development of a more expansive mindset that allows athletes, coaches and parents to gradually change their values; their breath of vision that allows them to appreciate a wider range of experiences on the sports scene; their efforts to satisfy their motives; and the images they use to organize their thinking about their sports experiences.

Q. Wow, that seems like a pretty big order. How can you expect to make much progress toward achieving those goals with such a modest intervention?
A. You are right on target to conclude that it is indeed a big order. We are very much aware that we will be limited in how much of a shift in mindset we can achieve through our Team Enhancement Program. However, we feel very confident that we can begin the process of reassessing traditional ways of viewing sport among the participants in our program.

Q. What makes you think you can start the ball rolling?
A. First of all, we firmly believe that nearly all sports participants appreciate, at some level, that the current approach to youth sports falls short of what it could become, but they have not been given permission to move out of their comfort zone in thinking about sport. We are convinced that our program nudges athletes, coaches and parents toward considering alternatives to their usual approach to sport. By inviting them to brainstorm alternative ways of approaching sports we believe that a collective wisdom will be revealed in each group that will urge them to move off dead center. They will be challenged to reconsider the centrality they have placed on winning. They will begin to consider a wider range of features of the sports scene that can provide them with satisfaction. They will discover that they are able to satisfy more of their needs if they approach sport differently. And they will develop new images and language that will allow them to reorder their thinking about their sports experiences.

Q. Can you really do that in the short time you have with these teams?
A. I think we are realistic about the prospects of making major changes in the mindsets of the participants in the program. Clearly, shifts in mindset require time and effort. However, we feel that this process of reassessment has to begin somewhere. That is why we are equipping the leaders of sports organizations, not only with the nuts and bolts of administering the Team Enhancement Program, but also with the tools they will need to take this process to the next level. We will have several full days with these representatives from the youth sports organizations during which time we feel we can inspire and equip them to build upon this program in ways that begin to reshape their organization’s sports culture. In short, we are very optimistic that we can become a catalyst for change.

Q. How long is this going to take to really make a difference in the culture of youth sports in those school and youth sports organizations that chose to adopt the PGS team-building program?
A. The process of transforming the culture of youth sports writ large will require many initiatives like our own that are energized by leaders working tirelessly for many years to bring about sweeping changes. In the case of those organizations that are currently using our Team Enhancement Program the expectation is that each year they will be able to make significant inroads, especially when they follow up team-building initiatives with companion educational activities. I would like to claim that we have discovered a silver bullet that will immediately transform relationships among athletes, coaches and parents. Unfortunately there are no shortcuts to changing the culture of sports communities. Success requires an ongoing effort by school and club leaders to battle toxic influences from the Entertainment Sports Industry, that is, college, Olympic and professional sports.

Q. How will you know whether you have indeed made a difference?
A. Built in to this program is an ongoing evaluation process that gives teams feedback on how successful they are in reaching their stated goals. Responses to inventories and interviews are made available to each team’s leaders. This will allow them to make adaptations in their approach along the way as needed.

Q. From testing the program what have you learned?
A. To date we have self-report data from teams that have followed our formula that indicates that the athletes, coaches and parents from those teams that refuse to take shortcuts and carefully adhere to our program guidelines overwhelmingly indicate that the program has increased their enjoyment of their sports experiences.

Q. Do you have any closing comments you would like to make?
A. The experienced youth sports experts we have assembled to administer this training expect their efforts to inspire sports organizations to craft innovative solutions to today’s youth sports challenges. We expect the youth sports organizations with which we are working to become national exemplars in their respective sports and in their regions of the nation. We feel confident that they can lead the way in transforming the culture of youth sports so that it opens up rich opportunities for everyone involved, athletes, coaches and parents.

Q. Thank you Dr. Epperson.