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Leadership in Youth Sports: Revisioning Organizational Sport Strategy


Over the course of the next few months, leadership in youth sports will be highlighted from the perspective of various levels. Those familiar with youth sports will understand leadership in youth sports comes in many levels; organizational-wide youth sports philosophy, staff leadership and volunteers. While staff leadership and volunteers are critical components of the organizational-wide youth sports philosophy, this article serves as the starting point to consider – or reconsider – your strategy.

Prior to the onset of COVID-19, many organizations were revisioning their youth sports program, and since the onset of COVID-19, these conversations have been amplified throughout the industry. I have sat in many rooms where industry professionals are questioning their space in the market, their effectiveness in the market and even their desire to remain in the market.

As COVID-19 forced many organizations to alter sports programs, the question remains: What innovations to sports during COVID-19 will remain permanent after the pandemic?

If you are involved in youth sports right now, then you most likely understand now is the time to disrupt traditional models of sport. The effects of the pandemic provide us with grace as we navigate new, unchartered territories. This disruption comes in many forms. Some organizations are heavily investing in esports. Some sport organizations have decided to limit their sport offerings or age groups, while other organizations have broadened their offerings to include private training options, including online options.

Learn More: Adopting an Esports Strategy in Community Recreation

Perhaps the most important consideration for youth sports in a pandemic – and post-pandemic world – are the development outcomes associated with participation in youth sports. As organizations that serve youth holistically, this should be a critical component of your organizational-wide youth sports philosophy.

Research has demonstrated sport programs that teach life skills intentionally and systemically can enhance the health and well-being of youth. Many programs insert small elements to encourage positive youth development outcomes such as a pre-game pledge, but programs rarely incorporate a comprehensive approach to youth development.

Many models have identified the necessary life skills that represent the psychological skills necessary for optimal functioning in adolescence and into adulthood. The World Health Organization notes five areas of life skills:

  • Decision-making and problem-solving.
  • Creative thinking and critical thinking.
  • Communication and interpersonal skills.
  • Self-awareness and empathy.
  • Coping with emotions and coping with stress.

The 6 C model includes the life-skills of competence, confidence, connection, character, caring and contribution. Leadership is another identified key life skill that can be developed through sport participation.

Youth serving organizations should begin this process by understanding the life skills they wish to foster within their programs. For organizations that offer more than youth sports, approaching this exercise with the entirety of youth programs in mind may be helpful. This allows for each program to build off one another.

Learn More: Making Youth Sports Stand Out

Once an organization agrees on the desired life skill program outcomes, they can develop their approach or lean on a curriculum already established such as the Sports United to Promote Education and Recreation (SUPER) curriculum or the Going for the Goal (GOAL) program. Most likely this process will function as a cycle: identify, implement and evaluate.

I will conclude with several questions for leadership to ponder as you rethink your organizational sport strategy:

  1. Are the innovations being made in your sports program part of a long-term strategy or are they being made as singular decisions that suit the moment?
  2. Have you reviewed your sports strategy through the diversity, equity and inclusion lens? Are your programs welcoming and accessible?
  3. What are the tangible youth development outcomes you wish to foster within your programs?
  4. What intentional elements are incorporated in your sport programs to encourage youth development and how do you measure the success of these elements?
Sarah Grai

Sarah Grai serves as the director at One Family Memphis, the umbrella organization for Memphis Rox and Mountaintop Media. Previously, Sarah served in various leadership capacities in four different YMCA associations. Sarah is recognized as a leader in brand experiences and philanthropy, and is a current doctoral candidate studying Organizational Leadership at Southeastern University.

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