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.Continued...