The importance of youth-sports programs

By Hayden Sowers/Special to

As our society becomes more sedentary, more of our young people are wasting their days by coming home from school and playing Xbox or surfing the web.
After-school sports programs offer an alternative to this waste of time. Local sports programs play an important role in the community as well as with all individuals who participate.
Participation in sports not only aids physical and mental maturation, but it also has numerous positive effects later in life. It is very important that youth get involved in the programs that result from the hard work of many people in our community.
Whether it is Tupelo Parks and Recreation Department, the Boys and Girls Club, or the Oxford Park Commission, the North Mississippi area is blessed with some excellent youth sports programs.
Not only does participation in these programs offer excitement and fun, it also offers numerous physical and emotional benefits. The physical activity that results from participating in sports has been found to build healthy bones and muscle, reduce the risk of chronic disease, and reduce the chance of being overweight.
Today 17.1 percent of children from the ages of 2 to 19 are reported to be overweight, and Mississippi is reported to be the “fattest” state in America.
Participation in youth sports has also been linked to development of inter-personal skills such as making knew friends, enhancing social skills, and gaining confidence in being able to relate to peers. Research also shows that kids who participate in sports have reduced feelings of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness.
Ole Miss Rebel head baseball coach Mike Bianco says, “There are so many lessons that kids learn through athletics, they are countless. Some of those lessons are teamwork, how to handle adversity, as well as how to handle success.”
Both the Oxford Parks Commission (OPC) and Tupelo Parks and Recreation Department offer many sports opportunities for youth.
The motto of the OPC sums up well what recreational sports is about, “Just have fun!” OPC offers soccer, flag football, baseball, girl’s softball, and basketball while Tupelo offers those in addition to tennis, softball, and aquatics. Haley Walker, a junior on the Tupelo High School soccer team, says, “I really enjoyed playing park and rec soccer. I got to play with a lot of my friends and it was more about having fun than all about winning.” Bianco says, “The Parks Commission we have here in Oxford is one of the best that I have seen. They just built a beautiful new baseball facility and that along with Tupelo are two of the best that I have seen.” Bianco has four boys who participate in more than one sport offered by the OPC. “I think it is important for kids to play as many sports as possible. I coach my boys’ flag football teams in the fall and I just think that it is very important for them to have as many opportunities as possible to succeed and find something they like doing,” Bianco says.
Another advantage of youth recreation programs is that they offer the opportunity for anyone and everyone to play. Many cities, including Tupelo and Oxford, have travel baseball teams, and many of those teams play 50-60 games a summer. A child may love playing baseball but not have an interest in the dedication required to sacrifice that many weekends in spring and summer. A recreational league offers competitive participation while only playing 15-20 games. Also, a child that doesn’t have the necessary skill level to make the travel team can play recreation ball where all children play regardless of ability. Bianco likes the aspect of everyone getting an opportunity to play. “ I think it is important for a kid who doesn’t necessarily have a lot of skill to feel that he is part of a team, and know that not everyone can be the star, but every member of that team is important.” Participation at the recreational level may be a better fit for children who simply want to have fun and be part of a team while not having such emphasis placed on winning. “So much emphasis is being placed on winning these days, but you’re not going to win all the time. It is about putting forth the effort to compete and learning to have fun at the same time,” Bianco says.
In Oxford, members of the Ole Miss Men’s Basketball team volunteer with the local Boys and Girls Club where sports is part of their program.
Assistant Coach Michael White says, “Our athletes volunteer and go to the Boys and Girls Club in town and spend time with those kids and they develop relationships with them. We also invite the members of the club over to a game every year.” The presence of college athletes allows the young members of the Boys and Girls Club the opportunity to see what an important role sports could potentially play in their future and education.
Tupelo Parks and Recreation offers a very well-run basketball league for both boys and girls ages 6-14. Mike Sowers, who racked up many recreation league basketball victories while coaching his three children says, “The basketball program they have going right now is exceptional. Suzanne McCormick, one of the Sports Directors’ for Tupelo Parks and Recreation, does a very good job of organizing the league and reaching out so that everyone in the community has an opportunity to play.”
I played in the league and I can say that I looked forward to my Park and Rec games every week, and they helped me keep my grades up and behave. The experiences I got from playing recreational ball are countless. I made many great friends with whom I am still close, played enjoyable and competitive basketball, and learned many lessons of teamwork from my coach.
Just being involved in basketball at the young age of six really helped me realize that basketball was my true passion. Reed Clayton, a member of the Tupelo High School basketball team, played with me on many teams and he had this to say about our experiences, “I met Hayden when we were on the same Park and Rec soccer team. We played soccer, baseball, and basketball together and I am very grateful that we were on the same team because we remain very close today.” Reed and I were very fortunate to have my father coach many of my teams through the years. He was the type of coach that was able to keep a healthy perspective. He was a great influence on all team members making sure that all players and parents knew that the main reason we played was to have fun. Fun is an essential component to a well-run successful recreation league. Bianco sums it up bluntly by saying, “There are way more important things in life than winning the league championship when we are 8 or 9 years old.”

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