When parents sign their children up with i9 Sports, they notice that it’s missing a lot of things one might expect in a youth sports league.
There’s no ultra-competitive atmosphere, no tryouts, and no fighting for playing time. There are no crazy practice schedules, either — it’s just one day a week, prior to the actual game.
There are changes for the adults as well, such as no mandatory volunteer hours and a lack of incessant fundraisers.
In fact, a lot of the things that can take the fun out of youth sports has purposely been eliminated. What i9 offers (and what’s missing) is part of the reason the Tampa-based organization, now celebrating its 10th year, has grown to more than a half-million participants across 26 states — including through Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
“In most other youth sport programs, they’re really adult sports played by kids,” said Brian Sanders, president and chief operating officer of i9 Sports. “And research study after study has shown that kids want to have fun. That’s the reason they play sports.”
Many recreational leagues have become a lot of work, especially for parents. The idea behind i9 was to bring it back to the children themselves.
“So we’ve tried to reinvent youth sports and take it back to where people wanted the programs to be to begin with,” Sanders said. That means an emphasis on learning fundamentals and good sportsmanship instead of simply winning, and a focus on having fun instead of the stress associated with having their on-field performance critiqued and evaluated.
Teams are co-ed and the leagues try to accommodate children who already are friends so they can play on the same team. But every child, regardless of ability, gets equal playing time and participation recognition.
Special awards are given out, but they’re not based on athletic ability. Instead, teams focus on one aspect of leadership and good play each week, and the child who best demonstrates those traits earns a sportsmanship medal. The end result is what Sanders calls healthy and age-appropriate competition, and an atmosphere where kids truly enjoy playing.
That includes Lorraine Gallo’s son, Anthony, who she admits didn’t enter i9 sports as an enthusiastic athlete.
“He was an Xbox boy,” Gallo explained. But after starting out on a soccer team, he’s added flag football to his sports schedule and has learned the value of making new friends and being part of a team. Now he’s anxious to get back on the field during season breaks, and has even joined his middle school’s football team.
Gallo herself appreciates the fact that, as a parent, she isn’t spending time manning a concession booth or selling chocolate, which can be a normal part of the youth sports experience for adults. Instead, she sits in the stands and watches him play, along with other parents from both teams who are all there to lend support in a positive environment.
Since all parents sign a “parental pledge” affirming their commitment to a fun, nonstressful atmosphere for the children, Gallo doesn’t have to worry about over-competitive parents who yell at the players, badger referees about missed calls and diminish the experience for the rest of the team and the families. Instead, everyone can cheer on their children and enjoy the experience.
But the biggest change has come from Anthony, and Gallo said what he’s learned has made the experience very worthwhile for her family.
“He’s learned patience, he’s learned teamwork. He’s learned sportsmanship. He’s a totally different child,” she said.
Sanders will try to reach more children in that same way as the organization continues to grow. i9 operates by selling franchises in various areas, and all follow the basic concepts of minimal commitment needed to participate.
i9 plans to accelerate its expansion goals and highlight the differences between them and other youth sports offerings Sanders said.
“Our program format is working well. There’s no one else that is doing what we’re doing right now, and we believe there’s a huge need for what we provide,” he said. “You can sum up what we offer as fun, safety and convenience, and it’s something that both parents and the kids are really finding is different versus the other programs.”
For more information about i9Sports, visit www.i9sports.com.
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