Jennifer arrived at Northdale Recreation Center this summer full of the kind of energy that led her to get into trouble.
Counselors, however, found a solution thanks to the Positive Coaching Alliance. They literally dug deep and addressed the problem at its "ROOTS," the acronym representing a curriculum to help create a healthier outlook in kids. They nurtured a new Jennifer, one who matured before their very eyes.
"She put more effort into learning from her mistakes," said Zuleika Smith, a Rec II Leader at Northdale Rec Center. "In effect, she went from getting into trouble every day to the coaches almost not realizing she was present.
"She didn't even get into small trouble."
The story reflects the attitude more than 1,000 students will take back to school today after a summer of learning the Positive Coaching Alliance principles through a partnership with the Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department. The collaborative effort helped students at six different centers: Keystone, Northdale, Country Place, Jackson Springs, Emmanuel P. Johnson and Gardenville.
At its best, sports helps young people learn life lessons that will carry them through college and into the professional world. Critics often perceive an over-emphasis on winning as a root evil in sports, but the alliance pushes the positive intangibles while never failing to overlook that life is indeed about winning and losing and how you handle each outcome.
ROOTS urges kids to have respect for Rules, Opponents, Officials, Teammates, Self. It's a fancy acronym but it yielded solid results. The counselors devoted each week to a different letter, reviewing the key facts on Fridays.
Each day, counselors might remind the kids, "Hey, didn't we talk about respecting the rules, didn't we talk about respecting others."
Perhaps the emphasis on "self" resonated the most for a child named "M.J."
"I saw him not only apply the lessons such as more effort, respect, and learning from your mistakes," said Karlie Minter, a Rec I leader at Northdale. "I saw him apply it to other children in his group. If a mistake was made, he was the first child to let them know that it was okay. If he saw a child that he knew had a little bit more of them, he was always cheering them on to try harder."
It all may seem a bit too lofty for kids between the ages of 8 and 14, or perhaps too warm and fuzzy. But I think adults underestimate the care kids can apply to principles.
"I've got three children of my own," said Mark Sakalosky, executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance in Tampa Bay. "I think I can reflect on a number of personal experiences and intentional conversations they've learned from.
"I'm amazed at what my children have learned through different events. Children are always learning something, always taking something in. As parents, we're always teaching them something, whether we mean to or not."
Counselors at the centers embraced the alliance's structured format. Having a system in place across the county enabled them to compare notes, swap ideas and craft a plan on what works best.
"It was so nice to work with them," said Mason Cathey, the alliance's Tampa Bay community impact manager, who saw the kids cap off the summer by attending a Tampa Bay Rays game on Aug. 2.
Now, with the help of additional sponsors and funding, the alliance will look to extend its summer engagement into the county's after-school programs, hopeful of getting the same results.
The ROOTS effort represents its broader mission to "bring the power of positive" to youth sports.
The Positive Coaching Alliance also has character and leadership programs for high school athletes in Hillsborough, Pasco and Manatee Counties, touching more than 2,000 students.
And it holds training sessions for parents and coaches. In fact, every Hillsborough County high school coach who receives a stipend is required to undergo a training session through the alliance.
The seminars help both coaches and parents understand that with the wrong guidance, a child can end up like those in a survey that indicated 70 percent of kids quit all sports by the time they turn 13 — often because adults take the fun out of the game.
"That's a real disheartening fact because it really deprives them of that opportunity to learn those life lessons," said Sakalosky, the executive director. "We all have to recognize only 2 percent of high school athletes go on to play on the collegiate level. An even smaller percentage play professionally.
"If we're judging ourselves on the number of kids who go on to play collegiately, we're failing miserably. So, we have to ask, 'What are we really doing here?' There has to be a higher purpose."
Sakalosky, a former cable television executive and father of three, watches how sports participation affects his children. The former high school baseball player knows there's so much more to be gleaned from sports.
Like Sakalosky, I've seen athletics help my own children mature and thrive in other arenas. They may not have been the best athletes on the team — they do have the genetic disadvantage of being my kids — but I've witnessed lessons about leadership, respect, teamwork and diligence arise from their involvement.
When you marry sports participation with thoughtful guidance, you can never underestimate what can take root.
That's all I'm saying.