At the Forefront of Fun

Up-and-Coming Sports to Expand Your Offerings

By Jessica Royer Ocken

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hether it's all those "staycations" we've been taking or the oft-repeated message that we need to get healthier, something is calling Americans out to play. The 2009 Sports & Fitness Participation Report from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) indicates that across the country, people are hitting the gym or the links or the pool or the court or the trail in increasing numbers.

And with so many people playing—kids and adults alike—the range of games and pastimes being pursued has expanded. But you can keep current on the fun without constructing an entire new facility. Many of these newfangled (or at least new to your community) activities can be played using the fields and courts and trails and pool you already have.

Not sure you need to add anything to your agenda? Consider this: Expanding your program offerings beyond the basics can help you tap untouched segments of your community and bring new patrons through your doors. Introducing emerging sports, many of which have things in common with the programs you already offer, can provide a natural next step for kids or adults seeking a fresh challenge. You'll keep them coming back, rather than watch them drift away.

The real question is determining what to add. Do you live in a town aching to play ultimate or ready to step up to the cricket wicket? Are there cyclists or lacrosse players in them there hills? As always, the members of your community are your best source for inspiration (ask them what they'd like!), but below you'll find some further details from the SGMA report and a look at some of the offbeat endeavors catching on around the nation. And don't worry, although these activities may be new to you, they've already established a following, which means there are resources available and experts you can call on, or perhaps even partner with. Read on!

Ultimate Frisbee

What is it? Those in the know refer to this sport simply as "ultimate," and according to the SGMA, participation in this fast-moving, running and passing game for seven-player teams was up more than 20 percent in 2008. Ultimate combines elements of soccer and football, but trades a ball for a plastic disc. Play is governed by the players themselves, not referees, and breaking the rules as a strategic move is frowned upon. This code is known as the "Spirit of the Game," and if the two teams can't agree, the most common result is a do-over of the play in question.

Who will love it? Ultimate is usually played outdoors and is enjoyed by both adults (men and women) and kids. Soccer players may be good candidates to make the transition to ultimate—and they can use their cleats! Many co-ed adult leagues, particularly those just getting started, are "hat" leagues, which allow individuals to register rather than requiring a team to join together, so playing ultimate can be a great way to meet new people and mingle…while sweating quite a bit. The hat league approach works for youth players as well, and ultimate can be a great game for kids because of what it teaches about problem-solving and sportsmanship through the Spirit of the Game, noted William Bartram, executive director of DiscNW, a non-profit ultimate organization in Seattle.

Essentials for getting started? A regulation ultimate field is 40 yards wide and 120 yards long, but with a bit of modification (and by marking the boundaries with cones, rather than permanent lines), two ultimate games can be played simultaneously on a soccer field, Bartram said. Sometimes an ultimate field will fit in the outfield of a larger softball field, and a football field also works, although it's usually only wide enough for one ultimate field. Basically, the essentials are "a good section of grass, eight cones, flying discs (Frisbees) and people, who preferably are wearing cleats," Bartram said.

Story of success: Ultimate has been happening in the Puget Sound area for more than 25 years, but it became much more organized when DiscNW was founded as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 1996, Bartram explained. Today DiscNW offers leagues in all seasons of the year and for elementary school students through adults, to the tune of more than 6,000 players in 2008.

Most participants live in the greater Seattle metropolitan area, but some come from as far as Tacoma, about an hour to the south. "The Internet is our most viable communication tool," Bartram said. "Most players find us online or via word-of-mouth."

Although they've received some coverage from local and national media, this is not what brings in new players, Bartram reported. Instead, "we are starting to do more outreach to schools to attract youth players." DiscNW has contacted school principals and athletic directors and has also attended American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD) conferences to present the sport to PE teachers.

Although finding spots to practice and play can be a struggle for adult teams, many of the youth teams use schools or neighborhood parks, and DiscNW works on behalf of their teams to rent space from Seattle or other area municipal parks. "We usually mark our fields with cones—no painted lines—in order to be able to use whatever space is available," Bartram said. However, in a recent coup, "at Magnuson Park in Seattle, we did successfully partner with King County and the City of Seattle to get permanent lines for ultimate on three new synthetic turf fields."

If you think ultimate might be a hit in your area, "I'd recommend working with local ultimate organizations to determine what needs are being met, and where it would be best for parks and recreation to step in," Bartram said. "Maybe they can introduce a disc skills segment into an existing all-sports camp. If there are already a small handful of kids or adults who play, then maybe a drop-in pickup game would be good."

Resources? Visit www.discnw.org to learn more about DiscNW's leagues and how they've organized themselves, and visit the Ultimate Players Association Web site at upa.org for information on just about any ultimate topic you can think of—from rules to field setup to stats on UPA membership and ultimate participation to resources and grants available for developing the sport in your area.

Field Hockey

What is it? Field hockey is "a fast attacking game" with 11 players on a team when played outdoors and six players per team when played indoors, said Jun Kentwell, coach of the WC Eagles, a competitive youth field hockey club in Spring City, Penn. Each player has a stick that is flat on one side and curved on the other (only the flat side may be used to hit the ball), which is used to dribble a solid plastic ball, slightly larger than a baseball, down the field to try to shoot a goal. Goals can only be scored when a shot is taken from within the striking circle, which is a semicircle extending 16 yards from the goal, according to the official USA Field Hockey rules. The SGMA report reveals that regular participation in field hockey was up 166.3 percent in 2008 over the previous year!

Who will love it? Although there are certainly those out there playing just for fun, field hockey players are largely a competitive bunch, in some cases with national team and Olympic aspirations on their mind. "The most popular area for women's field hockey is the northeast, particularly eastern and central Pennsylvania, and New Jersey," noted Jeff Gamza, director of media & communications for USA Field Hockey. "The majority of the Women's National Team is from Pennsylvania. There is a hotbed of men's field hockey activity near Los Angeles, California." So, if you're located in or near these areas, or if your city includes some transplants from these parts of the country, you may have a field hockey team forming before you know it.

"Field hockey is a major women's college sport, particularly on the East Coast, and as such these programs are fully funded and offer a full quota of scholarships," Kentwell noted. In each of the past two years the WC Eagles have sent 20 players to Division I colleges on field hockey scholarships, including Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest, William & Mary, Ohio University and Old Dominion. "Field hockey has opened doors for these young ladies and given them the opportunity to get an outstanding education," she added.

Essentials for getting started? Field hockey is played on a field the same size as an indoor or outdoor soccer field, Kentwell explained. Other key items include sticks and balls and goal cages, as well as a means of marking the striking circle and other boundaries.

Story of success: Jun Kentwell played for the China's national women's field hockey team for eight years, and then went on to coach and serve as an international umpire. She settled in Pennsylvania, and "four years ago I was asked to fill in and help at a local summer hockey camp," she said. "About a month later a parent called and asked if I could give her daughter private lessons. Within a couple of weeks there were four girls having private lessons."

By October Kentwell had assembled enough players for a team, which entered the U16 Division of the National Hockey Festival—and won their pool championship. "That was the start of the club, and we have subsequently won the U16 Pool at the National Hockey Festival for the last four years," she said.

The WC Eagles began with one team, but in four years has grown to have one U12, four U14, six U16 and six U19 teams. "Our goal is to develop young players' skills, tactical awareness, vision and psychological aspects [of the game] to prepare them to play Division I college field hockey," Kentwell explained. "While we are so proud of our teams' successes, they are a byproduct of the club's philosophy, which is to develop each player to be the best they can be; to take them out of their comfort zone; give them the courage to try new things; take their skills, awareness, vision and decision-making to a new level; and give them an understanding of what it takes to be a good player…. Our satisfaction comes from seeing each player developing and growing and on the path to becoming the best she can be."

Players as young as 8 years old (all girls except for three boys) travel as far as an hour and a half to train one evening a week with the WC Eagles. Kentwell said some players are referred to them by high school coaches, and others learn about the program from players' parents or become interested after seeing the Eagles in action at a tournament.

The WC Eagles are preparing to build a new facility of their own, which will include three full-sized indoor hockey courts and an outdoor turf field and allow them to expand their programming to include coaching for even younger players and some less-competitive league alternatives for middle school and high school students in partnership with local schools.

Resources? Check out the WC Eagles' Web site (www.wcfieldhockey.com) for more details about their amazing program and many, many national championship wins. "The USA Field Hockey Association offers starter kits to groups who would like to start programs," noted Kentwell. Visit them at www.usfieldhockey.com. Kentwell also suggests high school coaches as good potential resources for starting a field hockey program. And don't feel as if you'll have to challenge the WC Eagles right off the bat. "Purely recreational groups, such as local youth leagues and park district [leagues] are not USA Field Hockey members or affiliates," Kentwell explained. But players who learn the game and refine their skills in these programs may then move into the competitive club environment.

Cycling

What is it? Andrew Armstrong, a dedicated amateur competitive cyclist and founder/director of the Texas State High School Cycling League, describes cycling as "an individualized team sport." Groups of cyclists work together as they ride in road races to boost overall performance and support their strongest riders. "It is very similar in structure to other endurance sports in high school or college such as track and field, swimming or cross country," he said.

Who will love it? "People that like a physical, emotional and mental challenge are drawn to cycling," Armstrong said, "people who like to push themselves and push their limits." SGMA's report reveals bicycling to be one of the most popular outdoor sports, with 38.1 million participants in 2008, although not all of these were competitive participants. Bicycling is also ever-popular as a social and family activity. In fact, in this capacity, participation grew by more than 10 percent in 2008. And this means there are a wealth of people out there who own bikes and enjoy riding them. All that's left is for you to organize a program for them.

Essentials for getting started? "Not much," Armstrong said. After all, a cycling program is essentially a group of people going for bike rides. Someone just needs to step up and get things organized—scout out some local paved trails or secondary roads safe for riding, schedule times to practice. It's likely that most interested cyclists will have their own bike and equipment, or else Armstrong suggested hitting up recreational cycling clubs to donate equipment for a youth program.

"Start small but most importantly just start," he said. "I hear all the time from folks who would like to start a club but say that they only have a couple adults and a couple kids, and no one knows anything so they don't get started. All they had to do was meet up for a few bike rides and start from there. They would be having fun riding bikes as a group, and chances are good that word would spread and membership would grow…. I call it the 'field of dreams model.' Just get started and the cyclists and support will come."

Access to a weight room and spin bikes for cold-weather practice can be helpful, but not essential. Armstrong also said not to worry about competition. Just providing information about area races to riders who want to compete may be enough to start, and later on you could host your own race.

Story of success: Armstrong started the Texas State High School Cycling League with a club at the Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, where he teaches, in 2005. Things progressed quickly, and the league formed in the fall of 2006. Today it includes 25 to 30 teams from around the state. Although the league is independent, several of the member clubs get official recognition from the high schools their members attend, and at least one is exploring a partnership with their local parks and recreation department. "It would likely create a beneficial marriage of resources: volunteers, structure, marketing, legitimacy," Armstrong said. "That would allow the program to grow in numbers and in scope."

Anyone in high school can participate—boys and girls. "The team scoring favors teams that have girls on them," Armstrong said, and he's pleased to note that the Texas League is 16 percent female, "which is about on par with or a bit higher than bike racing as a whole in the United States."

Keeping things flexible is one factor that has helped the league flourish. Some "clubs" are actually just one interested kid who shows up for races, whereas the largest have 10 or 20 participants. In some cases students from a variety of schools have banded together. "This is a good way to utilize resources such as sponsorship, coaches and volunteers," Armstrong said. "It's also a good way to reach that critical mass of participating kids." Even where there are separate school teams, "we work closely together and have at least one joint practice per week. This way it is more social and fun for the kids and less of a burden on coaches, as we cover for each other if one cannot make it."

Most of what the clubs need is organization, which Armstrong thinks a YMCA or park district could definitely provide. "They could offer the structure for the program with a club and a few coaches meeting a couple times per week." Currently, some clubs are all volunteer and free for participants (apart from equipment and travel fees), while others charge an annual or monthly fee, which covers the coaching.

Resources? The Texas High School Cycling League can be found online at www.texashighschoolcycling.org, and see how California approaches high school mountain biking at www.norcalmtb.org and www.socaldirt.org. For the mother lode of cycling information—on the road, on a track and in the dirt, for kids and adults alike—visit www.usacycling.org.

Lacrosse

What is it? Lacrosse is a bit of a mixture of hockey and soccer, said Matt Noah, founder and president of Fargo Lacrosse, a youth club in North Dakota. "It has the hand-eye coordination requirements and physicality of hockey, then there's the fact [that players wear] soccer cleats and the field is about the same size as a soccer field," he added. "There's lots of running." Those doing the running are on 10-person teams, and they use lacrosse sticks, which have a sort of basket at the end, to pass and shoot the ball down the field toward the opposing team's goal.

Who will love it? "Interest in lacrosse has never been stronger, and it doesn't look like it's going to slow down anytime soon," reports the SGMA. According to their calculations, "lacrosse has grown by nearly 80,000 participants per year since 2000." But if lacrosse is not yet a hot pursuit in your area, you're not alone. "Two-thirds of all lacrosse players come from just one-third of the country," the SGMA report explains. Many of these enthusiasts are currently concentrated on the Eastern Seaboard, which leaves room for lots of growth throughout the Midwest. Lacrosse players are also mostly under age 25 at this point, which means the sport has a bright future. This could be a good time to get the pint-sized soccer and hockey enthusiasts in your area started sharpening their passing, shooting and ball-handling skills.


Essentials for getting started? To get things going, you'll need a field similar in size to a soccer field. "Or smaller," Noah noted. Although lacrosse is played 10 on 10, "if only 15 sign up, you can do seven on seven or six on six, so you can use a smaller field," he explained.

As far as equipment, "we started out with two goals, a bag of lacrosse balls, and 18 lacrosse sticks," said Craig Bjur, recreation specialist with the Fargo Park District, which offers a recreational lacrosse program. "We suggested to participants to use upper-body hockey equipment until they were ready to make the financial investment in lacrosse equipment. This worked extremely well with our area being such a hockey community."

Story of success: Lacrosse piqued the interest of kids in the Fargo area about three years ago. The Fargo Park District began offering an outdoor spring lacrosse league and indoor fall league, which serves kids aged 8 to 15, plus adults aged 17 to 25. Around that same time, Matt Noah and his sons moved to Fargo from Minnesota, where the boys had played lacrosse. Noah gathered about a dozen kids and began Fargo Lacrosse, a club which provides a more competitive complement to the park district's offerings.

Noah estimates that 60 to 80 kids have come through the club so far, ranging in age from third grade to ninth grade, and although they've largely been male, there have been a few girl participants, who just dive right into the mix with the boys.

Rather than compete with one another, the park district and club work together to present a full array of options to interested youth. They mention each other on their Web sites and refer kids back and forth. "Our league is set up so we practice once a week and play games once a week," Bjur said. "The Fargo Park District program is non-competitive, meaning we do not keep standings or have league tournaments. Our focus is instructional and recreational, and our goal is to [let kids] try the sport and give them the best experience possible."

Fargo Lacrosse players practice twice a week: indoors on a converted ice rink in the winter and outdoors on school district fields when the weather allows. They do a bit of traveling to play, but true league competition is still difficult because of the dearth of other lacrosse teams in the area. However, "what's essential is that kids get lots of interaction with the ball—passing and shooting to improve their skills," Noah said.

He noted that affiliating with US Lacrosse has been helpful for the club, as it provides a way to have insurance, and he also applied for and received an equipment grant from the organization. "We have 25 sets of gear kids can use for the season and then return. Kids who want to be more serious can then buy their own equipment," he explained. "Stick, ball, helmet and pads."

Bjur agrees that keeping the initial investment to a minimum makes it easier to entice kids—and their parents—into trying a new sport. "We worked with a few local sports retailers to have used lacrosse equipment on hand during our programs, which was much appreciated by our lacrosse parents," he said.

Both the park district and club also report that they draw on local college teams for coaching help. "We were fortunate to have the North Dakota State University Club Lacrosse team in town," Bjur said. "Their coaching staff and players jumped at the opportunity to bring lacrosse to our youth in Fargo. We agreed to start small and build each year, and that has worked very well for us. Our numbers continue to grow, and we are confident this program will continue to be a success for years to come."

Resources? You'll find Fargo Lacrosse on the Internet at www.fargolacrosse.org. Their site includes information about the club, as well as links to the Fargo Park District and an assortment of lacrosse information. US Lacrosse can be found on the Web at www.uslacrosse.org. For lacrosse rules and basic information, visit www.laxrules.com. Learn more about the professional lacrosse teams in the United States at www.majorleaguelacrosse.com.

Cricket

What is it? Cricket is "just like baseball but different," said John L. Aaron, executive secretary for USA Cricket, with a laugh. A cricket team has nine fielders, but their positions are less fixed than baseball's defensive positions because in cricket, the batter can score in 360 degrees, Aaron explained. There's a wicket keeper, not a catcher, and cricket bowlers (pitchers) often bounce the 5-ounce leather (with a cork center) cricket ball off the pitch before it reaches the batter. Fielders don't wear gloves—only the batter does, to protect the fingers.

The games are also scored differently, as two players have to interact to score a run in cricket, and the cricket batter keeps batting until he or she is out—even if he smacks the ball out of the park (which earns a whopping six runs!), he can come back and continue batting. "Not to belittle baseball, but there's more of a chess game in cricket," said Aaron. "The strategy is to see how other players play, and it becomes a mind game between the two teams."

Who will love it? Anyone intrigued by baseball may enjoy applying those skills to a new game, and there are special cricket kits made just for kids, so even Little Leaguers can give it a try. "People who come from cricket-playing countries" are also usually big fans of the sport who could be eager to get organized games going in their new homes, Aaron said. There are more than 150 cricket-playing countries around the world, including Great Britain, Australia, India, South Africa, and Argentina. Current cricket hubs in the United States include New York, New Jersey, Florida, California, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta, Aaron noted.

Essentials for getting started? Cricket equipment is also a little different than that used for baseball. Bats are about the same length, but they're wider and flat on one side. Cricket balls are of course key to playing the game, and you'll also need stumps, which form the wickets at each end of the pitch. Aaron again suggests the plastic kits, which are perfect for kids, and can even be used by adults to practice indoors. In terms of space, "indoors for kids 11 and under a regular basketball court size works," Aaron said. "Outdoors is lots more ground…a baseball-size area is more than adequate."

Story of success: The first American College Cricket championship was held this past March in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where Central Broward Regional Park includes the only cricket stadium in the United States. (However, due to cost considerations the competition was held outside the stadium on one of the park's other cricket pitches, the New York Times reported.) About 60 players from five colleges competed, with Montgomery College from Maryland taking top honors.

Events like this are intended to help bring organization and recognition—perhaps eventually by the NCAA—to college-level cricket, but cricket for all ages is starting to get its American act together. Cricket is the latest sport added to the roster of games organized by the New York Police Department to build relationships with immigrant communities. YMCAs or park districts interested in starting a cricket program should contact the USA Cricket Association, suggested Aaron. "They can put the organization in touch with a local coach or local club who might want to lend their expertise to get a program started."

Resources? The USA Cricket Association can be found online at www.usaca.org, and American College Cricket has a page on Facebook. Aaron also recommends online "Cricket 101" tutorials like the one found at vimeo.com/5456018. Also, www.cs.purdue.edu/homes/hosking/cricket/explanation.htm and www.cricket-rules.com offer good explanations of cricket basics.

Synchronized Swimming

What is it? Synchronized swimming (known as "synchro") is "the perfect mix of athleticism and grace," said Jen Muzyk, assistant director for synchronized swimming at the New Canaan YMCA in Connecticut, home of the Aquianas. "Successful synchro swimmers need to be strong, flexible, extended and within the same routine they might need to move quickly and explosively and also lightly and fluidly," she explained. Synchro, is after all, a water-based performance in which team members move in precise coordination with one another, often while completing acrobatic-, gymnastic- or dance-style moves. "This sport teaches coordination, balance, rhythm, teamwork, cooperation, creativity and so much more," Muzyk said.

Who will love it? Synchronized swimming often attracts dancers, as well as girls who feel particularly at home in the swimming pool. "A few years ago we had a recruiting push where we offered a lot of trial classes and 'bring your friend to practice' days, and we were very involved in the swim lessons offered by the Y," Muzyk noted. In each 12-week session, the swimming students get to try all three aquatic sports offered at the New Canaan Y: synchro, diving, and swim team—a perfect way to channel piqued interest into active participation.

"We always see a spike in membership just prior to and right after the Olympic Games," said Taylor Payne, media relations director for U.S. Synchronized Swimming. "The West Coast provides the majority of our National Team athletes, so this is where most of the more established clubs are located," she added.

Essentials for getting started? "It is a relatively inexpensive sport to fund," Payne said. "If you already have a pool that a swim team is using, more than likely you are halfway there." Synchro teams need 9-foot depth throughout most of the pool, and an underwater speaker so they can hear their music while performing. Then they just need to look good and get on the road. "Competition suits and travel would be the majority of the expense after the pool and speaker are taken care of," Payne said.

Story of success: The Aquianas have been around since 1977, and they've been based at the New Canaan YMCA since fall of 1980. There are currently 81 participants (ages 5 to 18) in the program, which includes instructional classes and competitive teams. The most competitive team practices six days a week, more than 20 hours each week (in and out of the pool) beginning in September. They attend seven to nine competitions each season (January through July). Beginner teams practice three days a week for about six total hours and compete in four competitions.

Not many high schools offer synchro, so those who participate do so through a club team. However, many Aquianas go on to swim in college, including five graduating seniors this past year, who are attending top-notch schools such as Stanford and Ohio State. Two Aquianas have also been on the Junior National Team and are nationally ranked after starting as 10-year-olds at the New Canaan Y.

"Our team is definitely growing," said Muzyk, who recently traveled with the Aquianas to Peru. "Just two years ago we had only 35 members. Now our program has outgrown our pool space." Last season, Aquianas traveled to another area YMCA's pool to practice two days a week. Muzyk credits the Aquianas' YMCA affiliation as an important component of their success. "The people at the Y are very caring and have taken a genuine interest in our successes and challenges," she said. "The underlying structure of our program is based on the [YMCA's] four core values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility. With those concepts we've been able to produce great athletes in and out of the pool."

Resources? Contact U.S. Synchronized Swimming via www.usasynchro.org to find out how to receive a synchro start-up kit, which includes videos, flashcards and suggested lesson plans, Muzyk said. Learn more about the Aquianas at www.newcanaanymca.org/synchro.

Did We Get the Ball Rolling?

Feeling inspired yet? If not, other sports to consider include the elementary school classics dodgeball and kickball, as well as broomball—a game played wearing sneakers on ice. (Visit www.usabroomball.com, www.kickball.com, and www.dodgeballusa.com for details.)

"Other sports which are emerging and would be good for park districts, community recreational facilities, schools and colleges include touch rugby, indoor soccer, archery…and possibly paintball," said Mike May of the SGMA. Your creativity is the only limit to what you can introduce, but keep in mind that "sports and activities that had 'statistically significant' growth from 2007 to 2008 were either fitness or family/social activities that don't cost much money to play," the SGMA reports.

So, start small, but take a chance and try something new. It's a great feeling to know your facilities are being used to the max. For example, since it opened in 1999, the 440,000-square-foot Ritchie Center on the campus of University of Denver has been available for students and faculty to use, as well as the surrounding community. The Center currently boasts about 1,000 community members, and it includes an array of sports and fitness options from two ice arenas to the nation's only turf field lacrosse stadium to outdoor, lighted tennis courts. In addition to working out on the fitness equipment, DU students enjoy a variety of intramural and club sports, and the community can participate in an assortment of youth and adult sports programs.

And the benefits of having all this action under one roof? "Kids can progress through our programs, beginning with a learn-to program followed by participation in a youth competitive program, and in some cases student and adult programs," said Ruth Brown, director of marketing for campus and community programs. "Literally there is something for everyone."



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