Indiana State University Newsroom

Changing the Culture

November 19, 2014

Winning, winning and winning.   

It seems like that’s the focus of youth sports nowadays. Some children can find themselves going from tournament to tournament, playing dozens upon dozens of high-pressure games each season. Or some who might “lack” the skill, but have all the enthusiasm needed to play, may be excluded from teams altogether.

Sometimes that can just make children fed up with the whole thing – and lose interest in an activity that gets them outdoors and exercising with their friends.  But the Indiana State University Lifespan Healthy Living Initiative is doing something to change that.

Where to start? The coaches.

The initiative has added a new component to the fourth season of its flag football program for children three to 12 years old: coach training. It’s called the Optimal Youth Sports Coaching Program, and it’s all about improving coaches’ understanding of age-appropriate, value-based coaching methods and sports safety. With this program, the initiative hopes to transform the competitive culture of youth sports to one that promotes a healthy lifestyle, participation and, of course, fun.

“We think a lot of youth programs have lost sight of what’s important,” said Jeriah Threlfall, director of the Lifespan Healthy Living Initiative. “They’re focused too much on just winning and pushing kids toward competitive travel teams. But really, kids are just kids. We want coaches who are focused on making it a good experience for each kid, no matter his or her skill level … And we need coaches with the right perspective to do it.”

Flag football coaches, who are mostly parent volunteers, received lessons in basic coaching to understand how to effectively teach and lead young sports players. They learned how to coach children age-appropriately, how children think, what to expect from them and the importance of focusing on skills and success rather than winning games. 

“I want to make sure coaches have a good understanding of the developmental stage of youth so they can target their coaching efforts and interactions in a meaningful way,” said Jack Turman, dean of the College of Nursing, Health, and Human Services and overseer of the Lifespan Healthy Living Initiative.

Safety was also a major component of the Optimal Youth Sports Coaching Program. That included background checks on coaches, certifying them in CPR and taking online courses in concussions and general injury prevention. The flag football players even received a free medical screening administered by Indiana State students and an athletic trainer was present during the games.

Threlfall believes the coaches’ training has made an impact.

“I got to see firsthand that it really did take hold with some of the coaches,” Threlfall said. “We had coaches going about it a little bit differently … I’ve had several of them comment to me that they liked the training.”

“I felt the training program was very informative,” said Richard Spencer, a flag football coach. The training changed the way he interacted with his young players, he said.

Since Spencer received the training, he began to explain the reasons behind his coaching decisions to his players. Focusing on teaching children to be part of a team, he explained why each player was given an equal opportunity to play different positions – rather than only letting the best players play a certain position such as running back or quarterback.

And he had positive results.

“Most of the kids that were on my teams said they had the best time,” Spencer said.

To change the culture of sports, the initiative wants to go beyond just training its flag football coaches. Threlfall plans to continue developing the coach training program and offer it as a resource for other sports leagues. 

“We think that offering the [coach] training will be a good way to get in the door, and that will help us change the culture to make it more kid-focused and truly fun,” Threlfall said. “As a university, we have the ability to create that change. We can make a difference in every league in Terre Haute, and the Wabash Valley.”

“At ISU, we want to raise the bar and set the standard,” Turman said.

Threlfall envisions creating a multifaceted, tried-and-true resource. A checklist and manual would include all the components of how to establish and operate a high-quality youth sports program. It would even include the most nitty-gritty of information, such as how to get an insurance policy and where to go for quality and affordable background checks.  The program would make coach training resources available online for other league organizers to utilize.

“Our biggest goal is to have a good experience for the kids, and having good coaches is the key to that,” Threlfall said. “If the coaches promote the right attitude and values to the kids, then we can change that culture.”


Photo: -- A flag football coach talks with his players during a game on November 1, 2014. 

Photo: -- A flag football player is all smiles as he runs down the field during a game on November 1, 2014. 

Contact: Jeriah Threlfall, director of the Lifespan Healthy Living Initiative, 812-237-8503 or

Writer: Elise Lima, media relations assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, 812-237-3773 or