Letting Kids be Kids

i9 Sports puts the fun back in fundamentals.

Forget Friday Night Tykes, the majority of youth sports programs are a positive influence on the lives of keiki.

Each weekend across O‘ahu, playgrounds, parks and gyms are packed with children doing what they love to do, running, kicking and simply having a good time. These carefree keiki are led by adults who are more interested in smiles than titles; it’s what youth sports is all about.

One such organization leading the movement back toward fun in athletics is i9 Sports, a national youth sports league that promotes participation rather than competition. They don’t keep score; they don’t track standings. There are no tryouts; everyone plays, and all officials are trained and have undergone background checks. Their goal is their motto: Put fun back into youth sports.

“Parents are very concerned about programs that try to push their kids to be the best––to be better than everyone else,” says Arielle Stoyanow, an assistant director and site manager for i9 Sports. “Kids start to not have fun, and they don’t want to do it any more. We are trying to show kids it [sports] can be fun, while at the same time teaching them the fundamentals of the game, and to have a better attitude.”

Stoyanow knows the benefits of youth sports firsthand. Introduced to soccer as a 6-year-old by her father, she played throughout high school and will next compete for Taſt College in California. Sports not only gave her a healthy hobby but the confidence to try other things. As a junior and senior at Kapolei High School, the smiling teenager was a place kicker for the Hurricane’s football team.

i9 (Imaginative, Innovative, Interactive, Integrity-driven, Impassioned, Inspirational, Instructional, Insightful, Inclusive) offers flag football, soccer, basketball and T-ball in leagues throughout Hawai‘i. Football is most popular with an average participation level between 500 and 600 kids. Soccer attracts about 120 kids per season (basketball about the same) with T-ball attracting an average of 200.

The year is broken into four, quarterly seasons. The number of seasons offered depends on enrollment and the availability of playing space. Football, being the most popular, is offered year-round, whereas soccer and T-ball split the year. Basketball faces the biggest challenge, as gym space is oſten hard to come by.

Rene Sanjines, an assistant program director and soccer director, hopes to one day see the other sports match football in popularity but recognizes the already impressive growth of the league, which began in Kapolei in 2012.

“It’s a credit to Arielle and the others out there who help out, set up the fields, train coaches, helping the kids out. That’s why the Kapolei region is doing so good,” Sanjines says. i9 began in Tampa, Florida in 1998 and has grown to more than 600,000 members in 500 communities. It’s a franchise that provides the framework and training for people wanting a business that gives back to the community. According to the i9 website, its founder, Frank Fiume, became disheartened by what he saw youth sports becoming. The site describes youth sports at the time becoming “destructively competitive” and a negative experience for the kids.

It asks the rhetorical question, “How can kids ever learn a sport if they are constantly told they are not good enough to play and are made to sit on the bench?”

That isn’t what i9 is about, says Sanjines, who stresses the leagues are about teaching skills and helping kids develop into healthy teenagers and young adults.

“The biggest benefit i9 gives them is the courage to get on the field,” Sanjines says. “It gets them away from Mom and Dad and helps them develop their own personality. They laugh and invent ways to have fun all by themselves.”

The age ranges for i9 activities are 3-to 6-years-old for T-ball, 3 to 8 for soccer and 4 to 14 for flag football. Volunteers are always needed. To help out, go to i9′s website at www.i9sports.com, or talk to a site manager at the games. Prospective coaches must take a short exam, and all those involved must undergo a background check.