For the month of November, we are celebrating Greater Lehigh Valley Athletics (GLVA) and the impact they have had on youth in their community.
Greater Lehigh Valley Athletics is a youth sport organization in Bethlehem, PA that offers NFL flag football and cheer programs. GLVA is dedicated to teaching youth through positive role models with an emphasis on learning and enjoying a sport, while instilling high moral standards by stressing the importance of academic achievement and community involvement.
PCA Program Manager Molly Whittaker spoke with Keri Neidig, Co-founder and Vice President of the Board of GLVA.
Molly: Why did you and your husband, Eric, start GLVA ten years ago?
Keri: We decided to start GLVA because we wanted to offer a well-rounded sport experience that focused on developing the whole child. We created a board and set it up as a full non-profit. At GLVA we require that every child plays in every game, regardless of skill, experience, or ability. Practices are limited to two days per week before the season begins and once per week when competitions start in an effort to make sure that the program doesn’t rule families’ lives. We are not tied to schools, geography, etc. Some kids will travel 30+ minutes from across New Jersey and Pennsylvania to participate. Our programs expose participants to new people, not only those that they might know from the school they attend. We welcome children up to age 14 and have created mentoring opportunities for older kids, including becoming coaches and referees. We don't give trophies or medals. We don't keep score and have no scoreboards. Of course, people naturally keep score and want to win. We don't discourage it. We just ask that they do it in a way that allows kids to learn from it. We created something that's family friendly, fits in your schedule, and gets kids out and playing.
Molly: How has the official inclusion of Flag Football in the 2028 Olympics impacted the sport at the recreation level? Is there more pressure or can you still do it your way?
Keri: Ten years ago, the attitude was "It's only FLAG football. I played that when I was little." That mindset has shifted. Because flag football has become so much more popular over the years, more kids want to come out to play and they learn so much about themselves in the process. The growth of the sport has also been great for females. There are more and more opportunities for girls and women to play. Some colleges are adding it to their programs. The addition of flag football to the Olympics in 2028 has created a lot of excitement around the sport, but with that comes balancing community-based programs and offering something developmental versus highly competitive. It has provided more opportunities to learn about football, but also since it is more popular, there is more of a push to have more competitive/tournament teams. The more important winning becomes, the higher the level of intensity, which has a higher chance of resulting in negative behaviors. We have chosen to focus on the developmental program so that we can serve kids of all skill and interest levels. We are proud of what we have created and receive positive feedback from our families.
Molly: Why did you decide to partner with PCA in the beginning?
Keri: Over the years we have seen negativity surrounding youth sports. We strive to offer something better - something that takes all of the good that youth sports provide and removes as much of the negativity as possible. When we give coaches the tools and the confidence to lead their team in a positive manner, we make an impact in our community. The training offered is highly regarded by our coaches. We are a primarily volunteer run organization. Some of our volunteers also coach in other local school-level programs and they are able to take these resources into those experiences. Positive role models can change the course of a child’s life. PCA fits our mission and allows us to set ourselves apart.
Molly: What impact has your partnership with PCA had on GLVA?
Keri: We feel strongly in the value that PCA brings to our program, our coaches and ultimately to our players and families. Our partnership has helped us tell our story - who we are, why we're here, what we're trying to do. Culture goes beyond creating a mission statement; it is built through living that mission. Our partnership allows us to actively showcase the culture we are building. It holds us accountable. The skills PCA addresses are life skills. Yes, you apply them in sports, but they make you a better person. Personally, I take something away from each coach training that makes me a better person.
We constantly get positive comments from people who either have never coached or or who have never had this kind of training. The workshops prepare volunteers for what they might come up against in practices and games. PCA training has built confidence in coaches and mentors and that allows them to be good mentors to the kids. Our program has more than quadrupled in size since we started in 2013. We serve over 600 kids and have over 100 coach volunteers, 40 teams, and 3 cheer squads. I truly believe that part of that growth is the PCA training and resources we provide.
Molly: Why do you think PCA content, workshops, resources, etc., have impacted GLVA that way?
Keri: It helps people see how the things they do impact others. In a world with a lot of negativity it's important to showcase the positives. People are generally good though we unfortunately see a lot of the negative in the news and on social media. PCA tips and resources help you see how the way you present yourself impacts others; it makes you more conscious of why that is important. Even video clips showcase that this works with adults and professional athletes and coaches too. Sometimes people overlook how important it is to work with kids. Working with kids could potentially shift the course of their lives.
Molly: Please describe a time when you saw a coach, parent, or player change their behavior due to learning something from our partnership.
Keri: I remember one game in which a team lost and afterward the coach got the team together to talk. The coach didn't just focus on errors and what went wrong. He used PCA phrases and tools to talk about letting mistakes go, the importance of the next play, and built his team up. He emphasized the things the kids had control over. The kids were able to see the loss as an opportunity for improvement, rather than feel completely defeated and upset.
I can tell that the workshops have helped to shift some attitudes on the sidelines from coaches to parents. We even had three teams this year with coaches who used to play in our program. They are kids who are 16 – 19 years old that volunteer their time to coach our teams, attend the workshops, and love to stay involved with our programs. I’ve been impressed with how many kids come back and want to help out. We think it's because the culture is so positive.
Molly: What are some areas for growth that you hope our partnership will help with in the future?
Keri: I believe we are on the right path. Parents can sometimes be a challenge, but overall, our parent culture has improved over the years. We are trying to engage in the community as well. We just partnered with Miracle League of Northampton County who run baseball programs for youth with various disabilities. For each one of their games GLVA will have players, coaches, or board members help out. We are doing well with the culture we are building, but can do more to expand beyond our organization. We want to show young players how important it is to get involved in their community.
Molly: Why do you think PCA is valuable for all football programs?
Keri: Mental health issues among our youth are higher than ever - some have called it an epidemic. Kids are carrying so much weight around with them. Often, you hear people say, 'when I was your age...'. The reality is that none of us know what it is like to be a young person in today's world. So much negativity surrounds us – youth suicide is on the rise (and is even higher among our young athletes, as some data suggests). Social media and the pandemic are a few of the things shaping them. We can do better in youth sports. And we should use data that is available to shape our behaviors. That is what PCA brings to the table. This isn't fluff. This is how to navigate very different waters than what any of us have experienced as a younger person. If I'm being honest, PCA training can help us remove the behaviors we don't tolerate and provides a better experience for everyone.
Football programs should think about the impact they have on the athletes they are serving. This type of training can help improve leadership skills and ability to motivate players. It helps coaches see kids/athletes as people. Coaches can still be an authoritative figure and also treat their athletes with respect. I believe that doing that will get the most out of a person.
Molly: Having started GLVA 10 years ago, what are you most proud of?
Keri: Although our program has grown quite a bit, I am most proud of how many people are willing to volunteer and give their time, especially younger people. So many kids want to come back and help out and it speaks to the culture of the whole program, not just sports. We received feedback recently from a parent whose child has aged-out of our program. Their child joined as a shy ten-year old who knew very little about football. He has since developed into a confident athlete with so many friends. The parent said that it was GLVA that gave their son that opportunity.
When life gets so busy it’s easy to think "how can I do this?". Then I hear stories like that and look around at our games and practices and think "how can I NOT do this?!"
To learn more about what it means to partner with PCA, click here.