You played sports. You've got kids. So when you sign up to coach your kid's sports team, and you're told you have to take a course before you get on the field (or court, or diamond), you're taken aback.

I'm volunteering my time, you think, and now you're asking me to pay $25 to take a two-hour course?!

Well, yeah.

The National Youth Sports Coaches Association training program was developed 30 years ago. Westport's Parks and Recreation Department has been involved with it a decade.

Recently, the association featured that connection on the home page of its website.

Westport was lauded for its mandate that all youth coaches involved in sports that use town facilities take the course.

The town's initial involvement came through the town basketball program. But according to Karen Puskas, Parks and Rec program manager, "the particular sport is secondary.

The key to the program is how you work with kids."

The emphasis in the association's training program is not really on zone defenses, traps or X's and O's. "It's all about empathy, understanding skill sets, even just how to talk the right way to a child," Puskas says.

To the budding coach who says, "This is my third kid -- I know how to deal with 5 year olds," Puskas replies, "There's a big difference between one 5 year old -- your own -- and handling 10 others."

A Parks and Rec coach, she says, should be "nurturing and empathetic. Someone who can move kids along, is constantly positive, and has the proper skills for the sport he's coaching, and for teaching kids."

According to the coaches' association website, its training is designed "to sensitize coaches to their roles and responsibilities in youth sports through an education in topics such as the psychology of coaching youth sports, communication, child abuse, injury prevention, nutrition and hydration, as well as skills and drills from nationally reputable sources specifically applicable to the sport that the coach is teaching."

Coaches who complete the training also receive access to a "skills and drills" section of the association's site; an online forum where more than 100,000 coaches discuss problems and issues they've faced dealing with children, and a $1 million liability insurance policy. Also included: a subscription to "Sporting Kid" magazine.

The initial basketball pilot program, back in 2001, was a success.

Since then it's expanded to other programs in town, like baseball and softball, as well as all youth team organizations that use Parks and Rec facilities -- for example, the Westport Soccer Association, PAL football, cheerleading and lacrosse, and field hockey.

"There was some grumbling in the beginning," Puskas admits. Ten years later, though -- after 1,800 men and women have taken the course -- it is considered "the norm."

In fact, Puskas says, some coaches who are initially reluctant end up eager to know more. They go on to take courses in -- and earn certification in -- their particular sport. Some also take first aid and CPR.

The NYSCA course includes information on dealing with adults -- opposing coaches, fans, even parents of a coach's own players.

"Parents can be very tough," Puskas says. "We spent a lot of time on how to talk with them -- expectations, that sort of thing. Communication skills are key parts of coaching."

Puskas notes that "a lot of people coach the way their coaches coached them. That's okay, but if you're 45 and you played sports 30 years ago, a lot has changed since then.

There's been advances in hydration, techniques, even new insights into the way kids learn. It's important to get the most up-to-date information."

Everyone benefits from the course: young athletes, parents, the town. "Today we know who's out there on our fields, coaching our kids," Puskas says. "And we know they're educated and qualified."

Also benefiting: young referees. In the past, they suffered some of the worst abuse from adult coaches.

But, Puskas says, "in the past 10 years, I can count on one hand the number of incidents we've had."

One involved the coach of a third grade team. "He was horrible to his own son," Puskas recalls, "and to a 16-year-old referee. So we brought him in, sat him down, and pointed out all the violations of everything we'd just gone over in the course."

The next week, she says, the same coach walked over to the stands before his game, and apologized to the parents for his actions.

He coached through 12th grade, Puskas says. By the end, he had become one of the best coaches in the entire Westport Parks and Recreation program.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.