Jim Olayos wins "USA Today's Most Caring Coach" Award

December 10, 2000 
Coaching for Success on and Off the Court 

WHEN Jim Olayos blew his whistle in the gymnasium at the North End Boys and Girls Club in Bridgeport, the 25 boys and girls stopped their basketball game and ran to the middle of the court to sit down. 
''Friendship is a two-way street,'' Mr. Olayos said, unfolding a poster board on the subject of friendship for the group of junior high schoolers to see. ''Your friends have different influences on you. They have a way to shape what you do. What do you do if you find out that you have a friend who steals?'' 
The hand of one boy shot up with an answer to the question. ''You walk away from him,'' he said. 
For Mr. Olayos, friendship is as important a lesson as how to make a lay up or play defense. And the combination of these two kinds of training has made his two-year-old Future Stars Basketball Academy program a unique educational experience for the thousands of Connecticut children in about 30 locations from Greenwich to Hartford. The program is offered through town recreation departments, Boys and Girls Clubs and many branches of the Y.M.C.A. The program is open to children ages 5 to 15. 
A lawyer and the father of four boys as well as an experienced coach (he was an assistant to Bruce Webster at the University of Bridgeport), Mr. Olayos felt that the instruction at most youth basketball programs was not as good as it could be. 
''One of reasons programs falter in organizations like the Y is that they are uneven,'' he said. 
''If a guy who was a basketball player has a 6-year-old, he becomes the coach and that group of kids learns how to play basketball. Someone else may volunteer with his kid, but if he doesn't know anything about basketball, those kids aren't learning much. We developed a standard curriculum.'' 
Two years ago he began Future Stars at St. Joseph's High School in Trumbull, where as a student he had played under Vito Montelli, one of Connecticut's leading scholastic coaches. Mr. Webster and Mr. Montelli are now Future Stars instructors and program directors. The program also includes 20 other teachers and coaches from the high school and college ranks. 
From its start, Future Stars has included what Mr. Olayos calls the Lessons of Life component. He and the other coaches began by talking with children about the importance of keeping up with their schoolwork and they started using basketball as a way to help with reading, mathematics and other classroom skills. 
''I wanted to do a really good job of teaching the kids how to play at a really young age so they would get a lot of fun out of playing,'' Mr. Olayos said. ''I wanted the education part because I wanted to make a difference.'' 
The education program expanded into a formal part of Future Stars after Mr. Olayos was asked to bring Future Stars to the Lower Naugatuck Valley Boys and Girls Clubs in Shelton, where Dr. Michael Cotela is the educational director. ''I wanted to design a program that could be done right on the court,'' said Dr. Cotela, who recently completed is doctoral work in education. ''We attached some basketball lingo so the kids could relate to it. We have them sit while they are cooling down. It's not long, but it's long enough to get the point across. We use visuals, which is important for kids.'' 
The Lessons of Life cover personal values, substance abuse prevention and education. Each lesson is divided into five components. 
At a recent session in Darien, several parents watched as three groups of 5- to 9-year-olds moved around the gymnasium among three different skill stations where they learned various dribbling, shooting and passing techniques. After the drills, they split into four teams for a bit of play. No score was kept -- the children just played using what they had just learned. There were a lot of passes made before an open player took a good shot at the basket, which had been lowered to eight feet in deference to the young players' size. 
The life lessons in Darien that day were about personal health. Among several points, Mr. Olayos used a poster to discuss the importance of eating correctly, regular exercise and having a positive attitude every day. Each child was given a homework assignment to bring back the following week -- a list of how he had practiced good health, with details. 
''There are other programs in town, but not as organized and professional as this,'' said Susan Quinn of Darien, whose son Jimmy, 6 1/2, is participating in Future Stars for the second year. ''They stress things you don't hear about in other programs. So many times you start kids in activities and it's a waste of time. This is completely different. The kids love it.'' 
The lessons are not lost on the children, either. Margaret Bigelow, also of Darien, looked pleasantly surprised as her son David, 8, told what he liked about the program. 
''It teaches me how to play basketball better and how to have good sportsmanship,'' said David, who is in the second grade. ''You might get kicked out of the game if you don't have good sportsmanship. And it teaches me how to do homework.'' 
''I guess it's sinking in,'' his mother said. ''He never talks about this at home.'' 
The homework reinforces the educational messages and provides an opportunity for the children and their parents to work together. In the summer program of Future Stars, children receive awards like pencils, shirts or gym bags when they achieve goals, and they are recognized for intangible achievements like listening well. But the biggest award is for the best academic achievement of the school year, based on report cards. 
At the North End Boys and Girls Club in Bridgeport, Kenneth Bruno, the executive director, looked out a window and pointed across the street at the barbed-wire fence surrounding the correctional facility that is seen each day by the children who enter his building. 
''These kids need to understand that they are part of a bigger picture,'' he said. ''They are a part of the community. They are the future hospital workers and policemen. I feel confident every time I have Future Stars in here that I have a group of caring adults making productive citizens every day.'' 
Future Stars is gaining national recognition. Earlier this year, Mr. Olayos was named one of the nation's five ''most caring coaches'' by USA Weekend magazine from among more than 1,000 nominees. The Future Stars Children's Foundation recently received its first grant, a $10,000 award from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The National Alliance for Youth Sports has inquired about working with Future Stars to develop similar programs for other sports, something that Mr. Olayos has started to do locally. He is working on a baseball program with the Bridgeport Bluefish minor league team. 
Basketball is taking up more and more of Mr. Olayos' time. He still practices law, but when it gets to be about 3 p.m. he packs up his bag of basketballs, poster boards and homework assignments and heads out to one of the Future Stars sessions. He said his goal is to have Future Stars become part of a national youth sports program so that he can concentrate on large-scale training of teachers and coaches at major conferences and clinics.