League pro has message for Olathe’s coaches: ‘You’re in the memory-making business’

Jeff Sopha loves baseball, and he wants to make sure any kid in Olathe gets the opportunity to play and love it as much as he does. That’s why he approached Olathe Parks and Recreation and Olathe Youth Baseball this year to make them part of the Royals Amateur Development System’s Crown League partners.

Sopha, amateur development liaison for RADS, volunteered with the Royals for three years on this project before getting a stipend this year. As a longtime coach, an Olathe resident and a parent of three kids, two of whom play baseball, he just wanted to give back.

Because the parents who volunteer to coach often don’t have a lot of experience as coaches, the program offers both a coaching clinic before the season starts and online resources like a skills chart to help determine what each age group should be able to achieve.

“One boy’s mom raises her hand and says, ‘OK, I’ll do it,’ and then she realizes, ‘What did I just get myself into?’ I’ve told Cody (Bradford) and the folks at Olathe Parks and Rec if that happens, I will come, and I will run practices with that coach and teach them how to find their voice as a coach and help them learn how to run a practice effectively for 6-year-olds or 8-year-olds or 10-year-olds,” Sopha said.

Sopha emphasizes to coaches that playing in these leagues should be about skill development and providing a happy, comfortable environment — not wins and losses.

“I sit down with all of their coaches, and I spend two hours a couple of times a year with them, and we talk about how to be better coaches, how to build a practice plan, how to properly teach hitting and throwing,” Sopha said.

Sportsmanship for kids and parents is also part of his playbook.

“Nobody’s scouting 6-year-olds. Nobody’s scouting coaches of 6-year-olds,” Sopha said. “I tell parents you’re not in the business of creating major leaguers. You’re in the memory-making business.”

Information about nutrition, sports medicine and more is also available online through RADS to parents and kids who are part of the teams. Once a year, Sopha holds skills camps at Oregon Trail and Prairie Center parks.

The best part for Olathe families? All these extra things are free. The only thing they pay for is the normal fee for being part of a team at Olathe Parks and Recreation or Olathe Youth Baseball.

Sopha said he’s been very concerned to see a shift in youth sports toward expensive traveling teams that many people can’t afford.

“I want to make sure that they don’t think the only way to enjoy baseball is to pay $6,000 a year, and if you’re not good enough to be on a travel team that means you can’t love baseball,” he said.

He’s helped foster partnerships between the Royals and numerous local organizations around the metro with the same benefits, including Johnson County 3&2, the Olathe Girls Softball Association, Blue Valley Recreation and the Jewish Community Center.

Also on his list is working with coaches at the Olathe high schools. Part of that work is offering a spring baseball league for high school kids who don’t make the team at their school but still want a place to play during that season. Their championship game will be at Legends Field in Kansas City, Kansas.

In the fall, he’s offering an eight to 10-week skills camp once a week for high school players.

“These kids get a structured environment, a place to play and learn some skills. Then we give them the field for an hour to just have themselves a scrimmage … and make sure they truly find their own love and passion for the game,” Sopha said.

As part of RADS, he’s also working to get free equipment and lesson plans to elementary gym teachers in Olathe to incorporate baseball into their lessons.