Fortunately, i9 Sports, a national league, is working hard to redefine the game of youth sports by curtailing the competitive aspects and making it enjoyable again.
Maui parents Bridgette and Gregg Okamoto were exposed to the league through friends on O‘ahu (their son plays for i9) and were impressed by the company’s focus on safety and simply having a great time. Because the program had not yet been introduced on Maui, the Okamotos took the initiative to bring the league to the island. A mother of twin four-year-old boys, Bridgette recalled, “We really wanted to give this benefit to kids here, including our own… We thought, what a good way to give them a safe introduction to team sports.”
Bridgette is now the Maui program director and husband Gregg (a football coach at Maui High School) the area developer. As a dedicated team, they have successfully integrated the league here on the island, starting with the sport at the program’s core: flag football.
She and her husband are redefining youth sports on Maui. Bridgette Okamoto knows that it’s not about winning or losing, but how you teach your keiki to play the game.
Geared to boys and girls ages 4 to 14, each season is a nine-week commitment, and accessibility for the parents is a top priority for the program.
“It is only a two-hour-per-week commitment, all on Saturdays,” said Bridgette.
Practice is only on game day; a one-hour practice is held preceding a one-hour game. And the inclusive $135 fee means there’s no fundraising. “Part of our philosophy is that it’s convenient,” said Bridgette.
The Okamotos have worked hard to ensure that the Maui teams are modeling i9’s core principles: fun, inclusivity, safety and good sportsmanship. “It’s about changing the competitive environment for the kids,” explained Bridgette. “The main thing is that they all have fun… It doesn’t matter what your skill level is, you’re getting equal playing time.”
Not only are children reaping the benefits of a league truly based on fun for everyone, but parents have received the program positively as well.
“The majority of parents want a different concept of team sports,” said Bridgette. “Here, your kid doesn’t have to try out; he doesn’t have to be drafted. It doesn’t matter if your kid is five pounds overweight or has missed the birthday cutoff by a few days. Because it is mostly 4- to 10-year-olds who are playing, the parents appreciate a program where their kids aren’t being judged at such a young age.”
“Our son had a blast,” reported parent Michelle from Kahului. “He was so excited to play football, and scoring two touchdowns was a big bonus—he couldn’t wait to tell his dad… He’s been wanting to play football from age 6, but as a parent, I was not ready for the tackle-football experience.”
“Instead of tackling,” explained Bridgette, “the goal is to pull off your opponent’s flag, so no one gets hurt. Our whole football season, we didn’t have one injury.” And not only are the logistics of flag football much safer than tackle football for the little ones, but i9 also does a full screening on the coaches to ensure the children’s safety on that level as well. “All our coaches are background-checked. We don’t just throw anyone in with the kids.”
Teaching sportsmanship is another big component of the i9 game, and every week one player from each team earns a medal. “We try to teach them values they will use in team sports, and hopefully, their lives,” said Bridgette. “Each week the values change, so one week it’s courtesy, one week it’s respect… The coach will talk to them and give them examples, and the player that exhibits the values that week will get a special medal.”
This sense of goodwill has extended beyond the parents and kids of i9 and into the community. Every week, Da Kitchen generously donates lunch to each sportsmanship winner. And Maui’s i9 has also partnered with Jamba Juice. A portion of the proceeds from the tasty refreshments they offer for the kids is donated to Pomaika‘i Elementary School, where the games are held.
Inspired by a successful first season, the Okamotos are looking forward to future development of i9 on Maui. In preparation for the winter season, which begins on Saturday, Dec. 5, a Lahaina field has been added as an alternate to the central Pomaika‘i location.
Nationally, i9 offers a plethora of sports to kids, and Okamoto said that due to such a favorable response, they plan on growing the business here on Maui.