This is the time of year that parents, armed with their children's birth certificates and a checkbook, often head to their local recreation departments to sign up their little athletes for sports.

What many of them don't realize is that checking one little box on that sign-up form might put them in charge of the team.

"Most forms have a question that says something like, 'Are you interested in coaching?' " says Tim Orvin, athletic director for St. Andrew's Parks & Playground. "And that's usually how we find coaches. The hardest coach to find is the head coach. A lot of people say they'll be assistant coaches because they don't have to come to the meetings and don't have to be in charge."

Youth sports leagues rely on volunteers for their success. Approximately 2.5 million adults annually give their time as coaches of youth sports teams, according to Safe Kids USA.

Always a shortage

"We're always looking for more coaches, but it always seems to work out," says Jimmy Millar, athletic division chief for the Mount Pleasant Recreation Department. "For instance, we'll have 40 to 50 soccer teams, and we might have two coaches that we have to work hard at finding."

Jill Lewellyn, director of youth sports and family programs for the Summerville Family YMCA, agrees.

"The last two weeks before the season, I'm usually sending out emails saying, 'Who wants to coach?' " she says. "But I usually get all I need."

Typically, every child who signs up gets assigned to a team, officials say.

"We have never had to turn kids away because we couldn't find a coach," Orvin says. "We've had a meeting before and said, 'Here are 10 kids and we don't have anyone,' and somebody will step up, or sometimes we have to make the teams a little bigger if we can't get enough coaches."

Teams can be run by mothers, fathers, grandparents, couples, parent-older child pairs or even "by committee," Orvin says. Some coaches stick with the same group of kids for years, and others keep coaching after their children are grown.

According to Safe Kids, about 85 percent of volunteer coaches nationally are parents of children on the team, and 90 percent of them are men.

Bill Hart of Mount Pleasant is one of them. He has coached his three sons in several sports over the years, most recently concentrating on football.

"Basically I did it because my kids were playing and I wanted to make sure they had a coach," he says. "I thought, 'If my sons are going to be out there, and I'm going to be watching, I might as well be helping out.' "

Screening process

While recreation departments and other sports leagues might rely on volunteers to coach, that doesn't mean they accept just anyone.

"If you check that box, then it becomes a volunteer application, which is just like a job application for us," Orvin says. "You can apply to coach a certain age group or gender; you have to provide references; and we do a background check."

That policy is typical of other departments.

"We try to make it easy for someone to volunteer," Millar says. "But that doesn't mean we don't check them out."

Once coaches are cleared, they are assigned to a team.

"Pretty much anybody can handle coaching 5- to 8-year-olds," Millar says. "But when you get up into middle school, you've got to know the game a little more. Rarely do we have complaints about coaches not knowing anything."

Many volunteers already know the sport, with several being former athletes themselves, but coaches' meetings offer the opportunity to learn specific league rules and get tips.

"We sit down and say, 'This is what's worked in the past,' " Lewellyn says. "Many of the first-time coaches are nervous at first."

Orvin says the idea is to support coaches as much as possible.

"These folks are volunteering their time," he says. "We don't expect them to keep up with the latest rules in the sport. They also didn't sign up to fund raise or baby-sit."

Many new coaches turn to the Internet to learn drills and tips on running a practice, and the recreation departments also have resources. Clinics, sometimes run by college or high school coaches, teach practice organization and age-appropriate skills, starting with basic fundamentals to fit the attention spans of the youngest players.

"For instance, everybody knows the most boring thing known to man is batting practice," Orvin says. "You have one kid out there doing something while the other 10 are watching daisies grow. So how can we get those other 10 kids moving?"

Hart, who has coached 8- and 9-year-olds to 13- and 14-year-olds, says, "No matter what age, you have to make it fun and challenging, but you still want to give them some discipline. You don't want to scare them because then they may never play again, and the most important thing is to keep the kids playing. And every now and then, you've got to grab them around the neck and give them a hug so they know you care about them."

Orvin agrees that practices should be fun.

"We want the kids to come back," he says. "One of the best coaches I ever had served ice cream at the end of practice on the first day. Nobody ever missed practice after that."

'A thankless task'

Although many coaches receive gifts from the team at the end of the season, for the most part "volunteer coaching is a thankless task," Orvin says.

The job is scrutinized not only by league officials and parents, but "there's always a bunch of little eyes watching you and how you act," he says. "And a lot of times the only payment is a smile from a kid."

Hart points out that even though many coaches head up their own children's teams -- and thus spend time with their children -- the job still requires hours preparing, practicing and playing games, which is "time away from the house."

Regardless, he says, "You do it because you love it, not because you're looking for accolades. I wouldn't trade the time on the field for anything. When I'm at Wando High School now, there is nothing better than getting a 'Hey, Coach!' and having a former player come up to you just to let you know that he's doing OK."