It's no secret that kids in the D.C. metro area face enormous pressure to achieve in many facets of their young lives. There are demands to be the best at everything, and parents will go to great lengths to achieve this goal. Childhood athletics is not immune from the effects of this intensively competitive climate. There is no shortage of youth leagues striving to realize parents' dreams of varsity squads and college athletic scholarships for their kids. Playing sports is often less for the love of the game and more as a means to an end.

Enter Koa Sports. Koa was founded in 2009 by Tony Korson, a Bethesda native and sports enthusiast, who was a baseball star at Walt Whitman High School and played college baseball at Florida Gulf Coast University. For two summers in high school, Korson played competitive travel baseball for the Columbia Reds in Howard County, MD, and endured daily three-hour round trip rides to be a part of their talented team. It was through this exposure a seed was sown in him that Montgomery County also deserved to have a baseball outlet that would feature skilled players and instruction from professional coaches rather than parents, and from this seed grew the idea of Koa. In 2005, after college, Korson coached a group of neighborhood kids in fall league baseball for Walt Whitman High School. Korson saw a gap between the fundamental principles guiding youth league baseball in the area and how they were actually applied. He found that area leagues suffered from too little instruction, too much politics in coaching and considerable pressure on kids at ages where playing sports should simply be fun.

Koa is fighting to preserve the soul of youth sports by offering solid player development and competitive play without consuming a child's entire life or focusing on the destination of the sports journey. They believe that the "journey IS the destination". Their approach to sports development is age-appropriate and not harried. They maintain that it takes time to grow as a player, both physically and emotionally, and that overreaching and over-playing lead to injuries one normally would see in much older players, as well as burnout.

Koa offers sports programs in baseball, flag football, field hockey and basketball. There are recreational, intermediate and travel divisions, which are designed to meet the needs of sports players in all levels of proficiency. Koa prides itself on accepting and valuing kids at all skill levels. They realize that there are kids who may have sports careers in high school, college and professional leagues, and there are kids who are not destined to move beyond their recreational teams, but who can benefit greatly from playing a sport. However, Koa does have an impressive record of its athletic alumni finding sports success in sports. Ninety percent of Koa's 14U travel baseball players have made their high school teams, and they have groomed players who went on to play for college baseball teams at Yale, Emory, Amherst, Lafayette, Sewanee, Macalester and more. This past June, Koa had its first alumnus drafted in the MLB amateur draft.

The backbone of Koa is its professional coaching staff. Koa's coaching method is one of the most distinguishable aspects of Koa versus other local leagues. Koa believes there is no substitute for the expertise and objectivity they bring to the sports experience for both kids and their parents. Coaches receive routine staff training and are schooled in the Koa core values - positivity, dedication, putting team first and having fun. They are expected to demonstrate these values at all times. Coaches are accountable to a full-time, professional program director of every Koa sport, not a parent volunteer board member. Korson believes that employing a professional staff eliminates both favoritism, such as unfair placements of kids in sports positions, as well as the social awkwardness that can arise between parents and coaches when fellow parents serve as coaches. Koa parents are serviced as customers, and with this approach comes an effective, open communication system between parents and all Koa staff. One of the most frequent complaints Korson heard from parents in other area leagues was that these leagues were somewhat disorganized due to lack of administrative support. Parental contributions and opinions are highly valued at Koa, as evidenced by parental surveys sent routinely to gauge their satisfaction with Koa's various programs.

Koa parents are bound by a written contract to exhibit responsible and appropriate behavior at sports practices and games. Koa takes this contract very seriously and has spent considerable time and money on developing it. Korson considers learning sportsmanship and teamwork to be of the utmost importance for kids in Koa's programs and believes that parents must lead by example.

Koa is rooted firmly in the practice of community building and "leaving no child on the sidelines." Koa has partnerships with the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, which brings baseball to inner city children, and Level the Playing Field, which provides sports equipment to those in need. Additionally, they offer a Play It Forward scholarship fund, which gives young athletes a chance to play Koa sports through donations from Koa's community.

Koa's core mission is "shaping kids' lives through sports." Koa is committed to shaping these lives by infusing the sports experience with fun, solid skill development, a structured supportive environment and by cementing the many important values that can be learned from playing sports. Overcoming adversity, perseverance, cooperation and collaboration with others and self-discipline are just some of the life lessons learned on the field.

Since options for local youth sports leagues abound, it is hard for parents to decide where to engage their children. Every league has its own philosophy and various programs to offer and many are well-established, strong organizations that produce competitive players. Koa has a solid record of player development in its low-pressure, fun-focused environment. It is a unique and welcome alternative to the hyper-intense sports culture that can turn playing into a chore, pit parents and coaches as adversaries and threatens to eliminate the love of the game.

Paula Lefkowitz is a Rockville mom of two sons who play baseball year-round through Koa Sports.