Athletics, Students and Choices
As a former student-athlete (coach & referee too), mom of three(soccer players) and team manager, I’ve have some strong opinions on youth sports. The Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA), (positivecoach.org) was founded by former Chicago Bulls Coach, Phil Jackson. This is an organization that strives to remind our students, parents, coaches, and schools, what the goals of youth sports are; healthy minds and bodies. By visiting the website, you can see the athletes and coaches that have endorsed the organization and who are competitive athletes. What I think the important message is that a parent must find a balance for each of their children. And it’s really important to participate, as part of the adults in our children’s sphere of influence (that includes coaches and teachers) to help our student athletes become what PCA calls a, “The Triple-Impact Competitor®. This is a person who strives to impact the sport on three levels by improving oneself, teammates and the game as a whole."
There are a lot of different ways a high school athlete can participate in sports. Personally, I think it’s important to consider the student athlete and their needs/desires first. Then identify the best way for them to obtain the results. The term student-athlete is not new. My daughter’s high school soccer coach, Rob Kurtz, who is also a guidance counselor at Thomas S. Wootton High School, in the Montgomery County Public School System, and a national winner of the PCA Coaching Award, always emphasized education before athletics. There are plenty of stories of athletes who have become injured and if they didn’t have an education, have no recourse when their athletic careers are finished.
The most traditional form of participation was to play for your home public school. A student playing a sport within their academic community bonds with other peers, learns healthy competition and is more confident and physically fit. Some private schools offer specialized sports programs that are more competitive and focused as an alternative to the public schools. And there are a plethora of club, travel and academy programs that offer higher level training and competition for most sports across the country. An athlete can play in their school or play in both their school and participate in outside programs at the same time, but at what cost?
Mike Sokolove, in his book “Warrior Girls" talked about the epidemic of girl’s sport injuries. His case against overuse, and failure by less knowledgeable coaches to guard against these injuries, is pretty strong. Rob Kurtz altered the training schedule and program at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, MD to include strength and injury prevention, plus reduced the hours of practice (increasing rest) to protect against overuse. A large majority of his athletes (State Champions ’01, '04, '08, '09, ’10, '11, State Finalists ’12) also play in outside soccer programs. He needed to be responsive to the reality of his players. Some travel coaches actually discourage kids from playing for their high school teams (fear of injury) or want their travel programs favored over the schedules of their public school teams. This conflict can put additional mental stress on student athletes. Education researchers will tell us that some of the most important lessons happen outside the classroom on the athletic field or in social settings. As parents, it’s our responsibility to help make these learning experiences count.
The preparation for conversations with college coaches, attendance of summer sport recruitment camps, elite tournament recruitment, and offers to athletes for entrance, or entrance with scholarships, starts early. Athletes not only attend camps to be seen by coaches and demonstrate interest, but have to put together footage from their games, get recommendations from their high school-travel coaches and more. This intensity means that decisions about where to play and for whom will definitely influence the athletes options on the collegiate level.
Does an athlete benefit from having the best coaching and training from the earliest age possible? Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers" examines quite a bit of data that supports not only this but that the birth age also impacts an athlete’s success. He examined the birth age and number of hours trained with levels of athletic success. Gladwell draws a clear conclusion that older kids in a cohort are bigger, get selected earlier, and have access to better coaching earlier. This snowball effect gives kids who are selected earlier more practice with better coaches and a clear advantage. It’s really important to remember that better technical training is only one component in selecting a coach for your child.
It’s really important to have a clear objective of what the student athlete wants. Once this is established, it’s a team effort from the coaches, teachers, and parents to support the athlete. I’ve seen kids burn out way too early from the pressure. As PCA says, it’s a balance and sports are supposed to be fun, and those succeeding put in hard work and are disciplined, but they also love what they do. Who you select to coach your child, or put your trust in, will have a lasting impact on how they view life and approach challenges post education.
If you want to compete on the collegiate level there are Division I, Division II and Division III programs (that vary in quality) plus Club teams. Top programs will require greater dedication, practice and talent. In today’s environment if you don’t play in a more competitive environment, like travel teams, ODP, Development Academies you won’t be visible to the college coaches or prepared for the top competition.
For my own kids, we found a blend of things worked. My daughter played for her high school and took a lot of pride in it. She also played travel soccer and was a strong student. This definitely helped her get into a better school than she would have without being a scholar-athlete. Her emphasis was on academics rather than athletics when she chose a Division III program versus a more competitive Division I program. Division I programs can prepare college players for the next level. In the end she found more enjoyment with intramural sports. My oldest son chose a new sport in college and enjoyed his low stress club team. My youngest has so many sports he loves, who knows what he will do, but as his parent I try to set limits on number of activities per week, expose him to new things and guide him so that he has a positive youth sports experience.