As a kid growing up that all seemed normal, as if that’s what athletes were supposed to do. But now, as a high school Athletic Director, I see up close a disturbing trend with top-rate student-athletes’ becoming single-minded in their focus, cutting back on multi-sport participation, and specializing in just one. Some kids are even leaving their school teams to participate in “elite” travel organizations.
Why? From where I sit, many kids (and their parents) are intoxicated with ambition—the “Tiger-Earl Woods effect”—frantically chasing the rare and elusive D-I scholarship, clearly forgetting the “packaging academics with athletics” philosophy.
I also feel that our state’s high school governing bodies—the ones created to look out for our kids’ best interests—has committed a serious error in judgment by granting to coaches year-round access to their athletes. This well-intentioned decision had hoped to put New York’s high school programs on a par with other states that brag of top-level sports programs. From this seemingly innocent ruling came an epidemic that we now refer to as “Youth Travel Teams.”
Before jumping down my throat, please don’t mistake my message; I am an advocate for providing opportunities for our young student-athletes to get out there and test their skills in many different sports. My thoughts diverge, though, from the “travel team mania” when over-zealous parents and coaches create an imbalance for kids with respect to the time committed to participate in any one sport.
Beware of the trap! Many of the sales tactics employed by clever program directors often under the heading of “development opportunities” can be realized simply, efficiently, and cost-effectively by participating on the teams offered right at your school. There are no guarantees that playing a sport year round will prepare you to participate at the collegiate level, as some coaches will promise.
As early as the age of eight, kids are being pressured into a year-round commitments to a single sport! Since when have coaches become able to determine a child’s athletic potential at eight years of age? In point of fact, accurately assessing the pre-pubescent child’s long-term physical development and fit for post-pubescent athletic participation is exceedingly difficult. In other words, we can’t know with any certainty how kids will turn out; so keep them busy learning and enjoying as many sports as they and you can manage.
We have all seen the outstanding athlete who “ripped it up” in youth soccer, Pop Warner football, and CYO basketball, only to fall out of sight when they hit the JV & Varsity levels. How could this happen? Genetics plays a large role, but over-use injuries do too—tennis elbow, Achilles tendonitis, growth plate fractures, ACL tears, and the ever-popular blackberry thumb. I never even heard of this stuff when I was growing up.
Student-athletes have four high school years to create memories for the rest of their lives. And I speak with hundreds of college coaches each year, and the second question they ask me (the first always targeting the student’s academics) is “what other sports does the kid play?”.
We need to take the ownership back of our children. Let’s send a message to the Travel Teams that request a year round commitment from our children: thanks, but no thanks.
If we work together we can get high school athletics back where it use to be: a time when kids played sports for fun, for pride in one’s school, and for the love of competition. Do that, folks, and the scholarships will take care of themselves. Long live the multi-sport athlete!
Richard Pound is a consultant and author of Packaging Academics with Athletics