Monday, September 29, 2014

The Brave New World of Coaching and Parenting in the Age of Travel Teams

With the fall interscholastic season well under way, I think it would be a good time to reflect on the role of  Head Coach and increasingly complicated position he or she now finds himself in, especially as high school sports has become more and more entangled in the business of “training, promoting, and marketing athletes.”

Let me first address that final point. There was a time not so long ago when high school coaches were forbidden from working with their players in the summertime; in fact they were, as well,  only allowed to meet once in the off-seasons with the players. Not only could they not work with the players over the summer, they weren’t even allowed to work at camps which their players attended. I’m sure the NJSIAA’s policy was well intended, but oftentimes it resulted in a cat and mouse game with coaches reporting on other coaches, while coaches became stealthy and secretive in their activities.

That rule has since been rescinded, and now the pendulum has swung the other way, with many coaches now reaping incredible financial rewards working with their players and those from other programs. It’s no coincidence that the year the rule was rescinded we saw the rise of Tri-State Lacrosse, probably the gold standard of travel programs, at least in lacrosse.

High school players have become willing commodities in this new market for year round athletes, with parents paying thousands of dollars to help provide their kids with “opportunities” for more training, exposure, and competitive play. You didn’t think that coaches would work with their players out of the goodness of their hearts when there was a buck or two to be made?

And it’s not just the high school athletes, increasingly these programs promote to players as young as fourth grade. Summertime used to be a time for unorganized play, having fun, relieving stress, and giving your body time to develop properly. Now we have doctors seeing pre-teens showing signs of injuries once reserved for college age players.

When I started this article I was actually feeling some sympathy for the high school coaches caught up in this, but the more I write the more the more I realize that a large number of these coaches are complicit in this enterprise. It’s hard not to turn away I suppose. Truth be told I may end up coaching a summer team myself, though as a volunteer.

What I wonder is how many parents do an actual cost-benefit analysis of these programs and their motivation for getting involved. Are they hoping to gain a competitive advantage for their kids? Are they simply looking for an activity that would be “fun” for their youngster? Are they desperately looking for a way they can “bond” with their child?

It is certainly true that competitive team sports can teach invaluable “life lessons” to their children, and that definitely can’t be dismissed. But are travel teams necessary to impart these “lessons?” Just as it is important to acknowledge the positives of organized sports, there are some other facts that must be acknowledged as well.

According to a 2013 Michigan State survey, thirty five million children ages 5-18 play organized sports, with approximately 66% of boys and 52% of girls getting involved. But by the age of 13, 70% of them drop out, and an ever increasing number of those that remain are being drawn to these summer travel programs and becoming year-round “specialists” in one or two particular sports. I’ll leave aside my concerns for repetitive motion injuries and the psychological harms being created. And I readily admit that many players are sincerely having a good time. I do, however, want to provide a reality check for those families who believe they are providing a competitive advantage for their kids.

First of all, there are some children that are “natural athletes,” and for them there is unlikely any “need” to play one sport all year. In fact many of the college coaches I spoke to would prefer that their potential recruits had a more diversified experience. And as far a playing in college goes, the stark reality is that only 2% of high school athletes receive scholarships, and rarely a full ride. Fewer than 7% of varsity baseball players make it to the NCAA; for basketball and soccer the numbers are 3.3 and 5.7 percent respectively.

We will never go back to the days when high school coaches were kept away from their players in the off-season, and it seems unlikely that the trend of summer and year round travel teams for pre-teens and high school players will be reversed. Coaching travel team families (the parents are part of the bargain) complicates the dynamics of high school sports, and is one of many changes that coaches must navigate as they build their program and coach the games. In my next article I will delve deeper into the art of coaching in this “new age” of student-athletes, then turn our attention to youth sports and the challenges faced by parents who volunteer to coach community teams, because regardless of age, it is a brave new world out there.



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