A Troubling Trend: Bypassing the High School Sports Experience

I had the pleasure of speaking with Pentucket High School girls varsity basketball coach John McNamara. Coach McNamara spoke with me about the possibility that student-athletes are bypassing the high school sports experience. Some student-athletes fail to live in the moment because their sol motivation is to play at the next level. At the other extreme, some players fear playing a lesser role or not making the team.

Increased Apathy of a High School Sports Career

Today, the goal for so many athletes even before they get to high school is to play in college. In many cases, it is more the goal of the parents and guardians than the kids. They sign their child up for AAU basketball or club soccer and put them on a tight routine.

There is nothing wrong with these players having collegiate athletic ambitions. In fact, McNamara has coached several players who went on to Division I, Division II, and Division III college programs. The misfortunate part to him is that players are sacrificing the high school experience to attain their goal. Many men go on to play in men’s leagues until they are in their 40s. For women, the window of time tends to be much shorter. McNamara’s former players rave about their high school experience after they played in college. To view four years as a stepping stone to your next four years is a failure to appreciate the moment in McNamara’s eyes.

Club Sports

Here again is an issue that Coach McNamara does not utterly oppose. Many people have asked him over the years about AAU and he has made recommendations. Several of the players on his teams past and present have played AAU basketball. It is not the question of participating for Coach McNamara, but rather the motive for participating.

The AAU and club soccer folks will often rave about the presence of college coaches and the exposure for the athlete. Lost in the shuffle is an essential question, did you actually get better?

After hearing Coach McNamara speak, I Googled “Athlete Burnout” and came across this sports psychology report from a UNC professor and University of Stirling (it’s in Scotland) professor. In the report, the term burnout was defined by one psychologist (Silva) as “the ultimate phase in a maladaptive response to over-training.” Another psychologist (Raedeke and Smith) described it as three things: emotional and physical exhaustion, sport devaluation, and reduced accomplishment.

Multiple Sport Athletes

One idea to help prevent burnout is to ensure that athletes are not over-training. Coach McNamara believes in encouraging student-athletes to play multiple sports. He went so far to say that he does not know any high school coach that encourages players to only play one sport. The idea of specialization comes with a great deal of negative results including burn out and increased risk of injury.

Coach McNamara added that kids that have a favorite sport can still pursue their passion out of season. For instance, a field hockey player who loves basketball can squeeze forty-five minutes in on days where there are easier practices and still manage homework loads. Developing this structure leads to healthy life skills such as self-discipline and pursuing your passion in college and beyond.

Community Pride

Coach McNamara spoke with enthusiasm about the idea of community pride in the high school sports experience. At Pentucket and other communities, young players come to the high school games with their friends. They aspire to be with those same friends on that court someday. The bonds start in grammar school, and as many adults can relate last well after senior year.

Returning to the psychology report, sport devaluation is a costly symptom for burnout. Sport devaluation happens as players perceive their effort is not worth what they are getting out of it. That is seeing the problem from an individual perspective. Notice it is “sport devaluation” and not “teammate devaluation.” There is an opportunity to go away from exclusively thinking, “What’s in it for me?” and moving the spectrum of motivation into helping others experience joy.

Players who are invested in community pride can overcome devaluing the sport because there is another reason to play. The idea of focusing on individual ambitions and the team simultaneously are not mutually exclusive. Not to mention, these players are going to be viewed in a more favorable light by college coaches who value team play.

Are Intimidation and Embarrassment Forcing Players Away?

At the other end of the high school sports experience, there is a group of young people who are intimidated and embarrassed. These are the players who have a deep fear of not making the team.  The number of freshmen programs have diminished in recent years especially in girls’ basketball. Spending time on the bench for student-athletes today is viewed with shame. They would rather stay in the comforts of their phone’s social media posts.

Perhaps the pressure from “expert” peers who aspire to play at the next level causes these players to struggle with self-doubt. That creates two extremes: those that believe they are too good, and those that believe they are not good enough for high school sports. The troubling trend is that the population that perceive themselves in that middle ground is decreasing. As a result, more kids are missing not just basketball (or name your other sport), but an experience of being on a high school team. Teams that can teach them so much about values that they can never get in a classroom and desperately need in the real world.

The Solution to Rediscover the High School Sports Experience

The solution to this social dynamic of the high school sports experience is not easy. Mindsets must change. In order to have a successful season, it is imperative that every player on the roster is adding value. If a player gets limited minutes, but gives high effort then teammates and coaches should recognize them. Again if a team goal is a priority, the players that get more time will feed off of this and also give more effort. All of these collective efforts is what makes up the concept of “team.” When you weigh the relationships and unified goals that players can have in a team experience as McNamara related, it is much more difficult to give up because of a personal lack of confidence.

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