Everyone should be “Missing” High School Sports

As so many teenagers around the country are literally and figuratively “missing” their high school sports season, I sadly share this post from earlier this school year as I think there should be a lot more kids who have the luxury of missing such and important part of a youngsters life.

Dear Friends in 2-4-1 –
My good friend Jeff Billing was the rare two-sport college athlete. He ran cross country and pitched for the baseball team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I personally can’t even imagine myself surviving the academics of M.I.T., never mind juggling two incredibly distinct sports on top of it! But, Jeff is pretty special. After a stint at Oracle in California upon his graduation, Jeff realized his true passion was teaching math and coaching kids. I’ve seen first hand just how gifted he is at both. He moved to Connecticut about a decade ago and he joined the faculty at the school I was coaching and counseling – and we became instant friends. One of 2-4-1’s first coaches, he was also coaching hoops, indoor track and baseball initially, but also volunteered with our cross country program – then 5 years ago – was named the head XC coach. What he has done since is nothing short of extraordinary. This past week, nearly 140 boys were out for his program. Think about that – that’s nearly 20% of the entire male population at William H. Hall High School and while they are about the 25th largest school in Connecticut, that number is more than double any other team in the state and is the largest cross country team in all of New England – if not the Northeast. 
BUT – and this is a sad but….you have likely seen a variation of the recent report that for the first time in 30 years, participation in High School Sports has dropped. 
Here’s one of many articles about it happening nationally: Click HERE
And here is one about it happening locally (here in Connecticut): Click HERE
As you see – Jeff’s success is the exception when it should be the rule.
I don’t want to harp on the problem, but -before talking potential solutions and using Jeff’s program as a model approach – let me share a couple of bullets (could share 100s) that I hope hit the point home on what I think has gotten us to this point.

  • We compete too early and too often. I would estimate that by the time I reached HS (14years old), I competed in formal games against other teams less than 50 times – and never once was one of those games more than a 20 minute drive away. But – we now have 4th graders in travel soccer (often a 3 season commitment), travel basketball and travel baseball (which can roll far into summer) who are competing in games all year round, with officials, with the score “mattering”, with parents screaming AND an expectation (internally from the child) that if you don’t perform well that you might be demoted to the dreaded “B” team or God forbid “the C” team. And sometimes you have to drive 400 miles to play against a team from a town that is 11 miles from you.  
  • Multiply that 4th grader competing 125 times a year by the 5 years before high school and that kid has competed 625 times in contests that someone has made he/she believe to matter -before they’re 14.  
  • With the exception of the exceptional athlete, most kids go out for high school sports to meet friends, have a healthy outlet, and hopefully have fun. But even for the exceptional athlete, if you’ve competed 625 times, you might think – “this is just more of the same…I quit”.

This didn’t happen overnight. Like recessions, there are long term factors that started years and years ago that led to the present day problem. If we looked at our decline in HS Sports as a recession, the following are just a few indicators I think we could trace to:

  • The rise of club sports and pay-to-play models all the way from PreK through HS
  • No Child Left Behind forced a shift toward academic “seat time”. What was sacrificed were minutes in physical education and recess.
  • Video game companies are better at marketing to kids than youth sport organizations are – and those companies have now gained significant market share and are not willing to let go without a fight (or maybe a collaboration).
  • Schools have made the mistake of letting kids go home. Nationally, the decline in intramurals has preceded the decline in HS sport participation. We should bring back intramural programs in every public school in America grades 3-8. If we send them home, it is now often to an empty home with two working parents (or a single parent working two jobs) and kids are not organizing themselves at local playgrounds. So, the only ones doing sports are those who have parents who can afford to pay the fee for participation and/or have the means to transport them there.

So, what can we do to turn this giant ship around;

  • Bring back intramurals. If a kid excitedly shows up at a high school tryout for a sport like volleyball, and a majority of the kids on the sidelines have been playing on a club team and you don’t even know the rules, you might walk out before the tryout even begins. Intramurals are a safe place for kids to sample sports and “try them out” before considering what sports they might want to pursue.
  • We need to stop competing so much and traveling so dang far to do it. Let’s be honest – this is adult driven. Timmy and Susie could care less about playing against “TinyTown USA” – they just tell you they like it because they get to swim in the pool at the hotel with their friends after the game and you buy them fast food along the way. They’d be just as content playing a pick up game at the school yard, swimming at their friends or the community pool and then having you take them out for ice cream after dinner.
  • We have to stop blaming video game companies and learn from them. They ask kids what they want – and then they deliver. It’s really a simple formula. You know what kids want – go back to point #2 above – they want to stop competing so much and have more opportunities for free play!

And – we need to learn from those programs that are successful and are bucking the trend. I asked Jeff earlier today what he thinks the key to so many kids being in his program is and he said this… “We make every team member feel valued. At practice we talk more about the slower kids who are improving than the superstars and in doing so we honor every single kid. We make them feel a part of it. Everyone wants to be a part of something special. We have 4 goals every season: 1. Get fast, 2. Have fun, 3. Learn something about yourself, 4. Create lifelong friendships.
Replace that first goal with any sport specific “ability” related goal and keep the next 3 – and there’s your recipe. Want kids to go out and stay out for high school sports – who wouldn’t want to have fun, learn something (really learn something) about themselves and create lifelong friendships? You do that – and you do belong to something truly special. And you keep coming back – and you bring someone along with you!
Want to reverse this horrible national trend – let’s put our resources into ideas and solutions that are working!! Let’s be part of something special by bringing back the concept of having kids be part of something special – and then delivering on that!