A blast of the whistle and a long day of school and practice was finally over. All Tamika wanted to do on the drive home was to sleep, but her mother reminded her that she still had math and English homework. Her mom, Brenda, didn’t mind driving her daughter an hour and a half to New Jersey for practice. After all, the out-of-school team her daughter was playing on had a reputation for getting its players into Division I colleges. Brenda was still worried that with all this traveling, however, Tamika’s grades would suffer.
Monroe felt that his son needed a break from football and wanted him to have the opportunity to have fun and play another sport during the off-season. Monroe understood the value in sending his son to camps and clinics to get a different perspective, but he didn’t understand why his son’s high school coach couldn’t help out during the school year.
Laura is a teacher and considers herself a proud member of what she calls the “Bo Knows Generation.” Like Bo Jackson, Laura and her husband were multi-sport athletes in high school and played sports in college. Laura believes that it’s “super important” for their three kids to have the same type of opportunities.
If the purpose of education-based athletics is to provide opportunity and a level playing field for fair competition, schools face a challenge when they try to meet the differing needs of today’s athletes without compromising state association bylaws and regulations.
While the above-mentioned parents believe in the value of school-based athletics and have supported their children’s participation, for a variety of reasons their children have also been involved in club, travel and other out-of-school programs. Although state high school associations have made every effort to protect the health and well-being of student-athletes and to foster multi-sport opportunities, it no longer seems to be enough.
Unfortunately, some students and parents see sports as a means rather than an end. As a result of this change in mindset, the role of education-based athletics has been challenged by outside community teams that offer fewer restrictions. Ironically, the very restrictions put in place to protect our student-athletes are leading parents and athletes away from the school-based environment.
High school coaches have also voiced their concerns about athletes playing for uncertified coaches with little training and feeling restricted by well-intentioned rules that limit contact with their players out of season during the school year. Brittany, a field hockey coach, expressed her concern that many “athletes have been receiving instruction from parents in the off-season who have limited knowledge of the sport and how the rules have evolved over time.”
While the phrase “out-of-season coaching” just seems too broad and vague for Jeff, a varsity baseball coach, he said “It’s hard to pick a side and say I am for or against it. But most coaches want to provide kids opportunities to get better without running the risk of getting in trouble.”
Zac, who up until recently coached volleyball, saw many of his aspiring student-athletes put in a tough spot. “They don’t have the money or the flexibility to commit to playing for a club or travel team and I was restricted from helping them during specific times.” He wondered, “Isn’t it better for an athlete to work with a high school coach, who is vetted and monitored by a school district, than a club coach who might be looking for financial gain or notoriety for themselves. Right now, high school coaches are losing that debate.”
While it’s hard to argue with coaches who want to coach, most state high school associations operate under the premise that member schools will self-monitor and self-report. The association gets involved only after a violation is reported.
Unintended consequences are not violations and yet they may have a dramatic impact upon school-based athletics. Coaches may influence athletes who are currently participating in multiple sports to concentrate on only one sport, which may lead to the demise of some athletic programs in some smaller schools.
In addition, there may be some unfilled coaching positions as multi-sport coaches concentrate on a particular sport. In states where school choice is an option, schools with strong athletic programs may flourish while others wither away, along with the potential for coaching burnout. All these concerns must be weighed and answered before making any decision.
In the end, however, parents and athletes may force an ultimate result. How do you respond to a parent who asks, “Why should my child have to travel hours to get the coaching she needs?” or “Why can’t a coach assist in a camp in which his or her players participate?” or when they make the statement “I know what’s best for my child.” Because, regardless of what the rules say, parents are always trying to find a way to do what is best for their child.
“Coaches and athletes need to develop a trusting relationship and have time to support the growth of the sport,” said Tara, the mother of two budding student-athletes. “My son is too young to have to ‘pick’ just one sport. But not allowing coaches, who know what they’re doing and can help him develop, to be involved, just doesn’t make sense to me.”
If high schools and state associations are to continue being the of guardians of school-based athletics, helping to fulfill the dreams of our athletes by providing opportunity, regardless of skill level or socio-economic background, then they must adapt to the needs of our student-athletes. High school leaders should consider re-examining rules and regulations that would allow athletes who want to do more and coaches who want to give more the opportunity to do so.
In addition, it would be wise to involve parents, athletes and coaches in the process. State associations must not make the mistake of projecting themselves as being more concerned with the enforcement of rules instead of meeting the needs of student-athletes or they may find themselves becoming irrelevant.
Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald is the superintendent of the Caesar Rodney School District in Delaware and a former member of the NFHS Board of Directors. Fitzgerald is the 2018 NASS National Superintendent of the Year.