Sunday, February 25 , 2018, 1:35 pm | Fair 61º


Club Versus School Sports: A Burnout-Inducing Showdown

When my seventh-grade students presented me with a custom T-shirt they had made on, I have to admit I was a bit frightened.

I have been coaching for over two decades at Santa Barbara Middle School, and I have been regularly ranting on about my frustrations with club sports and their steadily rising negative impacts on the teams, but I never expected to be confronted with my opinions in writing.  

There they were: my own personal views immortalized in ink and cotton for the world to see — if I could be bold enough to wear it.  

Up until I began conducting my research for this paper, my views came from my own experiences — interactions with my athletes and their parents and observations of students between the ages of 11–15 who were truly stressed out from having to choose between their school team and a club team.  

Through the years, I began to observe that the source of their stress was not coming just from practical aspects like finding time for schoolwork, travel-time or long, physically rigorous hours of practice. To me, the true source of their stress seemed to be coming from the pressure to choose.  

Even though playing in club sports can help young athletes specialize and excel in their sport of choice, that decision has had negative impacts on school athletic programs and young athletes who experience fatigue and burnout, over-use injuries and a “race to nowhere” mentality.  

Over the past two decades, as club sports have risen in popularity across the country, a steadily growing number players are faced with deciding whether chose between their club team and their school team (Burke, Cavanaugh, Sharma, Trageser, 2012).  

This is not a new phenomena, as extra-curricular activities have always had a role in the enrichment of our kids' lives, and there is no arguing that there are inherent benefits that are derived from participating in club sports.

What is new is a growing perception that these activities, specifically in the club sports arena, are critical to advanced achievement and success in high school, college and beyond.  

While there is no denying that club sports do offer athletes a chance to specialize in the sport of their choice, which increases and often expedites development of skills and prowess, many experts agree that that quest has come at significant costs to young athletes and their schools.

According to the Director of "Changing The Game Project”, John O'Sullivan, and as evidenced in movies such as "The Race to Nowhere," our kids are all too often engaged in " adult driven, hyper-competitive race to the top in both academics and athletics that serves the needs of the adults, but rarely the kids." (O'Sullivan, 2009).

This narrative in the USA is not new. As a result of the growing acceptance of this narrative as unhealthy, many parents are working hard to reinvigorate the notions that childhood is a time of critical development in all aspects of the mind, spirit and body, and that an unbalanced emphasis to develop any one aspect is just that...unbalanced.

While parents perceive that they are helping their children develop a passion for sports, they could be setting the stage for the exact opposite. Youth athletes experience burnout at a much higher rate when they are pushed to emphasize intensely on one sport (O'Sullivan, 2009).  

According to a study conducted by the University of Florida, long-term athletic-development best practices research shows that delaying specialization into the early teenage years plays a major part in both decreasing chances of burnout and injury and promoting long term enjoyment of the sport (Sagas, 2013).  

Only a very small percentage of athletes go on to specialize in their sports in the long term and enjoy success doing so. It should be our goal as a country to help our kids delay the picking of one specialty sport so they have a better chance to develop a long-term appreciation  for and a long-term reaping of the benefits that come from playing in competitive sports programs.

Last season, my girls soccer team played their hearts out in the finals and became the league champions. This win was a particularly satisfying victory for me as their coach because my journey during the season also included numerous practices and key games that were played short-handed because certain players cited other commitments to their club teams.  

Time after time, these players would come to me and say, "If I miss club practice my coach will bench me in the next game," or "My coach won't start me in the tournament."

If one reads between the lines here, one can see the dilemma these kids face having to choose between their school and their club and the pressure that puts on these 11 year old girls.  

This type of situation is part of a trend I have seen grow over the past 20 years. As a school coach and a product of public school athletics, I have to wonder how club coaches and their programs have surpassed school athletics in terms of their importance to young athletes and where those athletes should award their allegiances.  

According to the NCAA website, only about 2 percent of all high school athletes are awarded some sort of athletic scholarship to compete in college.  

An equally small percentage, 6 percent, of athletes will actually transition from high school sports to the NCAA and only 2 percent of those athletes will move on to compete in professional sports (NCAA, 2014).  

With the odds so low of our athletes actually seeing some sort of financial gain, whether it be college financial aid or a professional salary, somehow the notion that starting on the "club sport track" has crept into the minds of many American families as a sign of good parenting.  

Santa Barbara Middle School is unique. We are the only stand-alone, independent middle school in our state with 155 students total for grades 6–9 that mainly come from the public system and then return after graduation.  

Students and families do not come to us for one particular specialty like sports or academics, but rather they seek us because we have a well-rounded and revered curriculum that includes a nationally renowned outdoor or experiential education program.  

We teach to the whole child and push them to achieve their own personal best in all aspects of their education with us, which includes team sports where we have a "everybody plays" rule to encourage kids with little to no experience to play alongside highly skilled and experienced athletes.  

We believe that, at this age, the vast majority of children have yet to discover their "passion" and yet are poised and ready to try new things.  

A growing number of kids are arriving at our doors having already established themselves within the club sports circuit and therefore have prior commitments that make it difficult to fully become part of our sports and arts community.  

While we are a community that prides itself on being a voice for awareness in the "Race to Nowhere” mentality, we are not immune to it.  

Our families are busy being the best they can be by providing the best opportunities they can for their kids.  But in that effort to “provide", we find the very essence of a growing dilemma that Bridgit Schulte of The Washington Post addresses in her article, "In McLean, a crusade to get people to back off in the parenting arms race." 

In her article, Schulte interviews Wilma Bowers, the Parent-Teacher-Student Association president at McLean High School, one of the top-ranked public schools in Virginia. Bower is fighting to convince parents in a highly competitive school district that pushing their kids for high academic achievement and club-sports excellence is not supporting healthy emotional development for children. 

"Nearly one-third of high school seniors at McLean report that they have felt so depressed for more than two weeks that their work was affected, the most recent risk survey found. Only 10 percent sleep for the recommended eight hours a night. One in 10 admit to taking prescription drugs that aren’t theirs." (Schulte, 2014). 

Renowned California psychologist and avid leader in the authentic success movement, Madeline Levine, was invited to speak to the McLean parent body and described what she called, “the lawn-mower parent” as the parent who is “mowing down all obstacles to smooth their child’s way only to make it harder for those children to fail and learn to recover on their own.” (Schulte, 2014).

When considering the low percentages of students that actually see long term success and enjoyment from athletics, it makes one wonder why kids are being passionately encouraged by parents to specialize in a particular sport so early. 

Recently there has been a large spotlight that has brought horrifying stories and statistics into our collective awareness nationally about head trauma and the long-term effects of playing tackle football, an injury that falls into the category the medical field know as “over-use” or “repetitive” trauma in athletes. 

According to the US National Library of Medicine and The Journal of Athletic Training, “Overuse or repetitive trauma injuries represent approximately 50 percent of all pediatric sport-related injuries.” (Journal of Athletic Training, 2011). 

Many pediatricians, including Dr. James Andrews, renowned orthopedic surgeon and injury consultant to professional athletes such as Drew Brees and Robert Griffin III reports what he sees as a significant rise in “…young kids — 13, 14, 15, 16 years of age — with what I call adult sports injuries,” (Steinbach, 2013). 

These findings are not just in tackle football. The rise of club sports's popularity and perceived import to success in life has given rise to what is well-known as the “specialized athlete” at a much younger age than in generations past. 

Nowadays, it is very common for a young athlete to choose a sport to specialize in at as early an age as 5 years old and to engage in a year-round schedule of this one sport. 

Dr. Andrews has found that often “parents had no clue that their kids had any real risk. They'd get hurt, all of a sudden it's, ‘Well, I didn't know they'd get hurt playing that sport’ or ‘I didn't know that playing year-round baseball would create a problem with their elbow or their shoulder.’" 

What's worse, the coaches themselves often don’t acknowledge the physical dangers in their pursuit of victory: “The thing I don't want to happen is for this to get into the legal system and then coaches are getting sued because of the things they do. The coaches have to learn there's liability,” says Dr. Andrews.

There are many strong cases to be made for the benefits of having quality sports options outside of our schools in America. 

There is no doubt that these leagues and teams are an integral part in putting out the best athletes that the USA has to offer on our national and international stages. There is no disputing that specialized attention and dedication is critical for skill and prowess development in our athletes. 

Even so, there must be warning flags raised for parents to see that there are risks in following this passion blindly at too young of an age. 

No parent ever sets out to bring harm to his or her child, nor do they want to see their child fail, yet in efforts to “mow” the landscape so kid's have the best opportunities, parents can inadvertently create hazards born of best intentions. 

Parents feel the pressure to succeed at this thing called life and willfully pass on this pressure to kids, often without ever stopping to ask, “Why?”. 

The authentic success movement suggests three guiding principles as benchmarks: Students should be doing something they love; they should be able to support themselves; and they should give something back (Schulte, 2014).

If sports are indeed a passion, the more parents actively support their child's self-generated interests and avoid imposing their own dreams of athletic stardom on kids, young athletes will continue to pursue their own goals to natural conclusions.  

As for this coach, when my students tell me they can’t play because their club coach will punish them, my message has been and always will be, “Tell your coach to call me.”  

But still, no call…

— Marco Andrade still wants to chat with club-team coaches. He teaches eighth-grade Spanish and coaches girl's soccer at Santa Barbara Middle School. 

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