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I had the honour of giving a talk at TEDx WestVancouverED this past Saturday.  What made it even more enjoyable is that I did it with my oldest daughter Liz.  There is likely another post coming about the event and the process once the video is posted, but I wanted to share  the script for our talk along with the slides.  Liz and I both feel strongly about this topic, and think it is a good conversation starter.

As a little background, here is Liz’s bio from the program:

Liz Kennedy is a high school student at McMath Secondary School in Richmond.  She balances her academics with participation in various leadership activities and sports including five school sports:  cross country, volleyball, basketball, track and swimming.   Liz is a committed student, experienced vegetarian and patient older sister to her three younger siblings.

Below are the slides (if you receive this post via email you may need to open the post on the website to see the slides) and our script which each of our parts labeled:

Liz
From a young age I have always played a lot of sports.  From cheer, to swimming, to baseball to basketball, sports have always been and still are a big part of my life. My parents put me in numerous sports starting at a very young age and they continue to be a part of everyday life for my siblings and I.
And when you have 3 siblings, your parents often see if they can have more than one child on the same team, which has meant my brother who is only one year younger than me and I have often played together on the same teams.  This is strange for some people – but I am not quite sure why.  When I run track or swim I always train with boys and girls – so why should baseball or basketball any different.
All kids care about is if you can play.  If you’re good, willing to be competitive and a hard worker boys will play against you just like any other guy. In my over ten years of playing sports, I have never felt boys didn’t want me to play with them because of my gender.

Chris

As long as she has been playing my wife and I have been driving, coaching and cheering from the side.  I know the crazy sports parents talk is for a different time.  We have always wanted our kids to be exposed to a lot of sports.  We grew up in busy homes of arts, culture and athletics and we have wanted the same for our kids.  And while kids don’t seem to care about gender, parents are full of opinions.

Parents seem to get all caught up in gender.  I grew up in a house of boys, so I never really thought about gender and sports.  When I look back, I don’t think I ever played with girls on my soccer, baseball, or hockey teams.  That of course does not make it right then or now.  It is one of the last areas where it seems many feel that the genders should be separated, somehow to protect both genders from a young age.  But I wonder to protect them from what?  And at what expense?

As Liz said,  her playing boys sports was often out of convenience.  With her brother one year younger and sports often spanned two years – so we could have 2 kids at the same place at the same time if they played together.  The responses I received were often surprising.  First, there were those that thought it was a great statement of courage – I never really understood that – it was just kids playing sports.   More concerning,  I have been told a lot of crazy reasons why people are uncomfortable to have girls like Liz playing with their sons.  From worries about “injuries” like she is breakable, to acting as though they are not thinking it themselves but worried about “other” parents, to wanting to argue that this is actually discrimination against boys.  And to be honest, several far worse, that may get dismissed by some as “locker room talk” that I won’t repeat.  And it is not just dads, it is moms as well.  Parents seem to carry their antiquated views from their youth to parenthood.

Liz

Just this past spring a team an all girls team from Spain with players around 13 years old won a 14 team league that featured all boys teams. Even though parents were worried that their little girls might get hurt by the boys, the girls convinced them otherwise. The girls knew that the only way they were going to get better was by playing against the best, which sadly in Spain where girls grass-roots programs receive almost no funding, meant playing in a “boys” league.  Coaches of the other teams questioned the decision as did the referees and the boys parents. The only people who didn’t care? The boys they were playing against. They got good games against a really good team. Everyone was getting better and most importantly everyone was having fun. Contrary to what we see often see girls and boys can have fun playing sports with and against each other.

 And yes, of course we still need girls only sports, because we have particular issues still with girls getting and staying active and sometimes single gender opportunities can make them feel safe. That’s why we should have co-ed and girls only. While parents might not believe it, but girls can be and are just as competitive as boys their age, and often at young ages bigger and stronger. While there may be the odd sport exception, I am not sure why we need any “boys” sports.
When making teams or putting together groups there are so many other ways to organize young people in sports. At young ages girls can be bigger than the boys. So size is definitely one better way to organize teams. You can also easily organize teams by skill so that all kids regardless of gender are appropriately challenged. What about age? what school they go to? and who their friends are? Why do we always jump to sorting by gender when there are so many other options we could explore? In sports like swimming and track, there are ways we can add more mixed gender relays and such that promote gender integration by having girls and boys competing on the same team.
Chris
Our views on gender have evolved quickly.  Since many of us were in school there are dramatic shifts away from stereotypes of boys as the doctors and girls as the nurses, and the men being the ones who work outside the home and women being the ones who are the keepers of the home.  And in the last decade thinking around homosexuality and more recently transgendered persons has rightfully changed thinking from marriage to bathrooms.  Yet, we do still hold to some traditions.
And the argument isn’t that we should not ever consider gender when it comes to sports.  Things do change around puberty, but in most sports there are few reason why kids up until about 12 years of age can’t play together.  It is not to say there are no gender differences but do they really require us to separate them in physical activities. So maybe we are not making the high school basketball team co-ed that doesn’t mean there are not a number of changes we can make.  And in the end sports, in particular youth sports, are about fun and being social, and don’t we want this to be done in an inclusive environment as possible.
We want sports to build strong, confident youth.  We want young boys and girls to recognize that boys and girls are different but rather than girls being “courageous” for playing with boys we have to find ways for this to be the norm.  As Liz said, there is a need for girls sports alongside co-ed sports, we need structures that get more young people active.  Too often girls sports are perceived as “less” than boys sports.  Removing gender tags can assist in tackling some of the sexism that is rampant in sports from young ages through to professionals.  The kids seem to have figured this out, but the adults are slow to change.  Messages young people see send strong statements, some that last a lifetime – and what a powerful message it is that from our very youngest ages, we all can share the same field, court or rink.
Liz 
I am happy to Play Like a Girl. And I will do it proudly, yes, what was seen as insult when my mom was growing up is now often a compliment. It is proof that our world is changing for the better. Youth sports can help speed up the changing. When I am told I throw like a girl, or run like a girl, or play like a girl – I say thank you.
Instead of BOYS soccer, BOYS Baseball, and BOYS hockey – what is there was just soccer, baseball and hockey. Since when does the gender define the sport? This could have a huge impact beyond just these sports.
Moms and Dads running leagues listen to your sons, they don’t care that I am a girl, like me your sons just want to play the sport they love.  Everyone just wants to get better and have a lot of fun. So let’s get on with it.

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Apparently reports of the demise of the volunteer coach have been greatly exaggerated.

The world of youth sports has definitely changed over the last 20 years, and is still in the midst of tremendous change.  I have previously written (here) on how challenges of safety, cost, and the balancing with academics are all providing challenges for our traditional view of school sports.  So, as we prepare to celebrate our coaches in our school district with an annual celebration and thank-you for their time – I have been struck by how many volunteer coaches we have in our district.

In our district of just over 7,000 students we have over 300 volunteer sports coaches.  For colleagues outside of Canada reading this post it is worth noting that public schools do not pay coaches in Canada.  Coaches are all volunteers.  And given all the gas money, post game team slurpee purchases amongst other costs, volunteer coaching costs people money in schools.  And while schools often recognize coaches with Starbucks Cards and school logoed golf shirts, and districts like ours host year-end barbecues, it is really just a token recognition for all the time put into coaching.

At one point school sports coaches were almost exclusively staff members.  And teachers, administrators and support staff are still a huge part of the coaching contingent.  They are joined by parents and other community members.  One particularly noticeable group is former parents, who continue to volunteer well after their children have graduated.  Also students play an increasing role in coaching.  Very often elementary teams get help from high school volunteers, and in high schools senior students support the grade 8 programs.

Connections to the school through athletics are still very important.  They can be crucial for students to build a sense of connection to school and help define a peer group.  Of course, almost universally, the coaches speak about the two-way street of benefits provided by coaching.  Staff coaches talk about how the connections they build outside the classroom enhance their abilities to connect to students in the classroom, and community coaches appreciate the opportunity to help within the positive school environment and share their passions with young people.  I will regularly talk with retired colleagues who tell stories of teams, games and trips as the most wonderful memories of their careers.

And to be clear, there are staff, students, parents and community members volunteering in a huge range of areas in our schools to create opportunities for students, a similar post could likely be written about fine arts, but in an era when many factors are pulling us away from school-centric athletics it is worth noting and celebrating how many people are still contributing.

For another day, there is a post to be written about how we better support and recognize all of our volunteers in school (staff and community).  But this is more about celebrating.  In a world when we often think volunteerism is slipping, and that fewer  people are giving of their time, and the politics of schools over the last twenty years have made people less ready to give of their free time – we have a great story to tell.  We have hundreds of mentors working with thousands of students – building connections and memories.

The volunteer coach is one of the rich traditions of our school sports system.  And one we must never take for granted.

To all those in West Vancouver and beyond who have given time to coach this year – thank you.

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1951-52_Old_Forge_High_School_Basketball_Team

This is the first of two posts on the subject of school athletics.  I was planning to start with a series of reasons why today’s students may be the final generation to see sports in school as we know them but instead I am saving that for my next post.  For this first post I want to outline five reasons why school sports may continue well into the future.

School sports have always been a big part of my life, as a student, a teacher and a parent.  Some of my most wonderful friendships are because of connections I made through school athletics.  I do think we are in rapidly changing times, and suggesting that school sports may slowly disappear from our schools is not too far-fetched (As a bit of a preview I think issues like cost, safety, available coaches, onerous regulations and increased competition are all challenging school sports).  That said, I find a number of compelling reasons that may mean the obstacles will be just that obstacles, and school sports will continue well into the future.

Here are five reasons that can lead me to believe those of you watching your children play school sports, will get to repeat the rite of passage with your grandchildren.

Firstly, nostalgia is big in schools.  One of the qualities that people like about schools is they generally look the same for children as they did for their parents.  Adults often romanticize their school sports experiences – from cheering on the football team, to scoring the winning goal in the soccer game. School rituals are often slow to change thus one could argue school sports are not going anywhere.  There will be too much of a push to keep them.  And while one can point to some jurisdictions around the world that don’t have them, they never have.  School sports are such a part of the fabric of our schools.

Somewhat related, is that high school sports receive much more media coverage that community sports.  When the media chooses to shine a light on school sports the public watches and listens which then influences the decisions young people make around sports.  We are especially fortunate in British Columbia with Howard Tsumura at the Province Newspaper.  No other major daily paper in the country gives the attention to high school sports as the Vancouver Province and Howard’s work, like his recent piece on why he loves high school basketball, helps ensure school sports are in the public eye.  From our major daily newspapers, to television to local community papers there is far more coverage for teenagers playing school sports than those playing community sports.  And this, in turn, helps to continue to support high school sports programs.

While there are many others in the community offering sporting opportunities, school districts in British Columbia, and across North America, own most of the gymnasiums.  So when it comes to sports like volleyball, basketball, badminton and wrestling, it makes sense for schools to offer them since they have the facilities.  For outside providers to offer these sports they have to pay gym rentals which can be often cost prohibitive.  In other countries gymnasiums are like hockey rinks in Canada, and community facilities.  As long as schools own the places where sports take place they will continue to be primary providers of the sports.

Another real potential for school sports is that, like with so much else in our schools, sports programs will evolve and new models will be created.  I am particularly vested in this as we are trying just that in West Vancouver.  For us, we have taken one of the primary school sports, basketball, and wrapped some programming around it (HERE) that help support athletes, develop coaches and keep students at their home school.  For better or worse, sports have changed where almost all sports offer year-round options and training begins at much younger ages.  School sports and community sports need to form new partnerships so that students are not left to select between playing sports at school and the community. There also needs to be different entry points – so you can have a team that has a range of commitment levels but all those involved have access to training and support to meet their levels of interest.  Our thinking around new models, is that rather than have all students attend one school with a particular sports passion, how do we support them at multiple schools, so they can continue to compete for their home schools and we can reinforce the value of inter-school competition.

Another possibility to ensure the long-term viability of school sports is some sort of new hybrid model of recreation and competition.  There is clearly a global push to have all our students be more active.  Our traditional sports have often been about selecting some students to participate in a model where a small percentage of the student body actually participate.  There are exceptions like football and rugby that have larger numbers, but it is generally true that school teams are quite small given the overall population of many schools.  One possibility is that a new group of sports emerge / reemerge that have larger teams and are more recreation based.  We have seen this with the growth of Ultimate in schools. Another possibility is that increased resources shift from inter-school teams to in-house intramural programs

There are major shifts happening in schooling.  And so many shifts with the nature of teaching and learning.  It is interesting that so far most of the discussion around school sports seem to be about trying to return them to some glory days of the past.  In the next post I will outline some real challenges that seem to be facing school sports moving forward.

There are many who would argue that they just couldn’t imagine schools without sports as we know them. But that is not really the purpose of this post – it is not about whether they are important, it is about the drives and blockers to their long term success.

As I talk to athletes and coaches and read stories in the newspaper, in many ways school sports are continuing to make a difference like they always have before.  And, of course, they have a lot going for them to assume this will continue into the future.

 

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throw ball

There has been an important recognition in schools, particularly at the junior grades, that we need to be doing more to keep kids active.  In British Columbia Action Schools BC have been leaders in this effort.  They are, in part:

a best practices whole-school model designed to assist elementary and middle schools in creating and implementing individualized action plans to promote healthy living while achieving academic outcomes and supporting comprehensive school health.

Daily physical activity is a regular part of schools and “action breaks”, among other strategies, are regularly employed. All of these physical activity initiatives are popular with educators, and they are also supported by research in: Spark – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey.  The good news is — it may be just working. Last week the Globe & Mail reported on a recent US study that teen obesity rates could be leveling off and young people may be doing more exercise. This is all excellent news.

But, back to my question — can they throw a ball?

With all of our efforts focussed toward increasing physical activity, some are lamenting the”sports” part of the physical activity is taking a backseat.  From baseball to soccer, basketball to tennis, schools are now seen less as places for young people to acquire sports-specific skills and that we are turning, instead, to the community for the development of sport-specific skills.  Of course, community sports are nothing new, but “school” sports like volleyball and basketball were, only a generation ago, exclusive to schools and are now taught at younger ages primarily in the community.  As well, groups like KidSport help bridge the financial barrier for some families when kids can’t participate in community sports.  Still, some will argue that sports aren’t a necessary part of our school system, but I think most would agree that the fundamental skills of running, jumping and throwing a ball are core skills we want for all young people. Canadian Sport for Life describes this in its Long Term Athlete Development Plan.

So, looking at our elementary schools, one key challenge is the lack of teacher training for sports skills. PE specialist teachers are exceptionally rare in the province and teachers either have to teach their own PE classes or swap with another staff member (e.g. Teacher A takes Teacher B’s art class while Teacher B takes Teacher A’s PE class).  Without the training, many elementary PE classes are high on activity but not so high on skills-acquisition.

Our district is part of a program trying to change this and is investing and partnering in programs that support physical literacy.  Diane Nelson, who is the Principal-lead on our Sports Academy Programs at secondary, is working with others in Metro Vancouver on a program partnering our Grades K-3 teachers with coaches who have strong skills in teaching sports-specific skills.  The three-lesson progression helps both teacher and students.   Chartwell Elementary Principal, Aron Campbell, recently blogged about the program, Physical Literacy:  The Other 3 R’s . . . Running, Jumping and Throwing.  And, over the course of the year, our K-3 teachers will have the opportunity to work side-by-side with Jesse Symons who is a head coach / teacher in the district’s Premier Soccer Academy. To quote from Aron’s blog:

Although some of the basic skills such as walking, running, jumping, hopping, throwing and catching may seem natural or innate in children, for many kids, this is not the case. Developing basic “Physical Literacy” ​is critical for kids to acquire in order to build an ongoing sense of athletic confidence, as they are exposed to more and more opportunities to be active and involved in sport throughout their years at school and beyond.  Whether it is organized soccer, t-ball, or games in a PE class or at recess, a firm grasp in ‘physical literacy provides the motivation that can be invaluable for kids in the future development of self-esteem and the pursuit of a physically active lifestyle.

And once students have these core skills at the primary level, it is a goal for our intermediate classrooms to continue the partnership with local sports organizations. It is not a new idea, but part of a systemic plan for elementary schools to partner with the local soccer clubs or tennis organizations in offering programs to students.  It is a win-win opportunity since most community sports organizations are struggling to attract young people and are facing declining numbers; by partnering with our schools, they can offer their expertise to all students and can ignite the passion of a student who will pick the sport up in the community. To me, it is an approach that has some real opportunities and we should try to tap into it.

It is absolutely important to recognize the great work being done to help our kids to become healthier, whether it is eating better or being more active. While some (albeit mostly south of the border) were recently bemoaning the narrowing of the curriculum that saw a reduction in physical activity, there is a realization young people being active is a key part of improving student success.

That said, the time is right to invest in sports skills for all young people in schools — not only because we are taking on the training of the next Olympians, but because these skills are also life skills and they are best learned at a young age as they expose students to sports and games they might not otherwise try. And, we can’t solely rely on the community for them.

Thanks to Diane Nelson, District Principal Sports Academies and the driving force in our district behind this work, and to viasport for their financial support.

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WILL FERRELL AND ELLIOTT CHO

Some of the same thinking leading education transformation in our schools is also changing the thinking around community and school sports. Debates over keeping score at a soccer game with 10-year-olds are similar to discussions on whether we should be giving Grade 4 students letter grades. And, seemingly, there is a growing movement to move past the era of the uber-zealous sports parent.

A recent column from Lawrie Johns, Sport  Parents Must Have Realistic Expectations is an excellent read.   Of course, Lawrie has a lot of credibility on this topic with me.  Both his boys, now in their early 30s, are very well-adjusted young men, and I had the opportunity to teach and coach a little bit of basketball to his younger son, Brian, who also represented Canada at the 2000, 2004, and 2008 Olympics in swimming.  This dad knows what it is like to raise a child who has become an elite athlete.  Lawrie advises:

Some suggestions for parents: No after practice/game interrogation.  Understand the rules of the sport – leave the officiating to trained officials – better still – become one!  Cheer on efforts BY ALL not just yours.   Learn about sport nutrition and hydration.  Learn about injuries – they are part of sport (unfortunately) but how to support the athlete though an injury is crucial.

Lastly – Have Fun!

It makes sense that parents need to be educated partners in their child’s sports, as in their child’s schooling. Another great source for information along the same theme is the Steve Nash Youth Basketball Coaches Blog.   To quote a recent post:

Those five words – “the courage to be patient” – give a picture of the great potential  . . .  and at the same time highlight the problems that exist in the reality of an ultra-competitive youth sports environment.  More specifically, having the “courage to be patient” seems to involve doing four very difficult things, and the failure to do any one of these four things  (resisting external pressure, controlling internal desire, being a great teacher, maintaining faith) may explain the disconnect between potential and reality.

So,  as families head back to the soccer fields and hockey rinks in the community, to the cross-country races, school volleyball courts and football fields in the fall, hopefully, times are indeed changing.  Competition is awesome! But we know better than even a decade ago about how to ensure our kids have good experiences that will last a lifetime and not be burned out or turned off of sports by age 12. Lawrie’s column offers this  perspective:

There are about 750 NHLers today out of hundreds of thousands boys playing hockey in this country.

There were 31 swimmers on the national team in London – out of over 100,000 who compete through clubs in Canada. There were 12 on the women’s Olympic basketball team – over 150,000 girls play basketball. Eighteen players on our bronze medal women’s soccer team – over 500,000 girls play youth soccer.

In sports, like in the classroom, we want our kids to work toward big dreams, but we also want some perspective.  I have a great passion for sports.  School sports adds richness to the culture of our schools; community sports bring people together and we (parents and kids) learn wonderful lessons through our participation.

We need to ensure that sports are not overrun by a culture of early specialization, private elite programs and self-focused athletes and parents who instill an NHL or Bust attitude in our programs.  We need to reverse the trend of fewer young people participating in organized sports and to also ensure we have opportunities for kids, with varied sport skills, to continue playing. We want our passionate athletic sons and daughters not to lose their passion about their sport as they get older.

There is nothing quite like the fun of sports — that is the whole point of it. As Tim Elmore suggested in a recent post, the most powerful six words we can say to a child involved in sports, ” I love to watch you play.”

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front-cover

Len Corben is very well-known on the North Shore for his writing and commitment to athletics; a commitment that includes 31 years as the coordinator for North Shore Secondary School athletics, and as an accomplished writer with his Instant Replay stories that regularly appear in the North Shore Outlook.  Having previously enjoyed his first book, an anthology of his newspaper features, it was great to catch up with Len and also read his latest book based on hours of research and interviews with Ernie Kershaw: The Pitching Professor:  The Life & Times of Ernie Kershaw.

The book was of particular interest to me as Ernie Kershaw began his teaching career at West Vancouver Secondary School at about the time my grandfather, Charles Kennedy, was teaching at the school in the late 1930s. And, personally, as a history teacher and huge baseball fan (Field of Dreams is in my all-time top three movies), it’s difficult to imagine anything more appealing than a slice of local history with a backdrop of education filled with baseball stories.

The story starts with Ernie Kershaw’s birth on October 6, 1909, and as he describes it in the book, “My birth was premature at seven months and I started my career at two-and-a-half to three pounds in a shoe box in the warming oven of our Gurney-Oxford kitchen range, being for some time fed partly with honey and water via an eye dropper.”   With Spanish influenza and typhoid fever also part of his childhood experiences, Kershaw went on to play semi-professional baseball for the Vancouver Capilanos from 1939-41 and again in 1946 after serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II.

Kershaw was playing baseball at the same time as many of history’s most storied individuals, and the book links to Babe Ruth and others, while also telling the stories of the grassroots stars in Vancouver, in the era before Larry Walker and Justin Morneau.  Of course, Kershaw’s “big curveball and humming fastball” are also highlighted from his 4-0 five-hitter in his pro debut against the Yakima Pippins at Athletic Park on Hemlock Street, to a post-war performance described by Province columnist, Ken McConnell: ” Kershaw came back from the war fat and sassy.  He has a sweeping curveball that even [umpire] Amby Moran seemed to have difficulty following and his fast one sings as it burst across the plate.”

It was not an era of “just” being a baseball player — Kershaw was also a teacher.

Kershaw says of his teaching experience “In September 1936, I found myself back in the classroom” where he taught until 1941 and then again after the war from 1945-1973.   The book overlays Kershaw’s stories of West Vancouver with stories of many other well-known figures in West Vancouver including Dick Wright, Bill Nicol and Brian Upson.  All well-known names who come to life in Kershaw’s stories and through Corben’s words.  The stories also tell of a teacher making sense out of algebra for more than three decades of West Vancouver students – so proud of their accomplishments – he shares a real pay-it-forward legacy.

Notable for his teaching and his baseball, Kershaw also acknowledges he is notable for his longevity (the story is subtitled – One of Professional Baseball’s Oldest Living Former Players):

My first 50 years were quite unusual and interesting because of the variety of my interests and activities in a period which included a major epidemic, two great wars, several booms and depressions and the rise and collapse of many regimes and nations.  By sheer chance, I found myself at some critical places at historically important times.  As a result, I met many famous and talented people in various fields and from many countries.

Almost a Forrest Gump style story.

Ernie Kershaw died on February 13, 2012 at the age of 102.  In a story in the book, relayed by his son Ian, “When it was close to Dad’s time,” Ian recounted, “I said to him ‘Dad, I guess this is the bottom of the ninth for you.’  He replied, ‘It’s more like the bottom of the 12th.'”

Corben’s book and Kershaw’s story are a wonderful window into our recent history — a story about baseball and a whole lot more for those interested in sport, history, education and community — a really wonderful read.

To order a copy of the book or for more information, contact Len Corben.

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High school students sampling different sports each season, appears to be a diminishing reality.  Many may know the stories of athletes like Steve Nash and Wayne Gretzky, who played a number of sports as a youth, and specialized in a sport later in life. But, when we look to our high school athletes today, it seems more are focusing on specific sports at a younger age, and this trend is one that is dramatically changing our high school sports. Recently, Cam Cole wrote an excellent piece around this in the Vancouver Sun about physical literacy and the decline in kids sports.

Of course, at its core, this is not really a school issue; it is far broader than that. There is an intersection of school and community in almost every sport today. While less than a decade ago there were often lines between ‘school sports’ (e.g. volleyball, basketball, rugby) and ‘community sports’ (soccer, hockey, baseball) the lines have blurred.  Today, almost every sport is a 12-month sport. For some sports like hockey, this is almost 100 per cent in community; for others like basketball, it is more evenly split between school and the community.  Many sports have complete organizations in schools and the community.

Personally, I think something is being lost in early sports specialization.   A recent report from Matthew Bridge and Martin Toms out of the United Kingdom: “The specializing or sampling debate:  a retrospective analysis of adolescent sports participation in the UK” tends to agree. The report indicates  “individuals who competed in three sports aged 11, 13, and 15 were significantly more likely to compete at a national compared with club standard between the ages of 16 and 18 than those who practised only one sport.”   This runs counter to what many athletes, coaches and parents seem to believe, and who go all-in on a sport from a very young age.

Another phenomena influencing multi-sport, high school athletics is the increased emergence of paid coaches in community programs.  While still largely supported by volunteer staff, parents and community members, most major community sporting clubs have some paid staff, who are obviously invested in retaining athletes for their livelihood.  When it was solely a system of volunteers, the parent who coached soccer in the fall often helped coach the school basketball team in the winter, as well as the softball team in the spring.  Paid community coaches are often less likely to see their athletes sample school sports.

There is also a major overlap and growing competition between school and non-school sporting opportunities (in many ways, it follows the non-profit versus profit paradigm).  Club programs run all year and coaches will often discourage “their” athletes (the issue of  coaches and so-called “athlete ownership” is also very infuriating)  from participating on school teams outside of their sport. So, the community soccer coach doesn’t want a player to play volleyball for the school, because they want to promote sport specialization.

As a parent, along with my kids, I do want to have more say in this conversation. I want my kids to have the opportunity to play a range of sports if they want to.  I am less concerned with “development”, which is all the buzz in sports now, and more concerned with the “fun” which should be all the buzz.

I like the advice Stephanie Hauser, a high school athletic director from Wisconsin,  recently shared on the topic of multi-sport athletes at Proactive Coaching:

For Parents:

  • Be the final decision makers on behalf of your kids’ well-being.  This means having to put your foot down and be willing to make the difficult decision to say “no” on behalf of your multi-sport athletic child.  Injury, fatigue and burnout WILL happen if you are not willing to say “no” to some things.  Know when it is the right time to make the decision for your child – don’t automatically give the kids the choice; most will opt to attend everything, not wanting to let any of their coaches down.
  • Be willing to “shut them down” for a time period when you see fatigue or burnout happening.  Last summer, we were seeing the signs of some nagging fatigue injuries with our daughter, and we were struggling as parents with how to best handle the situation.  Then, the best thing for all of us happened – she twisted her ankle at Panther Fitness.  This was the excuse that we needed to shut down for the remaining three weeks of the summer…what a blessing in disguise!! The results were amazing.  Her shin splints went away, her knee and hip pain went away, she had time to hang out with friends, clean her room, read a book, and when volleyball season began three weeks later, she proceeded to have an all-conference season.  The trade-off for her was a refreshed body and mind, rather than a few more weeks of training, and she came back stronger than where she left off.

For Coaches:

  • Let your actions speak louder than your words.  Many coaches say that they support the multi-sport athlete, but it is evident that this is just “lip service” because in reality they are putting undue pressure on these multi-sport athletes to attend everything.  Have regular conversations with these kids, so you will be able to sense when it is time to give them a little more breathing room.  In reality, many of these multi-sport athletes are the most reliable, competitive and naturally athletic kids on your team.  They are the “studs” – let them thrive in their other sports, and then come your sport and thrive there.  I have witnessed this with our own daughter.  There is no doubt that she begins each season looking a bit rusty.  My husband and I call that the “three-sport athlete look.”  Yet, within the first few weeks of the season she not only meets, but exceeds the performance of others who have spent countless hours in the off-season in the gym refining their one-sport skills.  Coaches, spend the off-season time with the athletes that need you the most, those single-sport athletes who may have limited athletic ability.  They really need you to help them fine-tune their skills because they may not have the strong athletic ability to rely on.  This is the opportunity for you to really help them strive to be the best that they can be.
  • Work with other head coaches to coordinate your off-season schedules and regularly talk with them about shared athletes.  NEVER make an athlete feel like they have to choose between one coach and the other, and NEVER discuss or put down that athlete’s other coaches.

For Athletic Directors:

  • Schedule time for head coaches to sit down together to coordinate the summer calendars, open gyms, contact days, and camps in a sincere effort to minimize the number of conflicts and difficult choices that the multi-sport athlete is forced to make.  This will open the communication lines and minimize the frustration between coaches who feel that they are competing for the multi-sport athletes’ time.
  • Communicate the multi-sport athlete philosophy of the athletic department with parents and share with them the things that the athletic department and coaches are doing to support that multi-sport athletes.  Provide multi-sport athlete research, education and data for parents.
  • Manage the outside entities, such as legion baseball, AAU basketball and select soccer.  Work with your coaches to find ways to we get these outside entities to work with the school to help us maintain three-sport athletes.  To do this, you need buy-in from the coaches and the willingness to commit to this effort and be the liaison between school and outside entity.
  • Applaud and honor the multi-sport athlete.  Build recognition opportunities into your athletic award system.  Many of these kids are truly masters of time management, selflessness and self-discipline; and they have a passion for competition.  Additionally, there are those multi-sport athletes with marginal athletic ability that truly just want to participate so that they can be a part of something good.  Reward these kids for their dedication and contribution to your school.

There are a number of challenges currently happening in high school athletics, and I actually think we may have one or more new models developing (more on this in another post), but one value we should return to in school sports, and really — in all sports — is the value of the multi-sport, high school athlete.

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