Friday, December 2, 2005
What about the non-star athlete?
Concord-Carlisle High School sports professionals are proud of a program that involves many students, giving them opportunities for competition, exercise and team camaraderie. Many CCHS teams post winning records as a result of policies favoring the talented with play time and devoting field use to intensive practice on all levels so that freshman and JV athletes are groomed to play varsity.
But the result of these policies and of limited playing fields is an evaporation of opportunities to play team sports for the less talented high school students. While many take part in freshman sports, limited slots on varsity and JV teams (other than track and cross country, for which the policy is not to cut) reduce the number participating each year until by senior year, less than 25% of the student body is playing a sport in any one season.
In private and some public high schools, sports participation is emphasized as a means to build character, reduce stress and encourage the maintenance of healthy bodies. At CCHS, no one tracks from year to year what percentage of the student body participates in sports (the 25% figure was arrived at by the writer, who counted slots and added a fudge factor). Has the right balance between participation and winning been struck? Should higher participation be a goal? Does it matter if a student is cut from his sport? How does that student, after years of sports participation on the elementary and middle school levels, fill in the void?
Many offerings, but still "cuts"
Sports at CCHS are diverse and competitive. Brent Clark, Athletic Director for the past eighteen years, grew up in Carlisle and has been part of CCHS athletics for 37 years. He points with satisfaction to the 27 varsity and 31 freshman and JV teams. "We're more than doing our job with the size and depth of the program. We service a great number of kids." When asked about trying to include all who want to play, Clark admits, "That's not necessarily the culture established within the program and school" and points to the "stiff competition" within the leagues. "Can we meet the needs of everybody? No." But he says a survey a few years ago showed 65% of the student body involved in at least one sport.
But does the 65% represent high freshman participation that diminishes as teams become more competitive? Clark would not venture a guess on what percentage of students are still involved in sports at the junior and senior level, "That would mean sitting down and working with a spreadsheet."
Clark notes that other school activities, such as music, plays, and National Honor Society have cuts and are not criticized for it. "We try to keep one program that doesn't cut; cross-country in the fall, indoor track winter, and outdoor track in spring." And students who don't make a team and don't want to pursue running "can find a niche" in work, drama, orchestra, band, or one of the thirty or so clubs offered by the school.
Clark says the challenge is a growing student body. "As the school population increases, it's harder to maintain programs without cuts." This year, teams in girls ice hockey and girls and boys indoor track were added to the program. But in spite of additions, more students tried out than could be accommodated. The swim and dive team and freshman teams that were recently all-inclusive now are forced to cut.
Play time goes to the best
Attend a CCHS varsity football or soccer game and you may be struck by the number of kids suited up to stand around. Boys varsity soccer coach Ray Pavlik makes no bones about a policy that the best on the team are the ones who play. With 26 team members for 11 play spots, "this is a significant understanding for a lot of kids. We want to be competitive." But he says the kids in question "know they have a supporting role. A lot won't get time, but they know that going in."
How do kids feel about putting 25 hours or more per week into soccer practices and games, only to play rarely? "Most are glad they are part of the program and part of a team," says Pavlik. The alternative would be to make even more cuts, "We take more so they can at least experience being part of a team." On the JV and freshman levels, teams are 22 in size so all can get play time. By keeping team sizes large, "80 to 85% of those who try out make some team" and an effort is made to involve others in jobs such as manager.
Club sports raise the bar
Maureen Tarca, Carlisle RecCom director and mother of a six letter CCHS graduate, is pleased that middle school sports programs in Carlisle try to minimize cuts and "everybody gets to play." But the downside of a less-competitive program is that "Sometimes our kids aren't as well prepared" when they get to the high school. The serious middle school athletes play club teams "at a huge expense to the parent." Club teams are privately organized, usually to provide a higher level of competition. They typically draw from several communities and try to attract the best players. Tarca estimates her own daughter's club softball team costs over $2,000 per year in fees, uniforms and transportation. In addition, the time commitment is considerable, as club competitions may be hours away, with playoffs sometimes in other states.
Pavlik says that 80% of the kids "playing and starting" on his team played club or district soccer before reaching high school. When he grew up in Concord, "mom and dad were the coaches. Today you have professional coaches with higher levels of coaching skill" through the club system. Can a kid get good coaching without joining a club team? "It exists," says Pavlik. So is it possible for a reasonably skilled kid who has been playing recreationally to continue to play in high school? "Maybe," he says. "At least on the freshman level."
Pavlik notes that when he was a CCHS student 15 years ago, "every kid on the high school team had played together since they were seven years old." Now with players coming from various club teams, "you get more skilled individuals, but the challenge is team cohesion." He adds, "The club scene's changed the world a lot." Tarca agrees, "To succeed a kid needs not only talent and discipline, but parent support" in the form of the thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours per year. "Unfortunately, it's come down to a club team environment."
Parents look at alternatives
Brooke deLench of Concord is a former athlete and coach, and founder of MomsTeam, an international organization dedicated to "making youth sports safer, saner, less stressful and more inclusive" (Momsteam.com). She is also the parent of triplets, one of whom went to Concord Academy, and two of whom graduated CCHS, and has her own perspective on the high school sports experience.
DeLench contrasts the approach at CCHS, which she calls "coach-centered," to the "student-centered" approach at Concord Academy (CA). At CA, "They have a holistic approach to mind, body and spirit." Part of that approach is a requirement that all students participate in sports. "They find a sport for everyone there, no matter what their ability." She calls this policy "fabulous!" because of the benefits all kids derive from sports participation. With the stresses of being a teen and the obesity epidemic, she asks, "How can it be wrong to get kids moving and exercising?"
DeLench is skeptical of the 65% participation statistic put forward by Clark (the survey on which this statistic was based was unavailable, and the athletics department does not track participation rates, but between 300 and 425 students are participating in sports in each of three seasons). She points to the hundreds of Concord and Carlisle kids who play fourth grade soccer, and asks, "How many at the high school are still playing senior year?" According to Pavlik, 14 senior boys are on the varsity soccer team. Perhaps another 10 or 15 are on the girls team. What happened to the rest?
Tarca points to her son's freshman football photo and notes that of forty players, eleven were still playing senior year. As competition for football slots increased, several took jobs, and others devoted themselves to music or other sports. "As kids get older, they need to specialize and define themselves. But all did find their way," she says.
But Tarca notes the negative affect of team cuts on the late bloomer who may have lost his chance to become a star. "It's a huge disservice to that kid." DeLench agrees, "That kid may never return. A few years later you see these tall kids walking around the halls with nothing to do." Bob Bigelow, former Boston Celtic and author of "Just Let the Kids Play" likes to point out that both Bill Russell and Michael Jordan were cut from high school basketball teams before achieving their eventual heights.
Does sports participation
Joe Lang, athletic director at Middlesex School says his school requires sports of all students in order to "start students on a life-long journey to keep in shape" and to get them to "take on a challenge that builds leadership, camaraderie and teamwork." He believes sports participation also helps students "organize their time" and cut through the cliques that are typical in high school. Middlesex offers three levels of competition, the lowest of which is "totally introductory."
Tarca believes when a kid drops or is cut from sports in high school, "It's a tragedy. It's so good to be part of a team." She points to "the camaraderie, the fresh air, and the fact they're not sitting around playing video games." Unfortunately, she says, most recreational programs dwindle out by age 15. So kids who are cut must "go find something else to do. That is the reality."
But deLench thinks the tragedy goes deeper. "Yes, they find something else to do," she says. "They find the train tracks behind the school where they hang out." Not every kid has music or a flair for drama to fall back on; kids get out of school at 2 p.m. and many boys "are not good at being creative" about how to spend their time. "They spend the afternoons partying (abusing alcohol or drugs) and that is a fact."
George Scarlett, professor at Tufts University's Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, and father of a CCHS graduate who "played some soccer" is unaware of research linking non-participation in sports with drug or alcohol use. However, he agrees it's important for adolescents to be "passionate about something, to belonging somewhere." He adds, "Kids need a place for recognition, a place to express themselves and be valued by others." While that place may not necessarily be sports, "The problem is kids that don't find their niche or a means of defining themselves."
But might kids be better off devoting their afternoons to homework rather than engaging in several hours per day of sports practice? Contrary to what you might expect, Scarlett notes, the research supports a high correlation between academic achievement and sports participation (he is careful to point out correlation is not causation, and some of this effect may be from policies that bar athletes from participation when they don't keep up their grades). As for the stress of trying to do too much, he compares sports participants to the first American climbers of Mt. Everest, who displayed lower levels of measurable stress as they approached their goal. "Kids love it; it's a source of energy and pride. They love the excitement and the feeling of their bodies performing."
Clark notes, "The student athlete does better in organizing and scheduling." He says many athletes have more problems with academics during the off-season. Without the structure of a tight schedule, "there's a false sense of security. They put off, put off and put off." He adds that coaches are reasonable about the need for balance. "The first priority with student athletes is school." Soccer coach Pavlik, who also chairs the science department agrees, "I'm a teacher. I know these kids won't be making a career out of soccer."
Need for fields limits options
Clark says he would like to expand the athletic program to include boys' volleyball (only girls' is offered now), coed sailing, and coed rowing. "Programs need to expand to meet the need," he says, noting the addition of three to four teams per year, and two to three co-curricular activities would be optimal. However, program expansion is limited by the number of playing fields, and facilities will have to increase. The addition of two artificial turf fields, which, unlike grass fields, have multiple uses, are easy to maintain, and can be scheduled back-to-back, would top his wish list. "Most of our competitors have them, including Lexington, Acton-Boxboro, Lincoln Sudbury . . ."
Tarca has the same problem at the Carlisle RecCom. "We are completely stymied by the lack of facilities. We don't have any place to do programs (at the high school level)." She adds, "The community at large doesn't seem to want fields. The consensus is it's not a priority compared to conservation land."
Should the high school do more?
But deLench believes more could be done within the constraints, "A lot of money goes into varsity sports. I think it's the job of the athletic director to bring kids into the program." She believes a task force is needed "to start top down and look at the situation with the children in mind. The current program is the same model as in 1938." She points to alternative programs at public schools across the country in which practice time is more fairly meted out across the student body, including programs where "kids show up and find a team." What if CCHS freshmen and JV teams cut back from the current fifteen or more hours devoted to practice and play per week? Would that open slots for recreational play? She adds, "Boys in their high school years desperately need to be involved in sports. The program needs to include everyone."
But Clark feels differently, "Are we fulfilling a need? Absolutely we are." He points to the growth in opportunities for girls since he became director. He also defends policies targeted to winning, saying athletes devote "a lot of hours" to their sport and "don't want to lose." And he doesn't see his job as providing outreach to students, or as finding places for the lesser athletes. "Other opportunities exist," he says, "It's all about decisions and choices."
So what do parents and students think? It's not hard to find a parent dissatisfied that their own kid never gets to play, or was cut from a team. Does this translate into an overall dissatisfaction with the program? DeLench says, "The parents are mad enough. They just don't know how to get together." But high school principal Art Dulong says requests for less competitive options are rare. Tarca notes that, as RecCom director, "I hear from a group that wants middle school sports more competitive."
Professor Scarlett was unable to locate research on whether losing the sports outlet is detrimental to a high school student (he did find a report that noted sports participation in high school does not seem to impact outcomes six years afterward). Certainly a long tradition of dedicating a significant percentage of high school budgets to athletics is predicated on the assumption there is a benefit to participants. Coaches, parents and athletes point to advantages that include health and fitness, leadership skills, and long-term friendships. Should these benefits be enjoyed by a wider swath of the high school population? Or is fielding winning teams more important? Perhaps it's time to raise the issue and start a discussion.
(If you have thoughts or input, please email the author at email@example.com)
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito