Monday, February 13, 2012
Mike Barr wrote a compelling article for Youth Soccer Insider entitled "The Case for High School Soccer
". The U.S. Soccer Federation Development Academy has decided to go to a 10-month schedule, which will directly interfere with high school soccer for boys. Additionally, the Academy is requesting that players forgo high school soccer even if there isn’t a conflict. Barr details the reasoning behind this decision including lackluster competition, lower quality team members and weaker coaching at the high school level. But he also argues that these worries are not always realized in the first place, and even if they are, there are advantages to participating in a high school sport which go beyond development and competition. Barr comes from the position of a coach. I’d like to make the case for high school soccer from the position of a parent.
When my boys were in high school I first heard of this idea to give up high school soccer not from other boys but from the girls teams. Apparently in preparation for the National Championships, several elite girls’ teams around the country were asking their players to give up high school soccer and train full time with their club team in preparation for this event. One of those teams was our local select team who had several members from our home town high school. Those select team members were telling their high school team members, "Sorry, we know this means you won’t make it in the State High School Championships, but we have to follow our dreams." That double-whammy, letting down their high school teammates by pulling out a major number of top players and doing it so they could succeed at the expense of their high school friends didn’t sit well with me. We expected our sons to fulfill the commitments they made. I actually couldn’t believe these players were doing this, having grown up with these families as neighbors and friends. But there it was nonetheless.
The Hollywood version of this scenario would be that the plucky remaining players on the high school team would rally, play their hearts out and win the State High School Championship while the club team would find itself defeated in the Regional Championship. Oh right, that is what happened! I remember watching the high school finals as the girls dug deep, rose to the level of champions and won the game. Their joy in achieving this milestone radiated around the stadium. Everyone knew the story about being abandoned by a half dozen of their teammates to pursue the brass ring, which only added to the wild celebration.
Arguments can be made about the club team wanting to have intensive training for a few extra months. That making a good showing in the championship run would afford the players more exposure to even more college coaches. That winning a National Championship trumps winning a State High School Championship. But there were other issues such as loyalty to their high school teammates and enjoying the social experience of playing a high school sport. Most high school seasons last just two and a half months. How could it hurt development to run 9.5 months instead of 10 months? How many of the Academy players will eventually play college soccer? How many will continue to play college soccer even if they are lucky enough to earn a scholarship? In the meantime they will have lost the opportunity to join together with a group of friends, boys and girls they have grown up with for more than a dozen years, and fight to win some games and perhaps even a championship.
Both my sons said outright that if they were told they couldn’t play high school soccer they would quit their club teams. They recognized the camaraderie and legacy that came from playing on their high school team. Those friendships and memories will be with them forever. This is not to say that they didn’t form friendships and memories with their club teams, but those were different. Those team members rotated in and out yearly or even semi-annually and they lived all over a large area. So the connections were more tenuous. Even club teams can disappear or change with mergers. So a club team’s heritage can’t compete with the legacy of a high school.
As a parent, I loved the years spent at high school games. I loved traveling just a few minutes to get to a home game, sitting in the stands with friends and neighbors, cheering on local boys as they competed, getting home at a decent hour, manning the snack shack, expressing my loyalty to the local school and sharing the ups and downs of the community team. After driving Robbie five hours every trip down and back to practice with this club team, those few months of staying close to home and enjoying the companionship of people I rarely saw the rest of year became a well-deserved respite. I know Robbie felt the same way. Both boys enjoyed those ten weeks as a time to strut the halls, practice close to home and be an important part of homecoming celebrations. Putting all your eggs in one basket may make sense in countries where there are scores of professional teams players can join and a development system which includes everyone worthy of participation. But for teenage players in the United States, high school has advantages that the development and club teams cannot yet match. I may be sentimental, but sometimes sentiment can be a good thing.
I will always argue that we need a better development system in the United States. But throwing out high school soccer for the sake of an extra month of training hardly seems the right answer. Where are the studies? Is high school really a time of weakening player’s abilities? Before we do another significant shift in how we train our youth players, let’s do the research and discover the strengths and weaknesses of the two systems. Without properly creating the right processes for developing our players, we’re just implementing plans that can’t succeed. What works elsewhere in the world may not work here because we don’t have sufficient professional clubs to provide support and we have an expanse of land that makes scouting and training difficult. We need to figure out how to make those advantages. Getting rid of high school soccer now doesn’t seem to address either of those problems. It just seems to be something we can do, so we’re doing it.