There is more and more talk in NJ youth travel soccer about the benefits vs. cost of athletes participating in High School sports programs. Personally being a 3 sport athlete (soccer, basketball, baseball) as a kid and playing at a very high level in both club and High School in each, I am the first to say it can be done. It takes a special kid, a dedicated set of parents, and an understanding group of coaches to accept their role in creating a well-rounded athlete. However, it is clear to me, coaches are not getting the formula right. Kids are routinely exhausted of their energy and drive and it’s affecting the athlete’s play and more importantly their overall mental health during a key growing stage in their lives. As a travel soccer coach I believe High School sports are at fault due to the grueling schedule their programs demand. It’s often 6 days a week and a total of 12-20 hours on the field of play, and if it isn’t exhausting kids physically, it definitely is psychologically.
I want to make it clear that I am all for my players playing High School sports. The social value and extra conditioning are great, and during soccer season specifically kids are getting a lot of time crafting their skill. I have very high level softball, track, and lacrosse players in my U15 group and the fact that they participate in another sport only improves their athleticism on the soccer field. My problem with the High School athletic program is the amount of time and energy coaches expect from their teams. Coaches don’t take into account how tired, or banged up their team is and routinely run them into the ground. Is a 4 hour Saturday morning practice starting at 8AM necessary? Is a 4 hour practice necessary, period? I can’t say I know exactly what they do at these sessions, nor the breakdown to conditioning, technical drills, tactics, and/or meetings. However I do ask my players about their High School practices and what they consisted of, because it provides insight to their energy levels on my training and game days. The point is that I am in tune with my athletes, and I listen to them, and always ask them How are you feeling? A question I question if it is ever asked in High School Sports.
Injury is always a risk when you over work an athlete, but mental fatigue is just as dangerous. I had a State Cup game on Monday night and I knew my team was a little tired having come off a 1-1 draw in an EDP game the night before. I knew who took a knock, and who was complaining of muscle strains and made sure to approach them pregame with my concern. However, what was most alarming to me was the sheer stress, exhaustion, and fatigue on some of my players faces. I asked those players specifically what was wrong, and many were coming off 2-3 hour High School practices that night where conditioning and even weight-lifting to excess occurred. A freshman girl in High School, physically fit or not, should NEVER be lifting weights. What is the point if they can’t even lift their own body weight in most situations? I even question if any High School athlete should be lifting weights, outside of maybe football and wrestling where weight and body type are true factors, but that is a whole another topic of consideration. The other issue is that schoolwork is overlooked. I have had a kid miss a training session because a project is due, but that excuse is rarely acceptable at the High School level. Talk about a contradictory statement there.Embed from Getty Images
What needs to be focused on here is that coaches need to recognize (especially in their premier athletes) the level of fitness within their group and slow down. Players are hitting peaks of performance because they are getting crushed every day and rarely getting rest. I consistently remind my players that 1 day a week should be spent on a couch recuperating, and High School coaches will say yes they are, on Sunday, which is game day for the majority of our NJ youth soccer teams. If a player is tired, give them the night off, or limit them significantly in practice without punishment. I have had players tell me that even when legitimately exhausted their High School coaches will push them to the brink in weight rooms and on the playing field using playing time as clear motivation. High School athletes are pushing themselves to the brink in fear of demotion in playing time or place on the team.
Where does this leave us as NJ club soccer coaches? The positive here is that I rarely need to condition my team. They are fit, and I can focus on soccer technique and tactics which is what I need to spend my 4-6 hours I get with them a week on anyway. However, High School training sessions are generally late at night (for our club 7:30-9PM) which is when a student-athlete should be winding down or doing homework, or eating dinner, which means we rarely get the player that is 100%. It is of great concern for me, not for the success of my program, but for the welfare of my kids and their ability to function as teenagers. Are we toughening them up, and teaching them life values in balancing, time management, and work ethic, absolutely. Although as coaches (in both High School and club) we are often doing kids injustice by over-working them and asking too much when energy levels are clearly depleted, because we NEED to get them ready for competition.
Most of this piece is a hypothetical argument, and is based off a small sample size within my club’s community in Mercer County. I don’t know if other areas in New Jersey are different, but I assume it is not. Of course it is unfair to assume every High School program and coach is unaware of these challenges, and I commend those that have taken measures to improve mental and physical health of their athletes. The main problem here is the lack of relationship between High School and club programs, and in fact, most are competing with one another. Our High School sports programs have even gone to drastic measures to compete by making players sign contracts that will suspend or dismiss a player from a team for multiple “unexcused” absences. What do you think a club sport contest or training session (that they are paying for and is professionally delivered) is considered? It is forcing players to choose and specialize at younger ages, and eventually High School programs will be shooting themselves in the foot because there is limited College exposure at their level and player development is often greater in the club setting.
My solution to all this is communication between High Schools and Youth Clubs. I think the education of coaches across both formats can be improved as well (when it comes to athlete physiology), but the bottom line is the programs are not working together. Training schedules and curriculum should be shared, and egos should be checked at the door. We need to recognize that we are already helping one another in that clubs are professionally preparing athletes for success at the High School level, and High School programs are providing opportunity to play consistent competitive soccer (or sport) in a positive social environment. I may be biased, but I believe soccer clubs (outside of some NJ academies who do not allow participation in High School sport) are far more accepting and understanding of the benefits of High School athletics than the other way around. We always allow school (work) to be first, give players days off after tough game/practice schedules, and tend to the needs of individuals over the needs of the team (when referring to injury, illness, and conflict). That is the basis of player development, and coaches need to be more aware of their kids’ energy levels and adjust training and schedules accordingly. I fear if we continue down this path with no relationship between High School and club sport, we will remove the multi-sport athlete from the equation. Although this will produce a ultra-specialized athlete, it will lead to more burn outs, injuries, and the disappearance of athleticism. The best players on my teams have ALWAYS played more than one sport, and with clubs now being year-round programs, and High School sports cranking up their demands, we are clearly headed in the wrong direction in athlete development in New Jersey and beyond.