High School Sports are Dying?

Posted by Latif Thomas

An interesting point was brought up in the discussion section of my last article on 400m training. A suggestion was made that if you (as a parent) don’t have faith in your high school’s coaches, pull the athlete from the high school team and have them compete for better coaches in a more appropriate environment.

That made me start thinking about an idea that seems to be gaining traction. High School sports are dying. And here’s why…

Most high school athletic departments are amazingly antiquated and Socialist institutions. Their inability to see outside the confines of their own insulated world has them grasping tenuously to a losing belief system on how to both develop young athletes, as well as adapt to the many opportunities athletes have in addition to being on the high school team. These athletic departments don’t realize that their own inability and/or refusal to adapt stands as the source of their own destruction.

The youth sports landscape has changed and as evolution has taught us, we must adapt or we will die.

There is a growing trend here in America that has more and more athletes abandoning, or, at least, downplaying the importance of their high school sports team to compete for AAU and Club teams and get quality, individualized coaching from superior coaches outside the confines of their public school coaches.

Additionally, young athletes with great athletic potential are bypassing their hometown schools in favor of private schools with superior traditions for developing athletic success.

And lack of coaching education is to blame.

Let me give you an example:

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I worked in a program where some kids’ wildly positive and successful experience on the track team caused them to give up other sports in order to train for track and field. Due to ignorance in the true sense of the term (to be uninformed or unaware) other coaches lobbed accusations of ‘recruiting’ and ‘stealing’ athletes.

No such thing ever occurred. The results did all the recruiting.

I was told (and this is a direct quote):  “Kids quitting the soccer team might be good for the track team, but it’s bad for the soccer team.”

What a fatally flawed and inherently Socialist line of logic. The ‘forced parity’ argument does not work in The Real World. At least not for long. Such a rule of governing stifles innovation and hard work. It is, in essence, a bailout for the mediocre.

Let me put this in business terms:

If the Soccer Coach does not provide a product/service (competitive program and individual improvement) that the consumer (athlete) wants to buy, it is the right of the consumer to purchase what they perceive to be a superior product/service, i.e the Track Coach. The Track Coach has the right to improve his/her team as long as no laws are being broken (as there must be regulations in the market). It is not the fault of the Track Coach that the Soccer Coach chooses not to invest in the resources (Coaching Education) that will allow it to continue to earn a competitive share of the market (athletes).

Following the basic principles of Free Market Capitalism (that we hold as fundamentally American as apple pie) the Soccer Coach has one of two choices:

1. Adapt to the situation by providing a better product/service (become a better coach thus providing a better experience through better individual and team results) and regain market share.

2. Die (complain about how unfair it all is because they don’t want to work as hard as the Track Coach or the Football Coach, etc.) and then go out of business.

Most athletic departments will simply bail out the soccer team by inventing regulations to limit the success of the Track Coach even though the Soccer Coach has access to the same opportunities.

Therefore, this hurts both the Soccer Coach and the Track Coach. Now you have a mediocre Soccer Team and a mediocre Track Team where if you simply allowed the Free Market to balance itself (again, not an unregulated Free Market, but it still must be Free) the Soccer Coach would be forced to invest (educate him/herself) in order to provide a better product/service.

In that instance, investments (education) by the Soccer Coach would yield better results forcing the Track Coach to invest (educate) more and competition would lead BOTH programs to greater profits (results in competition and fun for the kids).

This is what is called a ‘win-win’ situation.

But, of course, this isn’t what is happening. The Soccer Coach cries poverty or badmouths the Track Coach out of a stubborn, but psychologically predictable, refusal to acknowledge their own coaching incompetence. In response, the Athletic Department bails out the Soccer Coach.

What happens next is the point of this article.

The Track Coach (and you can substitute Track for Soccer, Football, Basketball, Lacrosse, etc.) says,

“Forget this. I’m taking my talents to South Beach.”

Now the best coaches in your public school leave the stifling public school and start/join the Club/AAU Team that actually supports concepts like ‘education’ and ‘winning’ and ‘success’ and ‘working as hard as you expect your athletes to work’.

(If your argument is that winning shouldn’t be a focus for teenagers then you haven’t spent much time with them because they’ll choose winning over a weekly pizza party ten times out of nine. Winning doesn’t mean ‘be the Champion or I’ll punch you in the face’. It means be the best you can be because you work hard as an athlete and I put you in the best position to succeed with safe, effective and contemporary coaching techniques.)

So now, in 2011 and beyond, parents and athletes have a larger range of choices. They can go to the public school that lives, coaches and competes in a bubble, doing the same crap they’ve always done and doing nothing in terms of athletic development other than just play soccer (because most HS sports teams don’t develop biomotor skill as a part of the program, they just play and scheme for soccer/basketball/football for 2 hours and then call it a day) OR they can join that progressive, cutting edge AAU/Club team/coach that competes against better competition, gets them better access to college scouting and develops them into better athletes which, of course, makes the whole experience exponentially more fun.

If you were an athlete, which would you choose? If you were the parent of a talented athlete, which would you choose?

When I was in high school, I was an extremely raw, but reasonably talented sprinter. But I went to a Socialist high school where one of my coaches taught me to, I shit you not, clap my hands together in front of me when coming out of the blocks. I also never did a dynamic warm up, a speed drill, a speed workout, lifted a weight, got a race plan, etc.

Back then (and I’m dating myself here) there was no such thing as the Internet, so I couldn’t go to a site like this to get information or invest in a program like Complete Speed Training 2 in order to train around the outdated training that is the norm at the developmental levels. (As I’ve said countless times, this doesn’t make them bad people. Some of them are wonderful people, just not effective coaches.)

Preventing this from happening is, in fact, the primary reason Patrick Beith and I started CTF in the first place.

To this day my mother still feels guilt that she couldn’t do anything or find anyone to help a talented, hardworking, but directionless kid. But I know this for a fact:

If there was a ‘Latif Thomas’ like coach at the private school one town over (like there is today) she would have sold a kidney (which is probably what it would have taken since we had no money) to get me into that school to work with that coach. And if I was my parent, I would have yanked me from that public school and done the same thing.

And that is exactly what is happening today. When coaching in that galaxy far, far away I heard a “coach” say:

“I only go to clinics and conferences that the booster club pays for.”

Direct quote. And he said it with pride. And that, my friends, is the epitome of the problem.

I regularly hear public school coaches cry about ‘recruiting’ and ‘stealing athletes’ and ‘AAU is the devil’, even though badmouthing another school or coach to prevent a kid from going there is the order of the day and just as morally reprehensible as actively recruiting a kid to private school or club team, but I digress…

My friends, this is 2011. Your athletes (and their parents) are reading articles like this, going to sites like this and investing in their education while some of you stand there and cry about it.

They know that you don’t know what you’re doing. And that’s why your athletes are quitting the school team for the Club team. That’s why your athletes are leaving practice to go right to their personal coach to get real coaching. That’s why parents of 13-18 year olds are the second biggest group of purchasers of resources on this site (behind high school coaches). And that’s why I get dozens of emails from young athletes and parents each week asking me how they can train around their high school coach.

I know I’m mostly preaching to the choir here. But I’ve worked at three different high schools and they’ve all been the same.

If public high schools, coaches and athletic departments want to keep their head in the sand and wax poetic about the good old days, that’s their choice.  But, right or wrong, the youth sports landscape is becoming more specialized, personalized and professionalized every day.

Athletes have a right to good coaching. Parents have a right to safe, quality coaching for their kids. Coaches have a right to conduct their business in an environment that is friendly to their commitment to using sports as a means of developing self esteem and teaching life lessons to young athletes, as well as winning some Championships.

But I know one thing for sure, coaching education is the key to adaptation.

You can adapt or you. will. die.

To your success,

Latif Thomas

P.S. I know a lot of good coaches at the public schools are losing talent to outside influences. And that sucks because we actually know what we’re doing. Trust me, even though I’m at a private school, I still lose good kids to other sports. I also know this is a controversial stance on a controversial subject. And I purposely took a controversial tone in order to stimulate conversation on both sides of the aisle.

So leave your comments below and let’s talk about it!

ADDENDUM (September 16, 2011 9:13AM)

As you can see below, this article has stimulated lots of discussion from opposing points of view.

My main problem with where a lot of this discussion is going is this:

Peoples’ personal bias won’t allow them to see the alternative viewpoint. Public school coaches dismiss any validity of the argument made *for* ‘Club’ sports or why parents/athletes choose the ‘Club’ sport alternative.

‘Club’ sports coaches often (I said ‘often’, not always) ignore the value and community aspects of the public school season by coercing kids into year round ‘Club’ involvement out of selfishness and greed instead of doing what is in the best interest of the kid.

Here’s the truth:

Public school coaches are right. And wrong.

‘Club’ coaches are right. And wrong.

The inability to see past our own personal viewpoint (and in some instances hypocrisy) is the first and largest stumbling block to having an open minded discussion or facilitating any kind of long term change.

Try to see both sides of the argument and then express your opinion. But I can tell in the first two sentences of a post (or diatribe) who the ‘public school’ coaches are and who the ‘club’ school coaches are.

Your personal opinion is no more right than mine. And my personal opinion is no more right than yours. If you can’t see or accept that then you are part of the problem.


P.S. If you liked this post…


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Latif Thomas - Latif Thomas owns and operates Complete Track and Field and serves as the Co-Director of the Complete Track and Field Clinic at Harvard University, the largest track and field clinic in the United States. A popular speaker and presenter at some of the largest coaching clinics across the country, Latif has true passion for the sport and it definitely shows. Over the past 19 years, he has coached more combined League, Division, All-State, and New England Champions in sprints, hurdles, and jumps than he can count. Follow @latif_thomas on Twitter.

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