Can high school sports, club sports coexist?

Editor’s note: Jon Byrnes is a physical education teacher at Bret Harte High School and is also the head track and field coach.

Sports is an integral cog in the wheel of our local educational system. I have been a Calaveras County resident since 1972, and I can attest to that. I am proud to be a product of our local system, which has always had the correct perspective: put the kids first. Lately, I have noticed a change in the local sports climate. Club sports are on the rise within the high school and even middle school communities, to the point where athletes are spread so thin and get so worn down, they can’t really give their best to any of their sports, let alone school.

In high school, I loved sports and being a part of a team. I loved the life lessons it taught me and how it could help make me a better person. I loved the sense of pride it gave me, representing my classmates, the athletes that came before me and the ones that would come after me. Knowing that I wasn’t just playing for myself, but that my teammates and I were playing for each other, I was a part of something bigger than myself. That kind of school and community pride cannot be duplicated anywhere else. Blessed with great coaching and mentoring throughout, I knew sports had to play a role in my life somehow. I ended up as a physical education teacher and coach, and everything that goes with that.

High school sports can be used to help mold young students into the positive, productive, effective people they should be as adults. I believe that it starts with the individual, then moving to the family and community and beyond. It all leads to something bigger than oneself. It’s about selflessness, which changes lives for others. Give a little, get a lot – that’s how it works. High school sports can help with all that.

Recently, I have seen some of our student athletes being pulled in multiple directions with the addition of club sports – there’s a feeling of “I must do this or else I’ll get passed up.” It’s the feeling that more of one thing is better. I disagree. Experience has shown that diversity in sport experiences is better. In addition to getting good grades, family obligations, a job, preparing for college or the workforce or the military, many athletes play multiple sports already. In fact, most of our sports teams at our high schools share athletes from season to season. Now there’s something more out there for them to do – club sports.

More and more kids are playing club sports, either in addition to, or at the expense of the high school team they would have played for. In some instances, the athletes are playing “club” year-round in only that sport, forsaking other high school teams.

With the three high school sport seasons of fall, winter and spring, the athletes can effectively play three sports in a school year. Now add the commitment of club sports, the same sports offered at the high schools where the teams from season to season share athletes just to have a team at all. Kids get pulled in every direction and often choose between a school sport or a club sport.

An athlete who wants to play three sports for their high school will begin in the summer and go through to the end of the school year. While fulfilling the daily obligations of those three sports, after practice they go and play for their club team – either a practice or even a game. This often involves driving to the valley on weeknights, when they should be doing homework and eating a hot meal. I wonder if the club coaches think these athletes are being over-trained. Just a thought.

Some kids even play the in-season sport for their school, play “club” two or more nights a week for one club team, and then also play “club” for another team two or more nights a week in addition. Why would a high school athlete play three sports at one time?

There is pressure for young athletes to get a collegiate sports scholarship. Are the college coaches providing this pressure? No, they are not. Our local schools have produced some fantastic athletes, some of which have earned college scholarships. Now, I have seen the benefit of club sports for a few of my athletes and I am glad they participated, for it did help propel them to the next level – which is part of my job, too, and it’s very exciting to witness. For these kids, club sports were a valuable tool and a good thing.

But then there are professional athletes such as Patrick Mahomes, the 2020 Super Bowl MVP Quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs. In recent days after his Super Bowl win, he credited his participation in multiple high school sports as a reason for his success, and that if he focused on just one, then that would have decreased his chances at the next level.

That falls directly in line with what college coaches are saying: they want to know what else the high school athlete can do, what other sports they played in, and how well did they handle the different situations that arise in each sport. The college coach wants to know if the young athlete has experienced the benefits of other sports. The benefits are many: cross-training, psychological advantage, team unity, school pride and burn-out prevention. Diverse sport experiences will develop athletic talents to serve them in college, the byproduct of which is a selfless, team attitude that is the catalyst for a worthwhile and positive high school experience for the entire student body.

Are club sports working for all athletes involved, or just the elite ones? Given the benefits of high school sports, is it fair to pressure the everyday athlete to play club solely, or in addition to playing with their classmates?

In summary, I offer this concern which is supported by experience: I have expressed that club sports have their benefits and that they have a place. Club sports are good for some, but not for all, whereas school sports can be good for all. Being a tool to educate our youth, sports are important, but if it becomes too much to handle, what good is it doing them? I invite someone with more information to enlighten the topic with positive aspects/statistics of club sports, because I certainly don’t know everything, but would like to. Remember, it’s about the kids.


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