by Terri Lobdell
Palo Alto Online Staff
The emergence of "club sports" in the past 20 years has created a pool of experienced coaches in high school athletics -- but it also has raised concerns about conflicts of interest and favoritism when a club coach has club players on a school team.
According to school officials and sports experts -- local and nationwide -- this growing influence of clubs impacts high school sports in several significant ways.
There are major differences between club sports and either recreational youth sports or high school sports, which often are less intense or have multiple goals. Club sports focus on winning and developing highly skilled athletes, according to school officials and experts. Clubs recruit players from wider geographical regions and from early grades, pay professional coaches hefty sums, and pride themselves on gaining entry to "showcase" tournaments and "premier" playing leagues, participants say.
"This is not the model for high school, where you play with your schoolmates and play for your school," said Commissioner Nancy Lazenby Blaser of the Central Coast Section (CCS) of the California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school sports.
She said the primary mission underlying high school sports is educational. By contrast, for professionals running club sports it's about "promoting and making a livelihood from sports," she said.
Club programs cover a variety of sports, especially soccer, volleyball, basketball, water polo, tennis and baseball. They also offer camps and other training programs to develop skills, according to participants. Many club teams travel extensively to play other high-level teams in their leagues and at regional or national tournaments.
Young club athletes train more seriously from earlier ages to compete at higher levels, according to experts. Year-round programs are common and sports seasons have begun to disappear, as have multi-sport athletes.
Clubs become a way of life for many young athletes and their families. Parents are heavily involved due to the time, travel and financial commitment clubs usually require.
The single-sport specialization is a growing concern. The most frequently asked question at sports-parents workshops is how parents should deal with pressures on their children to specialize, according to a recent Positive Coaching Alliance newsletter. Potential costs of specialization include physical, psychological and emotional pitfalls, including burnout, overuse injuries and damage to parent-child relationships, the newsletter warns.
In addition, by the time students enter high school, if an athlete has not played club sports, his or her ability to compete on the high school team in many sports is significantly compromised, many sports participants say.
"High school sports don't matter the way they used to. Any sort of elite (play) is done at the club level," said Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly, noting two exceptions: football and track and field.
"It is what it is. I don't think you're going to change that," said Skelly, whose daughter, Gunn High senior Teresa Skelly, is heavily involved in the competitive volleyball world.
In fact, many club coaches and players view high school teams as a competitive "step down" and worry that high school play will slow a club athlete's progress. Many elite club players are discouraged or even forbidden by their club coaches from playing high school sports, school officials say.
Most club athletes, however, still enjoy playing for their school and do so eagerly. Some juggle continuing club practices (CCS forbids club contests if the athlete is competing in high school) while they also play on a high school team, several top athletes told the Weekly.
Club programs also hone in on preparing athletes for the next level of play -- in college -- complete with strategies for how best to attract college recruiters' attention and scholarships. This mentality can also pervade the high school teams and cause a ramp-up in competitive focus, at the expense of the educational mission of personal development for all players, many school officials fear.
As club sports have grown, high schools are pressured to be more like clubs, Lazenby Blaser said.
"Most successful (high school) athletic programs ... are deeply intertwined with club sports," Skelly said, defining "success" as measured by wins and losses.
As the number of teacher-coaches decline (see "The job of coaching" sidebar online), club coaches are filling the void.
"We want talented coaches and, let's face it, some of the most talented coaches are club coaches," Skelly said.
One concern expressed across the nation is when club coaches have players from their club team play for a high school team they coach, or who have players switch schools to play for the coach. The CCS recently passed a rule making the athletes who follow a coach to a different school immediately ineligible for play, Palo Alto High School Athletic Director Earl Hansen noted.
But there is no rule to cover a club coach landing at the same school his club athletes already attend. This overlap creates a real or perceived conflict of interest because the club coach may feel financial and political pressures to favor and play club players, according to numerous sports parents and school officials. The coach's primary income is from his club families; he wants those players to reflect well on his club; and there is a mutual comfort between coach and players.
Even if the coach doesn't play favorites it's "still a huge suspicion," Hansen said.
Students who play for rival clubs often decide, or feel pressure, to join the high school coach's club team and may that way gain advantage, or perceived advantage, on the high school team.
Coveted team-captainships (which carry status, leadership opportunities and college-application cachet) are often given to club players, fairly or not, according to many players and parents. Players who don't play for the coach's club can feel like outsiders and resent that, numerous players told the Weekly.
"These are all major issues that I did not have to deal with at the beginning," Hansen said of his 17 years as Paly's athletic director. To combat the club-conflict problem, Hansen requires all club coaches to provide him with their club rosters "so I can understand the moves that are being made, and that they're not influenced by money."
Skelly acknowledged concerns about potential conflicts of interest with club coaches. It's a dilemma, he said.
"I don't know how you stop that and still get quality coaches and still give kids a quality experience."
The link to this article can be found by clicking on the title above. What are your thoughts of club teams and their effect on high school athletics. The mentioned Track and Field above and realistically you can add Cross Country to that list.
Do club sports have an effect on Cross Country and Track and Field? Do they narrow our pool of athletes? What sports are taking away the majority of the athletes? Thoughts?