Why this matters to me…….
I’m not sure who I’d be today without my experience in as an athlete, both in and outside of school. Despite never receiving any type of formal sport training or participating on school teams until I was about 11, I ended up becoming a university athlete. In the midst of playing both ‘ball sports’ on school teams, I was also on the track team, took swimming lessons to become a lifeguard, and downhill skied regularly.
As an adult, my love for sport continues as a result of my in and out of school sport experiences. I’ve coached regularly since I was about 16, currently play on a competitive women’s volleyball team, participate in pick up basketball whenever I get a chance, run regularly, ski all winter long, and this summer I tried the sport of triathlon for the first time.
My experiences in school sports, then as a university athlete have enriched my life in more ways than I can express. My mental and physical health have benefited, I’ve built resilience, and was drawn to my profession as a teacher. But above all, the richest benefit has come in the form of relationships. In preparing to write this article, I emailed my elementary, high school and university coaches, as well as countless current and ex-teammates, colleague coaches and friends from summer sports camp. Relationships. Good ones; the kind that don’t fade with time.
I want this for my kids. All of it. I want them to try as many sports as possible (in and outside of school), to love them all and continue playing them as adults. I want them to experience all the benefits I have, because I know how much it can impact their lives. And I’m terrified they won’t experience it, not as I once knew it as a child, adolescent, then adult coach.
The world of school sports is changing at all levels due to a variety of factors, most specifically: poor coach retention and training, parent interference and specialized sport athletes. As a high school coach and lifelong athlete I’ve noticed these changes and they’ve more than peaked my attention – especially because my own kids are now ready for school sports.
When I’m confused about something – I learn about it, question and write about it. So, that’s what I’m going to do. I’d also like to thank everyone I bugged for their opinion about this topic; your feedback has pushed me to research and has informed my writing.
#1 Where have all the coaches gone?
Each fall I watch our head of phys ed scramble to fill coaching roles at our school, and colleagues tell me this same problem exists at other schools, both elementary and secondary. Fewer teachers seem to be coaching, and there aren’t many community volunteers to replace them. This is disheartening, mostly because I know how influential a coach can be in a student’s life and the power they have to engage that student in achieving their potential in both academics and sport.
It’s no secret that the world of teaching has become much more stressful and time consuming in the past decade; teacher burn out is a problem without adding coaching into the mix. I can’t even compare my experience as a teacher today to ten years ago; there are more meetings, emails, rules, student success initiatives, students with special needs, forms, procedures, etc. Many teachers simply can’t find the time to coach or don’t have the energy for it.
This is a significant change from years ago when it was quite common for every school to have their designated ‘coaches’ for each sport that didn’t change each year. Without coaching consistency it’s nearly impossible to build viable athletic programs, so many schools teams end up on the cutting block each year unless a volunteer or parent steps up and coaches. However, without ties to the school these fill in coaches often disappear after a couple years, then once again teams are searching for coaches.
Another issue is the lack of training for coaches at the school level. Actually, there is no training at all, and no compensation to pay for your own NCCP training (which is ridiculously expensive). If a new coach is unsure of their skill set, how can they become comfortable enough to feel ready to coach a team? Moreover, how can existing coaches improve their skill set? As a result, many school coaches have moved to coaching in club systems where training is provided and NCCP certifications can be subsidized. Who can blame them?
Finally, as many of us long time coaches are well aware of, there is little to no appreciation for coaches. Often, we receive more headaches than accolades from players, administrators, and parents. This wasn’t always, the case, though. For example, at one time, in our school board we were invited to a end of year golf tournament and luncheon as a thanks for our dedication, but that abruptly ended about five years ago, with a excuse about the ministry not approving funding for such events. Great.
First of all, teacher coaches need some kind of compensation – not financial, but at least in terms of time to organize their teams, plan practices, organize fundraising or to receive training. To me it seems logical that at least one afternoon or morning of a PD day could be granted to teacher coaches as time for either team planning, meeting with co-coaches or coaching clinics. Heck, even a seminar on first aid for teacher coaches would be well received.
I’d love to also see some education for teachers on the benefits of coaching and how this is reaped in the classroom environment. Good coaches know that one key to academic performance in the classroom is having positive relationships with students. Coaching is a central part of developing these relationships. However, without adequate training new coaches may still shy away from this experience.
Coaches in school systems also need support: coaching clinics and/or some kind of sport specific training. If schools want to compete with other institutions (such as clubs) who are vying for coaches, then they need to at least match what they offer. Also, if schools want to keep good coaches school leagues need to develop more of a collegial attitude, sharing drills, team systems and strategies – maybe even coaching tactics to make each coach better, thus the league as a whole more competitive.
Most of all, schools and school boards need to acknowledge and appreciate the vast amounts of time volunteer coaches (teachers and non-teachers) contribute to their schools. And yes, that means putting some money where their mouth is. I’m not sure what that could look like, but a return to some kind of season ending celebration of appreciation like a golf tournament or luncheon would be a good start.
#2 Helicopter parents
Helicopter parents have changed the face of education as a whole, so logically they’ve also impacted school sports. From yelling instructions at their kids from the sidelines, to undermining coaches authority, knowledge or decisions about playing time, these bundles of joy have sent coaches running for the hills, which has also impacted the lack of coaches in school sport systems.
So what do you do with them? Often, it’s not until the first league game that coaches and other players realize there’s a problem – it’s not like kids with these types of parents go around wearing t-shirts that say “Child of Helicopter Parents”. Suddenly, when you’re in the midst of a play and you hear someone yelling opposing instructions at one of your players, or at you to put their kid in the game, you realize as a coach that you’re in for a long season.
I know more than one school coach who has quit specifically because of not wanting to deal with helicopter parents. And usually, it’s the really good coaches -ones who’ve built programs with blood sweat and tears only to watch them be dismantled due to a problematic parent who is rallying against them.
I’ve heard that at the elementary level, the casualties are even more pronounced, which would be logical as I’m sure these types of parents are flying much lower when their children are young.
Helicopter parents need to be dealt with by school administration; period. Usually, they are already well known in the office anyways, since they’re there once a week complaining about one thing or another so there is already a budding relationship between them and school admin.
Moreover, as sad as it is, schools need to come up with a code of conduct for parents, to give coaches some breathing room. Really, this could also be a school board initiative whereby a general waiver is sent out to every child playing school sports that informs parents of the guidelines they need to follow.
Furthermore, school administrators need to have coaches backs when dealing with these types of parents; if they are there to ‘compromise’ or appease helicopter parents, then you may as well throw in the towel for the season. Until school administrators and school boards take a hard line with these types of parents, they will continue losing great coaches and destroying their athletic programs.
#3 Specialized sport athletes and ‘club’ sports
This is a big one, and I’ve learned through talking in person and via social media with colleagues and friends that it is quite a hot topic regarding both school sports and kids in sport. Regardless of your take on this phenomenon, I think we can all agree that it has dramatically changed the face of school sports.
First of all, I think if I’m going to touch on this I need to define ‘sport specialization’. According to my research both in person and via academic journals, it reflects two scenarios: 1) a situation where a student athlete plays and/or trains at one sport for 8 or more consecutive months of the year OR 2) a situation where a student athlete is prohibited to play other sports either overtly (i.e. signing to a team) or subtly (i.e. mandatory practices and games almost daily to avoid allowing for any other sports).
It is also important to note that specialized athletes also tend to start athletic training years before school sports begin, so by the time they are ready to play in schools teams there is a massive chasm of skill level in kids trying out for school teams.
Another important point is the financial cost of specialized sport training which is often hefty. This type of activity is usually reserved for those who can afford it, thus we see a major socioeconomic factor playing into kids skill sets in sport before they begin school sports. This also effects school teams, as kids whose families can afford specialized sport training often live in the same neighbourhoods and attend the same schools.
In the past, few specialized sport clubs for kids existed, but today club sports are commonplace in almost every city in Ontario, from small towns to large centres.
The advent of specialized sport programs has created a bit of a conundrum for school sport leagues,teams and coaches. There has been a sudden influx of highly trained little athletes, often at schools in affluent neighbourhoods. This has created a form of socioeconomic elitism in the world of school sports.
Parents also see and feel the pressure of the specialized sport world. Concerned that their child will ‘miss the boat’ for school sports, many are jumping on the specialized sport train, enrolling them in club camps, teams and training centres. I will freely admit I’m one of those parents, as are almost all my friends. As former athletes, we know and value the importance of sport, and we want that for our kids as well.
On the flip side of sport specialization issues, some student athletes in club systems are ‘asked not’ to play school sports, due to exclusion by their club coaches or practice/game schedules. Again, this scenario effects school sports, but in the opposite fashion, draining talent from school teams. This is immensely frustrating for school coaches who see the potential in their students, but due to ‘signing’ with their club teams are unable to play school sports.
Sport specialized athletes can do wonders for the competitive quality of a league, but when they all end up on the same team they can also dredge up quite a bit of animosity from other teams that don’t like being handed a staggering loss. The reality is, though, that the goal of school sports is to encourage both participation and competition and school leagues without high level athletes would be as one of my former coaches put it “glorified intramurals”.
The issue lies in the skill and financial differences between’club’ players and other athletes in the school sport systems. I genuinely think that developing better coaches and sharing knowledge is the key here. Just like in the classroom, a good coach can buddy stronger and weaker players together in various scenarios to improve the overall skills of all players.
Closing the financial gap is a bigger issue, though. The reality is that until sport specialized clubs get some kind of government funding to support the enrolment of financially challenged players, this form of sport elitism will prevail.
I was encouraged to learn while discussing this topic with colleagues that at the elementary level schools in our board can enter as many teams as they like in school sport tournaments. Therefore, at the developmental level in school sports, all students get a chance to play, regardless of their skill level. In addition to this, I also was enlightened to the fact that elementary teams can also decide what level of competition to enter in tournaments (our board has 3 levels) so that they are not playing kids whose skill levels are vastly inadequate to their own. So save your money parents, your kids will still make their school teams without playing club sports – however they simply may not be playing on the ‘top’ team in the school.
At the high school level, these same practices are not in place, and I think this is a shame. If a given school happens to have a team with a large number of club players, why shouldn’t they be allowed to enter a second team with non-club members in the same league as long as they have a coach and players of adequate skill level to participate? I personally think this would be an easy fix to this issue, if school board leagues allowed it. It would then allow for more general participation while allowing the highly competitive team to flourish and be able to compete at provincial tournaments, such as OFSSA where many of the high school teams are comprised of a number of ‘club’ or specialized sport players anyways.
Although I’ve heard it suggested by parents, other student athletes and coaches, I think banning or limiting club players or specialized sport athletes in school systems is the wrong way to go. If we want school sports to be competitive and flourish, we need high level athletes to push the bar. Also, if advances were made in coaching development as noted in my section in coaching above, perhaps other teams with non-club players could also raise their level of play, which would improve leagues as a whole.
When specialized sport players are banned from school sports, there is also a major impact on the quality of the leagues as a whole. As mentioned earlier, this is a practice by some sport clubs. We often see this in particular in boys hockey. Many double and triple A coaches as players to ‘sign’ agreements that essentially ban them from playing any school sports. This dramatically effects school sport leagues, especially in Northern Ontario as these are often the best athletes in the school. Unfortunately, this practice has spilled over into other ‘club’ sports, with other specialized sport teams now asking their players to ‘sign’ loyalty agreements to only play their sport at their club, once again draining the talent pool from school sports.
I’m not sure what a solution to this issue could be other than to educate parents and student athletes regarding the negative aspects and down right dangers of early sport specialization, and overtraining. There are many articles available online that go into great detail on the negative drawbacks of such focused and repetitive activities for young athletes, as well as the lack of evidence that such commitments are fruitful. A recent cbc.ca article on the subject does a great job of dealing with this topic: Early Sport Specialization Doesn’t Always Lead to Success.
For school sports leagues to flourish, they need to be comprised of a good selection of athletes. By limiting youth to one sport via specialization, clubs are not only stunting an athlete’s physical development, but also their potential to excel in other sports, and that’s a shame. Unfortunately, without agreements between club and school leagues to allow for multi-sport participation, practices such as ‘signing’ young athletes will continue to undermine the importance and validity of school sports.
Specialized sport clubs have done wonders for developing athletes, and some school teams are reaping the benefits of this training. However, school boards and coaches need to be able to adapt to the influx of these athletes and create strategies to close skill gaps and avoid sport elitism in their teams and leagues.
The final WORD….
How can school boards, schools, coaches and parents adapt to this changing world of school sports? My goal in this blog was to highlight both the issues and possible solutions (via my lowly point of view). But it’s ultimate goal is to start conversations. I want to encourage people to talk about these issues in rinks, gyms, staff rooms and pre/post season meetings. Dialogue is the means to action. To change. To evolution. To improving the world of school sports to ensure that it is sustainable.
What do you think of the changing world of school sports? How can schools, coaches and parents adapt to this new world? What do school sport associations need to do to balance coach retention and training, athlete participation and a high level of competition? Comment below!