As a teen, participating in elite teams for specific sports used to be thought of more as a way to make athletes ready for their high school team. However, many now perceive their high school program as a way to prepare for club teams and gain the exposure to college coaches and recruiters that come with it. Athletes and their families face the difficult decision of which team they find to be more essential. Both provide individuals with important experiences that strengthen different aspects of their particular sport, but as club sports run sessions year round that overlap with high school practices, it can be difficult to balance both.
But is becoming the best player now more important, rather than having simply having fun? Members of clubs, which focus on creating the top teams with the most elite and competitive athletes, often feel motivated to prioritize such interests. Most programs run a pay to play system, meaning that if individuals miss practices, they receive consequences such as less playing time, resulting in less attention from recruiters, or even being kicked off the team. Especially because parents expect a large pay off for having invested so much money, it is often difficult to step away.
The dominance of club teams impacts high school teams year round; as missed practices may be for sports differing from that of their specific club team, individuals not only have to decide which team they will work with more, but also the sport they want to put more effort towards. Thus, as athletes become less involved in our high school’s athletic program by focusing on one sport over others, it is inevitable that individuals will have to disappoint teammates and coaches. Furthermore, coaches may feel pressure if they are expected to be fair towards those who always attend practice, but they feel inclined to give special treatment to others to increase chances of winning.
Additionally, the initial threat of club teams, which almost all athletes realize too late, is that the race to identify talent at a young age is actually discouraging. Many have completely quit a sport because they were overwhelmed by the high pressure at a premature age. As an athlete who completely committed to the competitive nature of a lacrosse club team at the age of ten, I was much less enthusiastic and engaged by the time I reached high school, and ended up deciding to only play for the club team, rather than for Ridgewood High School as well.
High school not only allows teens to play in front of friends and families, but also reinforces important leadership skills as players have the opportunity to mature as they move from freshman to varsity team. Although some believe that sacrificing one’s high school experience for a future that is not secure is unreasonable, many thrive under club team programs that focus on reaching the next level accompanied by the potential for a greater future. Allie Doyle, an athlete on the Varsity Lacrosse team and member of STEPS Elite, has said that practices have conflicted with each other, but that STEPS practices are not always mandatory when in season for school. Her positive experience has been highlighted by how she has “ has gotten the opportunity to play with some of the best girls around our area which has definitely improved her (my) game.” Overall, deciding where individuals priorities lie differs from athlete to athlete as goals and even sports are not the same.
Graphic: Anika Tsapatsaris