As we get older we realize what our parents and grandparents meant when they uttered the phrase “youth is wasted on the young.” We grow up fast, too fast. As coaches we look back with a nostalgic gaze and think about the salad days. For many of us those days, right or wrong, were centered around high school or college athletics. For me, the heydays of my youth usually revolved around sports. Growing up there was a rhythm to the sports I and my brothers played in rural Frederic, Wisconsin. Like the seasons, the sports we played were ever changing.
The beginning of school meant football. Football in the front yard, football at recess, football on Friday night. October Saturday afternoons included making divots in the ground with the heal of my tennis shoe and kicking field goals over the clothesline or playing pass reception with my twin brother.
With November came migrating flocks of geese, deer hunting, and falling snow. It was time for basketball. We didn’t have keys to the gym so to the top floor of the barn we went, throwing down hay to the cattle each evening from a mow choked with bales. The more the cattle ate, the more exposed were the wooden floorboards of our haymow basketball court. So, from Thanksgiving to St. Patrick’s Day it was basketball, basketball, basketball.
With the melting of the snow and the commencement of April it was time to start thinking about baseball. Trout fishing was also on the menu many spring days, but playing catch with my brother Joel, playing throw up and hit in the back field, or partaking in a heated game of one on one baseball game using tennis balls were weekly activities. Of course we had quirky ground rules. You had to alternate batting left and right handed. Any line drive was a single. It was a double off the stump. And although it could get a stern look of consternation from Mom or Dad, off the house in the air was a home run.
We enjoyed all of it. Each sport and each season. What was our favorite sport? That all depended on the season. That’s the way it was for us, our older brothers, and hundreds of other kids around the state of Wisconsin. But today it’s different, way different. Maybe that’s good. Maybe that’s bad. I do know this...there are no sports seasons anymore.
Today’s youngsters still have toy boxes heaping with nerf footballs, red plastic bats, multi colored basketballs, football cleats, and rubber baseball tees. A veritable cornucopia of individual sports equipment that screams of the benefits of doing a variety of activities. But like the passing of each year and annual summer garage sales, the toy box gets emptier and sports accessories become less varied.
As today’s young athletes reach their middle school years the harbinger of sports specialization becomes reality. This unsettling trend has begun to decimate some high school athletic programs, especially districts with lower enrollments. We as coaches all claim we want kids to be three sport athletes and wax poetic about the benefits of being a multi-sport athlete during our pre-season parent/player meetings and youth clinics. While at the same time we bombard students and parents with the necessities of participating in a baseball camp during basketball season or a basketball camp during football season. We post brochures on our doors and bulletin boards encouraging athletes play more football, to play more volleyball, to play more baseball, or to play more basketball in order to have success and the dream of an athletic scholarship. We coaches opine about the demise of the multi sport athlete when we, at the same time, perhaps unknowingly, have helped create the monster known as specialization.
As a head baseball coach it brings me great joy when I drive or walk by a playground in the spring and see youngsters, without adults, playing a pickup game of baseball. I am equally delighted when I the same kids, many wearing football jerseys, doing their best Aaron Rodgers impersonation on the same playground. And around state basketball tournament time, I grin ear to ear when I see children playing three on three on the basketball court at the very same playground.
Sadly, those playground days appear to becoming scenes found only in images reserved for Norman Rockwell paintings. For a growing number of high school athletes sports seasons, like our climate, are changing. For the year-round, one-sport athlete, a basketball or a volleyball is akin to Linus with his blanket. For others throwing a baseball or wearing wrestling headgear becomes the focal point of a high school athletic career. Perhaps this is good. Perhaps it is not.
Perhaps it is my own naivete to believe there will come a time when we return to the “gold old days”, back the when the sports kids played were dictated by the Gregorian Calendar. Football was in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring and summer. It was like clockwork. It was consistent. And it was good for kids. But as Bob Dylan sang over a half century ago, “The Times They Are A Changin’.”
Today’s conversations among high school athletes have undergone a metamorphosis.
“Want to go play catch?”
“I can’t I have an April AAU basketball tournament I am playing in.”
“Want to go shoot some baskets?”
“I can’t I have that elite volleyball showcase tournament in Wisconsin Dells in November I need to go to.”
“Want to go throw the football around?”
“Nope. I have a fall baseball practice I need to go to.”
And it goes on and on. “I gotta shoot 10,000 shots this summer.” “I gotta swing 10,000 times this fall.” I gotta go lift weights.” “I gotta go to strength and speed.” And I gotta do one thing 12 months out of the year.
And the pressure is palpable. Player’s are expected to commit 100% to their sport and the definition of that commitment from the athlete is all over the board. Additionally, today’s coaches are expected to show the same commitment to their individual sport. Running skill camps, coaching and youth clinics, open gyms, banquets, fundraisers, long considered extra duties, now have become a perceived requirement, an expectation of coaches. Pressure and influence from parents on coaches and athletic directors has never been greater. And high school sports is suffering from it. Smaller schools unable to field sports teams because of lack of athletes is becoming more and more common.
We as coaches we need to really encourage our athletes to be multi-sport athletes and do our best to ensure we are not sending mixed messages to athletes and their parents. That being a “starter” or a “varsity player” is contingent on you playing a sport 12 months out of the year. It is happening. It’s frustrating for spring baseball and track coaches who see high school boys giving up the baseball or track and field in order to play in weekend basketball tournaments. It causes many coaches to shake their heads when a senior boy, who played varsity football as a junior, spurns the gridiron his senior year to play in weekend baseball tournaments in the fall. Coaches everywhere have shared such stories. It’s becoming more and more common. One sport - 12 months out of the year - and its effects on high school athletics shows no signs of waning.
It’s happening. There are no sports seasons anymore. Lilacs only bloom in the spring. The leaves fall in autumn. And snow falls in the winter. It used to be the same with high school athletics. Not anymore, and unfortunately, most likely never will be again.
Written by Prescott baseball coach Jeff Ryan. With a career record of 317-87 in 18 years, he was the WBCA Coach of the Year in 2013, a three-time District Coach of the Year, and led the Cardinals to the 2012 Division 3 state title.