Monday, May 29, 2006

Club Sports: A Tale from the High School Front Lines

Vern's blog post today touched a nerve. He's right on target. I've written a bit about pushing athletes in weightlifting, but let me relate a story to you all about the power of club sports vs high school sports in my world. In this case, the club sport is swimming.

Back in 2003, a group of influential St. Louis parents lobbied the Missouri legislature to pass House Bill 920. This bill would bypass the Missouri State High School Activities Association and force high school swimming/diving programs to allow athletes to participate (practice and compete) for both their USS club AND high school teams during the high school competitive season. Missouri was one of a handful of states that did not allow dual participation in swimming, or any other sport for that matter.

These parents argued that the MSHSAA had no right to bar their kids from practicing as much as possible, in order to aspire to athletic--possibly Olympic--greatness. That, they said, was the decision of the parent (and we assume the club coach). The lack of dual participation did dilute MO high school swimming some, no doubt about it. Many, very talented young people chose not to compete for their high school teams; it seems their parents and club coaches felt the high school season and coaches could not provide their kids with the expertise (read: VOLUME) of training in order to excel in the USS ranks.

This happened with my husband's team in 2002. The best 17-18 y.o. 1500 m freestyler in the COUNTRY chose not to swim for DeSmet that year (he had in the past). Had to train HARD to get his college scholarship and keep working toward the 2004 Olympic Trials. His former teammates won the Missouri State Championship that year--his SENIOR year, in killer fashion, beating Parkway South (a team destined to THREE-PEAT) 215-211. I KNOW the kid missed being a part of that experience. He missed one of the best things, ever, about being a part of a high school team.

My husband Kevin was asked to be on the MSHSAA committee to explore the swimming issue. He was adamantly against the rule change. To make a long story short, the MSHSAA eventually relented and compromised with the USS parents. Swimming and diving athletes, and only swimming & diving athletes, are now allowed to participate in both settings during the high school season. The high school coach is supposed to have control during the high school season, but who knows what actually happens with each athlete/program.

The previous blog contains a letter Kevin wrote to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was never published. The sports editor was very much on the side of the club parents. The letter was posted on the MSHSAA web site for a while; then it was removed because it incensed the parents. I have posted it for you because I think it makes a wonderful argument for all that is good about high school sports. It also touches on the excess of the club environment--excesses we all know are leading to injury and burnout in young athletes. For the most part, high school coaches have the kids best interest at heart. Practice and competition and coach behavior are regulated by the state; and the whole experience is not just about winning at all costs or being Olympic champ.

In an ironic twist, I actually met the young lady who was at the heart of the club swimming ruckus. Her father had been the very vocal spearhead of HB 920. She was now a very good swimmer in a Big Ten program. Finished as high as 4th at Big Tens in the 200 fly. But she was no international star or Olympic medalist--probably much to her father's chagrin. Like Natalie Coughlin, her posture shouted butterfly and massive overuse of her anterior torso musculature. She was a very competitive athlete and loved swimming. But that didn't help her during her senior collegiate season. If you look at her bio on the team site it says the following:

Sat out the season due to injury. Attained All-Academic Big Ten Recognition.

All those years and yards and meters and two-a-days had taken their toll. She couldn't compete her senior year in college because she had terrible lumbar back pain. Months and months of physical therapy and evaluations from the best sports med doctors in the country could not solve her pain.

I wonder if her body would've appreciated taking 4 months of "down time" to swim high school? But hey, father knows best--and more is always better, right?

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