It has only been recently, within the last decade or so, that some high school athletes are choosing to play their favorite sport exclusively for their club team, forgoing the experience of high school competition altogether. The purpose behind this centers on the idea that the training offered through a club atmosphere is needed in order to reach higher competitive levels, and the scholarship that some seek. Whether this is true or not (something I won’t debate here), either choice will bring positives to the table for the high school age athlete. Nevertheless, as it is with most choices one makes, there is almost always something one loses along with the objectives that one gains. This holds especially true in the case of an absolute such as playing solely for one program to the exclusion of the other.
One more thing I would like to emphasize, and this is of definite concern, is that a choice such as the one I am discussing here needs to have its impetus from within the athlete. Conceptually similar to the principles discussed in my blog article Part 2: Specialization in Youth Sports, Good or Bad?, the decision to forgo playing on a high school team for participation and training on a club team, or vice versa, is one that should be left up to the athlete to decide. My unease with this situation encompasses the pressure that is put on athletes from some club and high school coaches trying to secure year-long commitments. I think it inappropriate, and ill-advised, for anyone to create artificial rules and expectations that limit an athlete’s choice to participate in both high school and club, or in one to the exclusion of the other. Discussing with an athlete their potential and the type of training it will take to reach that potential is fine, as is allowing the highly competitive skill level of a particular club or high school program to dictate what an athlete must do to compete on that respective team. However, setting biased guidelines for everyone that forces athletes to make decisions they should not have to make is self-serving and not necessarily in the best interest of all concerned.
I would think that any club or high school team that wanted to be the “best” in their arena of competition would rather have athletes who are truly vested in their program. You know, the ones who truly “want” to be there. If that is what the program is all about, then, in my mind, it would be best to develop training techniques and strategies that greatly improve performance, allowing athletic potential to thrive. In circumstances like this, the environment itself becomes a major factor in the decision-making process, a life lesson, rather than creating artificial means to get one’s dedication.
Please do not misinterpret what I am trying to say here for I do not fall exclusively on one side of the fence or the other. What I personally like to see is athletes of high school age make the decision themselves to train and compete only for club, only for high school, or a combination of both, based on their own specific circumstances. These specific circumstances may include:
• What they are looking to gain out of their athletic experience,
• individual goals,
• team goals,
• future athletic aspirations, and
• weighing the positives against each other, and making the choice based on what best fits the athlete’s personal situation.
Positives of High School Athletics
(a) The sense of connectedness, pride and loyalty one feels when representing one’s school and community is unmatched in high school (and college).
(b) For many, there’s likely to be a higher sense of responsibility to teammates in high school athletics.
(c) Learning to work well with others – teamwork, in the process of working toward achieving a common goal, is a big part of the high school sports experience.
(d) As a whole, there tends to be more emphasis on sacrifices for the good of the team in this environment.
(e) There is a higher priority and emphasis on academic success when competing for your high school team.
(f) The cost to practice and play is reasonable.
(g) Socioeconomic diversification is more likely, due to “f” above.
Positives of Club Athletics
(a) As a whole, there tends to be better technical training in the club environment.
(b) Due to a club’s ability to attract high-level players from any area, and the competition traveling they do, athletes are more likely to compete at a higher level.
(c) It is more probable that an athlete will practice and play with others of similar passion and skill level.
(d) College recruiting, for the majority of athletes, is better through the club experience. (This is mainly budgetary. Recruiting coaches get to see many more recruitable athletes, all at one time, with the many high level tournaments held all over the country.)
(e) Athletes get to work with a variety of individuals due to the club’s ability to draw from so many communities. Some high profile clubs draw athletes from other states.
When evaluating the information above, please keep in mind that these bullets and lists are not meant to be comprehensive or all-encompassing, and some from one area may apply to another depending on a specific program. They are merely presented here as a starting point by which individuals can measure what might best fit their needs. This increases, substantially, the chances that an athlete will make the right decision for themselves.
My own personal recommendation: If you are truly passionate about the sport (or sports) you play, it fits with what you are trying to accomplish, and you are capable of handling all that comes with such a commitment, then staying involved in both a club and on your high school team is probably best. In this way, you take advantage of the positive benefits that can come from each experience.