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Specialization in youth sports part three: Who wins in battle of club vs. school sports?

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 10:42 a.m. CDT

Long before college coaches began recruiting freshmen and money making clubs took over the high school sports landscape, Jim Flynn saw the tide of specialization coming.

In the early 1980s, the rule that disallowed Illinois high school athletes from playing any club sport was relaxed so that kids simply couldn’t play the same sport in the same season. Flynn, a former assistant executive director of the IHSA, knew there was no turning back.

“School administrators and athletic administrators in Illinois as well as across the country, they knew that once the door was open, it was hard to shut,” Flynn said.

Clubs grew after the rules were changed, and the ability to play one sport year-round became widely available.

Today, high school and club sports are forced into an awkward relationship. In order to compete at a high level, high school coaches must encourage their kids to play club sports, which carries the risk of kids quitting their secondary or tertiary sports.

While high school programs can benefit from the development their athletes receive from club teams, many high school coaches raise the question of whether certain clubs help athletes improve their skills.

Because of the increased focus on club sports, the three-sport high school athlete is on the verge of becoming extinct, as Sycamore athletic director Chauncey Carrick realized when he saw the list of athletes who would win an award for playing three sports in all four years of high school.

Only one athlete won the award, and she was given credit for two sports each year for cheerleading.

“In a school of 1,200, 300 a class, that only one of those 300 is playing three sports all four years, that kind of surprised me a little bit,” Carrick said. “It’s becoming more and more where they really concentrate on one, they might do another for fun, and that third sport just isn’t a priority anymore.”

Sycamore soccer coach Dave Lichamer knows what it takes for a high school program to be highly successful – he’s been to the state finals three times as coach of the boys and girls teams at Sycamore.

Part of the equation for success has nothing to do with the drills he runs in practice, tactics he employs or the lineups he trots out on game days.

Most of his athletes, Lichamer said, have to play club soccer in order for his team to win.

“It’s just a fact, unless you are so unbelievably athletic that you can still compete,” he said. “It’s a necessity to really stay up and to really compete. If you really want to be good, you’re playing in the club scene.”

Usually, that means athletes miss out on playing other sports. In some cases, that means skipping high school soccer altogether.

Club soccer teams used to take a break for the two-and-a-half month high school season. Now, they play all the way through the spring and the fall, sometimes mandating that athletes forego their high school soccer career.

Sycamore goalkeeper Drew Moulton decided to skip the high school season last year, and 2009 Daily Chronicle Player of the Year Karissa Miller, who earned a scholarship to Marquette, elected not to play for the Spartans during her sophomore and junior years while she played for a national championship at the club level.

“As some of the club teams got better and they started having larger tournaments, college showcases, national tournaments where there was a lot more exposure for the players on a grander scale, it got to be where, ‘Hey, why don’t we just keep this team together and keep playing so that we can really get you out there,” Lichamer said. “Now, we’re talking more big money where you’re saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to give you more opportunities to get college scholarships, we’re going to get you more looks so that, beyond your high school days, you can have money to go to higher institutions to continue to play ball.”

Even if clubs are taking kids away from other high school sports, most of them help high school programs by working to hone athletes’ skills when high school coaches aren’t allowed on the field with them.

But some clubs, coaches attest, aren’t even doing that. Instead, certain teams turn their focus to offering college exposure by playing as many games as possible.

“Parents need to put their kids with coaches who are going to work on their fundamentals and help them get better,” said Sean Conner, who coaches at Northbrook-based AAU basketball club Full Package Athletics. “Some of the sports are suffering in competition because the kids are completely focused on playing games as much as possible and players and athletes are not working on their skill sets enough.”

Corey Jenkins was curious about that particular issue, so three years ago, the Genoa-Kingston boys basketball coach accepted an offer to coach club basketball for a season.

“It’s a money-maker,” Jenkins said. “You’ve got to make sure you look up the right ones that actually teach you something other than just showing up and playing and don’t teach you a thing because you can see that in some of the organizations. I don’t know how much teaching is going on with some of these groups, and the amount of money that families are throwing into this thing, I would think it would be some.”

Because clubs are run like a business, they have the ability to push their product (scholarship offers) by exposing their customers (athletes) to college coaches. In that push for offers, development can sometimes be lost.

“The travel coaches generally do this year to year to year, and they’re looking to get the line of the next kids to come in,” Northern Illinois baseball coach Ed Mathey said. “So if they can be active in the process of getting these kids recruited and maybe finding a scholarship, that’s something that helps attract the next generation of kids coming for them.”

DeKalb girls basketball coach Chris Davenport tries not to pressure kids to join his team because he finds it to be antiproductive, but he also knows he’s lost plenty of athletes who could be valuable to the program.

Softball players, in particular, have sparsely played basketball at DeKalb in recent years.

“We’ve got a lot of softball kids that played basketball in the past that don’t play anymore. Quite a few,” Davenport said. “I know if I was a volleyball coach or a softball coach, I would encourage my kids, especially softball, to play basketball because I know they’re going to come into the season in shape for the spring.”

DeKalb softball coach Jeff Davis wants exactly that, but he hasn’t been able to sway his kids that way. On the varsity softball and basketball teams last year, there was almost no crossover.

“Does my team benefit when these kids specialize?” Davis said. “I actually think it holds us back a little bit. Because if all those kids were getting that workout in and running as hard as the basketball team does, we’re going to benefit from it. We’re going to steal more bases because we’re faster, we’re going to have a whole lot more stamina at the end because softball shape isn’t the same as basketball shape.”

Former DeKalb and current Kishwaukee volleyball coach Stephanie Gooden thinks one of the problems is the usual mandate from schools that high school sports come before clubs. Some high school teams, including Davenport’s, are flexible early in the season, but the consensus is that the high school teams come first.

The fact that club sports, which many athletes view as crucial to garnering college interest, must be secondary to a school team can make athletes shy away from high school athletics.

“If the family’s OK with that and the athlete’s OK with the consequences for club soccer, then that’s great,” said Gooden, who also has experience coaching club volleyball. “However, most high school coaches aren’t willing to bend on that. So it’s kind of a back-and-forth issue. The environment isn’t very conducive sometimes for them to play club sports because of coaches expecting different things.”

Club Fusion volleyball founder Wayne King doesn’t necessarily think club programs should be blamed when kids skip high school sports. Ultimately, the former Kishwaukee College and Rochelle coach said, the onus is on the high school coaches to entice athletes to play multiple sports.

“If I didn’t have success at Kishwaukee or any of the programs I might be at, I wasn’t looking at other coaches to see how did they hurt me,” King said. “I’m looking at what did I do wrong and how can I improve that … Sometimes it’s easy to say, ‘My team isn’t doing well because this club is taking all of my kids away.’ ”

But the underlying question of the battle between club and high school sports may not concern what kids want to do, it’s about what athletes feel they have to do to nab a scholarship or even a spot in the starting lineup.

And the environment has changed so much over the last few decades that some coaches and athletic directors concede that the best route to a college scholarship for an elite athlete doesn’t always include playing multiple sports anymore.

“I still think that we have to think of it more about what’s best for our student-athletes, and the students of our school district,” Genoa-Kingston athletic director Phil Jerbi said. “And if a particular athlete wants to continue working in one particular specialized area, we need to support them in every way shape or form.”

For now, the tug of war is pulling kids toward specialization, and that pull is beginning earlier by the year.

“Kids don’t run around the neighborhood and play tag until 8 o’clock at night,” Gooden said. “They’re running to practice at 10 years old until 9 o’clock at night. The culture has evolved into that.”

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