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Published in Print: January 1, 2004, as Off-Sides

Off-Sides

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Some student athletes no longer think high school sports offer the best shot at grabbing a scholarship or a recruiter's eye.

Junior Josh Nesbit could be a star on his high school soccer team in northern Virginia, but he's not part of the lineup. Instead, the lanky 16-year-old goalie plays for the Reston Football Club 85, an elite private team in his area that has barnstormed through Portugal, Scotland, England, and Germany to compete against some of the world's most talented young teams. Division I colleges are recruiting Josh, and he hopes to join teammates who have signed with some of the best college soccer programs in the country. "After being exposed to the club situation, I didn't think twice about playing in high school," Josh says as he warms up before a recent two-hour practice, which ends just before 9 p.m. "The best way to get better is to play with the best players, and that's what is going on here."

While many student athletes juggle schedules to play for both school and club teams, a growing number of teenagers in certain sports are giving up school colors and varsity letters altogether to play exclusively for nonschool teams. It's a development that some observers say is inevitable in an age of increasing competition and specialization among young athletes. But critics wonder if these students are bypassing an important part of their education by not experiencing the pep rallies, cheerleaders, yellow buses, and local newspaper coverage that accompany high school sports.

"It's a disturbing trend," says Roger Blake, an assistant executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for the state's high school athletic programs. Athletes who forgo high school sports, he worries, will "miss out on the fun and camaraderie of being on a high school team. They only get one opportunity to be a kid." In California, the competition between high school and elite club coaches has become so intense that Blake's organization plans to bring the groups together to seek some sort of balance. "We are asking these kids to make a choice, and that's not fair to the kids," he says.

Students participating in golf, tennis, ice hockey, and gymnastics have for years been drawn to clubs, either because their high schools haven't fielded teams or haven't offered competitive teams with official league play, but athletes in other sports are now making the leap. It's happening more and more often in soccer and swimming, and sometimes in basketball, observers say. So far, though, football and baseball don't appear to be part of the trend.

Katie Braun, one of the most talented young swimmers in Minnesota, has never swum a lap for her team at Edina High, a school of 1,600 students in the suburbs of Minneapolis. The 17-year-old senior, who will participate in Olympic trials next summer in California, instead competes for Foxjet, a private club. "The competition is a lot stronger in club swimming," explains the outgoing student athlete, whose alarm clock goes off before 5 a.m. for practices.

Daniel Gould, a sports psychologist and University of North Carolina at Greensboro professor who works with Olympic athletes, says the growth of elite club teams reflects the broader phenomenon of what he calls the "professionalization of youth sports." He says it's an atmosphere in which youngsters begin to specialize in one sport long before they have had a chance to try others, and the parents of 14-year-olds hire private trainers to help their children get into top playing condition.

An urge to specialize is certainly what's driving the players in the Reston Football Club, according to Todd Hitt, the former All-American soccer player at the University of Virginia who founded the group. "These kids want to excel at one sport," he says, "and they want to focus earlier and earlier so they can be competitive." While Hitt is quick to say that plenty of top-quality high school soccer programs with excellent coaches exist, he believes the best club teams can offer players more exposure to college coaches. "They go where the best players are, and that is elite players playing in elite tournaments," he says.

Such exposure comes at a price: Parents of players on Hitt's club team spend, on average, between $2,000 and $3,000 a year on fees and travel costs. But for many students, it's money well-spent. By October, players from the Reston Football Club had already been recruited to play at Duke University, the University of Virginia, and Georgetown University, whose soccer programs are among the best in the nation.

While a college athletic scholarship is a worthy goal, UNC- Greensboro's Gould points out that only a tiny fraction of teenage athletes will earn them. He warns that kids pushed too hard and too quickly in one sport are candidates for burnout and injuries. In Gould's opinion, school offers a better environment for students to come of age as athletes. "You have trained educators running things who understand the child's total development, and even though winning is important, it's still school," he says. "On the club teams, your English teacher isn't coaching you."

And other observers question whether club teams are the surest route to college play. Richard Broad, a former head soccer coach at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and now the head coach at nearby W.T. Woodson High School, says that when he was coaching in college, he was reluctant to recruit a player who did not play for a high school. "That experience is more similar to the college experience," he says. "I was looking for student athletes who represent an academic institution." Besides, he adds, he found the best player he ever recruited for George Mason at a pickup game in an elementary school gym in Toronto.

—John Gehring

Vol. 15, Issue 4, Pages 13-14

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