Josh Nesbit would have been a star on his high school soccer team, but instead the lanky 16-year-old goalie chose to play for an elite, globe-trotting club team.
The decision not to play high school soccer was an easy one for the junior at Loudoun Valley High School in suburban northern Virginia. He said his experiences with the Reston Football Club ’85 have far surpassed any opportunities he would have had with his school team.
The club has barnstormed through Portugal, Scotland, England, and Germany to play against some of the world’s most talented young players. Division I colleges are recruiting Mr. Nesbit, 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,” Mr. Nesbit said as he warmed up before a recent two-hour practice that ended 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 student athletes typically still compete for their schools, and many juggle schedules to play for both school and club teams, a growing number of teenagers in some sports are giving up school colors and varsity letters altogether to play exclusively for nonschool teams. The trend is especially evident in soccer, one of the fastest-growing youth and high school sports in the United States.
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 the students who are bypassing the high school athletic experience are missing out on something they will never be able to recapture: the chance to represent their schools and local communities in what traditionally has been seen as part of a broader educational experience.
“It’s a disturbing trend we are seeing,” said Roger Blake, the assistant executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for the state’s high school athletic programs. The 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 fact, the pull and tug between high school and elite-club coaches has become so intense in California that the state federation plans to begin bringing club and high school coaches together to improve communication and try to seek a balance between the competing interests.
“We are asking these kids to make a choice, and that’s not fair to the kids,” Mr. Blake said.
While athletes participating in golf, tennis, ice hockey, and gymnastics have for years been drawn to clubs, either because their high schools haven’t fielded teams in those sports or haven’t offered competitive teams with official league play, athletes in other sports are now making the leap to club teams.
That is happening more and more in soccer and swimming, and sometimes in basketball, according to observers. So far, football and baseball do not appear to be part of the trend.
Katie Braun, one of the most talented young swimmers in Minnesota, has never swam 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 swim in the Olympic trials next summer in California, instead competes for Foxjet, one of the most successful swim clubs in the state.
“The competition is a lot stronger in club swimming,” said the outgoing student athlete, whose alarm clock goes off before 5 a.m. for practices. “I’m getting as many calls from colleges as my best friend, who is one of the stars of Minnesota high school swimming. ... It’s a personal decision.”
Daniel Gould, a sports psychologist who works with Olympic athletes, said the increasing number of young athletes playing for elite club teams reflects the broader phenomenon of what he calls the “professionalization of youth sports.”
It’s an atmosphere, he said, in which youngsters begin to specialize in one sport long before they have had a chance to try other sports, and where the parents of 14-year-olds hire private trainers to help their children get into top playing condition. In the end, he said, the parents and their children hope for a payoff in the form of a college athletic scholarship.
But Mr. Gould, a professor in the department of exercise and sports science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, points out that only a tiny fraction of teenage athletes will earn college athletic scholarships. And he warns that athletes who are pushed too hard, too quickly in one sport are candidates for burnout and overuse injuries.
He argues that 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,” Mr. Gould said. “On the club teams, your English teacher isn’t coaching you.”
Jack Roberts, the executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, preaches a similar message to those in his state who worry about competition from elite clubs.
“We are most active in espousing a philosophy that in high school sports, we have something very special, unique, and attractive to offer high-school-age boys and girls,” Mr. Roberts said.
“We don’t have to copy the elite programs to keep up with them,” he continued. “We have what high-school-age boys and girls want: pep rallies, cheerleaders, yellow buses, and motorcades to events. We get regular coverage by newspaper, radio, and television that rarely comes to the [elite club programs].
“We are advocating in this state not to be overly alarmed at what elite sports are trying to do, but to be vigorous defenders of what we do best.”
‘Age of Specialization’
Todd Hitt, a former All-American soccer player at the University of Virginia who founded the Reston Football Club that Mr. Nesbit plays for, believes his team offers exactly what the best young athletes want these days.
“It’s the age of specialization,” Mr. Hitt said. “These kids want to excel at one sport, and they want to focus earlier and earlier so they can be competitive. The end game for the elite players is college and or playing professionally.”
Part of getting a leg up means parents must be willing to dig deep into their pocketbooks. Parents of players on Mr. Hitt’s club team, on average, spend between $2,000 and $3,000 a year on fees and travel costs.
And while Mr. Hitt is quick to say there are plenty of top-quality high school soccer programs with excellent coaches, he believes the best club teams can offer players more exposure to college coaches.
“They are going to go where the best players are, and that is elite players playing in elite tournaments,” he said. Ten players from his club team have 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.
“You don’t get the same kind of exposure playing for your high school as you do in the club,” said Chris Carroll, a 17-year-old at Falls Church High School in Falls Church, Va., who plays for the Reston Football Club and hopes to play for St. John’s University in New York City, which fields a Division I men’s soccer team.
‘It’s a Mistake’
But Richard Broad, a former head soccer coach at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who now is the head coach at nearby W.T. Woodson High School, said 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 said. “I was looking for student athletes who represent an academic institution. ... The club experience has tremendous value, but there is something special about representing your high school, and I think young people miss out if they don’t take advantage of that experience.”
In fact, said Mr. Broad, who coached Woodson to a Virginia state championship in 2000, coaches and players make a mistake when they think club teams are always the best place to find talented players.
Where did he find the best player he ever recruited for George Mason University? At a pickup game inside an elementary school gym in Toronto.