Student Well-Being

Can High School Sports Hinder Athletic Development?

By Bryan Toporek — April 13, 2011 1 min read
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A 16-year-old female soccer player won’t be playing for her high school soccer team in North Carolina for fear of being held back by what she considers to be inferior competition, according to Yahoo! Sports’ “Prep Rally” blog.

Let’s add some context: The girl, Indi Cowie, was recently profiled in the New York Times for her prolific freestyle soccer skills (the art of performing tricks with a soccer ball). Dan Magness, who holds a freestyle soccer Guinness World Record, told the Times that Cowie is “the most advanced female freestyler in the world.” (Again, she’s 16.)

Those prolific soccer skills allowed her to once score all seven goals in a co-ed game when she was 10. But, because she’s so advanced, she’s decided to train with a boys’ club soccer team instead of playing with her high school’s girls’ soccer team.

As Prep Rally reported:

For Cowie, the impetus to ignore high school soccer comes not only from the lack of competition she gets from other girls, but also from the insistence placed on playing the game in a cooperative, American way. Cowie often sees no need to pass or incorporate other teammates because she's simply better than them, and all the girls she plays against. Usually, she's right.

It’s tough to take sides in Cowie’s situation. On the one hand, if she’s talented enough to score at will, that’s only going to help her team win games. Then again, aren’t youth sports meant to teach young athletes the values of sport, especially teamwork? The Times article described an incident from when Cowie was 10, when a coach benched her for not passing the ball to a teammate, despite the fact that Cowie beat three girls to score a goal. While Cowie cites the story as an example of why she prefers freestyle to regular soccer (“I don’t have any teammates to worry about,” she told the Times), who can fault her coach for trying to instill the values of cooperation and selflessness in her game?

A girls’ soccer coach e-mailed the Varsity Kansas blog in response to the story about Cowie recently, explaining why high school and club sports can and should work in tandem, especially for elite athletes.

Early on, they (as freshman), are able to play with girls that are 3-4 years their senior. Some of these players are better and some aren't, but the fact that they are girls playing against young women says something. Physically, they are definitely out-sized most of the time. One of the most important aspects of the high school game is that they (the elite player) have to develop into a more independent player. Finally, and probably most important, the high school season is a grind! We play 17 games in a little over 2 months. At times we play three games a week and practice every day in between. It is an exhausting season. It challenges these girls (like college ball will) to prepare their bodies so that they are mentally and physically ready for an intense 3 month period with no breaks.

Luckily for Cowie, she’ll be headed to college at the University of North Carolina—also known as Mia Hamm’s alma mater. The UNC Tar Heels have won 20 of the 29 women’s soccer national championships (according to, and UNC girls’ soccer coach Anson Dorrance “is known to celebrate selfishness in his players,” according to the Times.

Check out some of Cowie’s freestyle tricks below:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.