Off-season Loss

Author: Jim Schmutz, ASEP Executive Director


Youth and high school sports have changed in significant ways over the past 45 years. Of course, technology, culture, family, and education are dramatically different today than they were four decades ago, as well. Time passes and the accompanying alterations of the landscape of life continue, though we may wince that perhaps a better way has been lost.

Not so long ago, the term sports seasons meant football, volleyball, cross-country, or soccer in the fall, basketball, wrestling, swimming, and gymnastics in the winter, and baseball, softball, golf, and track and field in the spring. Summer was “off-season” when athletes might participate in local league competitions, maybe attend a nearby instructional camp or two, work a minimum wage job, and otherwise enjoy being a kid.

Now, as specialization has made multisport participation the exception, the annual schedule revolves around one sport’s preseason, in-season, postseason, and club season. What was once labeled the “off-season” is anything but that for athletes nowadays.

That isn’t to suggest a turning back of the clock. The “good ol’ days” of sport had their flaws, too; salt tablets and water deprivation to cite only two. In many ways, athletes have it much better today. In equipment, facilities, medical services, nutritional advice, and many more areas modern sport is far superior. And we’ve seen the results in larger, more superbly conditioned and athletic competitors.

But it might be time for parents, school administrators, athletic program directors, and coaches to ask some worthwhile questions:

• Is the quest for bigger, faster, stronger, and more specialized athletes necessarily the ultimate aim?
• Are athletes technical skills appreciably better now than they were 30-40 years ago?
• Do teams perform more cohesively and effectively as a unit now?
• Has the focused dedication on one sport, and often one school and one club team (sometime coached by the same person) limit overall athletic development?
• Has the year-round commitment and extensive number of hours demanded by many sport programs stunted youth’s social development?
• Have the constant demands on young athletes’ bodies increased chronic, overuse injuries and endangered healthy physical development?

That is not to indict all those that have encouraged sport specialization and endorsed more practice time. Even the irreproachable Joe Paterno has advocated spring high school football practice in Pennsylvania, scheduled in late May and early June so as not to conflict with spring sports. Nor is it to diminish the value of the personal discipline that can be developed through dedicated practice. Most would agree that time spent with peers training on a court or field is at least as worthwhile as time spent at a shopping mall or playing a video game. And year-round practice supporters claim that a formal, monitored system precludes cheating (i.e., extra individual and team practices) that unethical coaches would otherwise engage in if a void was left in the off-season.

Yet, too many among the forces that have promoted specialization seem to find the allure of celebrity, money, and fame to tempting to pass up. College scholarships need to be obtained. Medals must be won. Contracts must be signed. Media attention must be grabbed. Right?

If evaluated strictly on the basis of such tangible results, it’s hard to refute the champions of year-round sport specialization. High school football players in Southern states where organized spring practice is the norm fare far better than their Northern state counterparts when it comes to securing college scholarships. Media coverage of youth sports, from international telecasts and podcasts of the entire Little League World Series to frequent regional and national telecasts of regular season high school games, has expanded remarkably over the past 10 years. And top young phenoms in all sports are more quickly identified and provided access to the best coaching, facilities, and competition to spur their development from childhood (e.g., LeBron James, Michael Phelps, etc.). For those prodigies that thrive on developing their special talents and striving to become the best, the system is well-suited.

But what about the much larger number of young athletes that are turned off by the high-pressure, 12-month regimen adults steer them into? Why is their sports career cut short simply because they won’t submit to the serious-minded, year-round schedule that has been developed as their only permissible path to the next level in youth and high school competition? Now there is no alternative for them. They either adhere to the year-round requirements of the program or are cast out. What a shame.

ASEP recognizes and respects differing views on this issue. Various vantage points and approaches have merit. But if nothing else, we encourage sports administrators and coaches to step back a moment from their busy schedules and reflect on what demands are placed on the young athletes in your programs. And just maybe you’ll find a way to allow for more time “off” in the season that now never seems to end.