By Lee Davis
I’ve always maintained that a good high school coach can be the most influential non-parent in a young person’s life.
That’s not to disparage the role of classroom teachers, scout leaders, church youth ministers and others, but there’s likely no other place that simulates the life challenges all of us face quite like the field of athletic competition.
The requirements needed for success in athletics – mental and physical competition and intense work – mirror almost exactly what’s needed to excel in the adult world.
In addition, athletics offers the unique burden of knowing that if you make a mistake, hundreds or perhaps thousands of people will see it – and some will actually be happy you made the error. That’s a pressure few other high school students are likely to face anywhere else. An advanced trigonometry test may be difficult, but no student is likely to ever take one in an environment where scores of people are hoping he or she will fail.
So that’s why high school coaches are so important as mentors to young athletes; they are by their side as they face obstacles almost unknown to the general student body. But what issues do coaches face today that their professional ancestors didn’t confront 15 or 20 or 40 years ago?
Here are a few:
Cell Phones, Social Media and the Internet
Let’s face it, technology has changed the world and high school athletics is not immune. Now, virtually anything a coach or athlete says or does can be recorded or photographed by a cleverly positioned phone and be in public view in minutes.
In some ways, that’s a good thing. It would be almost impossible for a coach to get away with systematic abuses of players in a setting where a camera or microphone can be anywhere.
On the downside, in a world where privacy seems a thing of the past, a coach, even in what is believed to be a one-on-one meeting, could hold back on an honest evaluation of a player because it could be used against him.
ESPN and Sports Saturation on Television
Once again, technology can be a great thing. Every sports fan loves to be able to tune to a live or recorded ball game 24 hours a day, but the saturation has certainly influenced high school athletics.
Remember in the 1980s when college basketball powers-that-be said they would never allow games to be televised on Tuesday and Friday nights because they were traditionally for high school basketball? Today, you can find a televised college basketball game almost every night from December to March.
As recently as 20 years ago, ESPN wouldn’t broadcast a college football game on Friday night to avoid conflict with the high schools. Now ESPN televises a game every Friday night in the fall.
It’s debatable whether a TV game between, for example, Southern Mississippi and Marshall would seriously affect a crowd at a Hoover-Vestavia Hills contest, but the fact is that many high school programs operate on tight budgets. The loss of a few hundred dollars in gate revenue per week could make a big difference.
The other area of TV’s influence is on the field or court. High school coaches are constantly teaching their players the importance of fundamentals and behaving with class. Those words get undermined when kids constantly see professional athletes taunting and showboating on ESPN’s Sports Center.
Kids naturally want to copy their idols in the professional ranks. It can even be a positive. But it’s hard for coaches to teach what is right when the players see things done the wrong way every time a television is on.
Travel Ball Teams
Forty years ago, high school athletes sometimes spent much of June and July playing something called summer league ball. Often they were loosely organized teams and leagues founded so athletes had a way to stay in shape by playing their favorite sport during hours when they weren’t working at their part-time summer job.
Fast forward to 2016, and the old summer leagues have merged into travel ball, in which teams of elite athletes tour the region or even the country playing similar teams. The goals of travel ball are far more than to keep kids in shape. The objective is to create specialized athletes prepared to compete at the next level.
In some ways, there’s nothing wrong with travel ball. It’s no crime to want to get better at a particular sport, and facing intense competition is a way to do it. The problem comes with expectations; there’s no guarantee that a summer in travel ball is going to get an athlete more playing time at the high school level – much less a college scholarship.
Parents can fall in the trap of thinking that if their son or daughter isn’t playing more at the varsity level after a summer of travel ball, then it has to be the high school coach’s fault. The truth is sometimes the other kids are just better players.
We may live in a cyber age, but coaches do more paperwork – online or on actual paper – than ever. Eligibility forms, insurance forms and countless other forms make it to a high school coach’s desk or computer. With few exceptions, coaches don’t have a large staff to handle it.
Recently, I visited a prominent football coach’s office and commented on the mountainous pile of paperwork on his desk.
“My secretary is going to take care of this,” he replied, smiling. “And I’m my secretary.”
There are many more points I could make, but these should give an overview. With all the influences in the world, the role of a high school coach has never been more important, but their job has also never been more difficult. Coaches aren’t perfect and certainly some are better than others – just like in any profession.
But understanding that coaching in 2016 is a far different proposition than it was when most of today’s parents were involved in athletics help them give their children’s coaches the benefit of the doubt as the new school year begins.