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The Out of Balance Sports-Academics Equation

Out of control high school sports

I love sports, but I cannot condone the alarming trend of athletic focus taking away from academic focus.

I understand the pressures of ensuring that your children are top competitors in their sport. But, the monomania on developing greatness in particular sports is creating a culture of overly striving athletes who ignore their academics. Philosophically, I have some reservations about advocating this balance. The Learning Consultants is based on the premise of educating our children through the mastery process.   There is something about mastering anything – even if it has no particular practical application – that deserves commendation. If students can take that same vigor they have towards mastering the game of baseball and apply it towards other areas, then they are learning an extraordinarily valuable process.

I also want to be clear that we fully understand the wonders of athletic-recruitment. The Learning Consultants has a program that we call Student-Athlete Mastery. Through this work, we help young student-athletes navigate the balance of excelling in both sports and school with the end goal of being recruited by schools for either athletic scholarships or for leveraging their athletic ability to gain entrance into elite schools.

Nevertheless, the focus for many student-athletes has been disproportionately on the athlete part of the equation. Most every parent fully understands that the athletic career of their child will last through college at best. But, you would not know that from the amount of time, energy, and money that many parents spend on sports.

The problem for most students living in upper middle class suburbs is their understanding about the competition level that exists in other areas of the country. Years ago, I worked with a student who was one of the top football players that ever played in his small town Connecticut school’s history. This student was an excellent football player for our area. Part of the reason was that he was very big for his position – at least against the competition that he faced in our little neck of the woods. Since he was utterly dominant in the games he played, and since he received many local accolades, his parents were certain that he would get a scholarship to play at top colleges throughout the country. I did not want to burst their bubble.

 From an objective perspective, being the best football player for his position in a wealthy region of a Connecticut did not necessarily mean that the kid was even in the top 100 for his position compared to kids in a big football states like California, Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Both parents and student were filled with bravado, despite not only mediocre grades but deficient reading, writing, and math skills. There are only so many Division I schools that can give athletic scholarships. Some of these schools also care about academics. At the lower Division II and III levels, money starts to either dwindle or disappear while the weight of academics increases.
 As the year passed and the ratings of national high school players came out, the family was stunned to see that their superstar was not in the top 500 for his position. His size – which for our area made him extremely large and was certainly a reason for his dominance – was simply above average at the level of national recruiting. Likewise, the rest of the student’s skills were unable to make him stand out when compared on a national scale. 50 states – most of which are a lot bigger than Connecticut – each had an average of 10-11 players better than him. The four football power states listed above each had 15 plus lineman rated ahead of him. He was good, but he was not college scholarship good.
 This sad story reminded me of a kid I knew in high school. He played basketball, and he was great in middle school. For his age, he was probably one of the best players in the history of our middle school. His parents encouraged his commitment to basketball excellence. They let him play all hours of the day at the expense of his homework. They even hired a private coach to work with him, which was highly unusual at the time.

Unfortunately, his parents failed to realize some critical issues related to their child’s early basketball prowess: first, their kid was very tall for middle school, in part because he had his growth spurt earlier than most. Second, his skill level was so comparatively high because other 12-14 year olds had yet to dedicate themselves to the sport the way he had. As he went through high school and other kids caught up to him in height and skill, he went from being a prodigy to being a good high school basketball player. But, being a good high school player does not earn scholarships. Perhaps the money spent on the private basketball coach should have been spent on a private tutor to help his low grades and test scores.

I vividly remember our last conversation; it is one of my first real views of adult disappointment. It was near the end of high school and a group of us were talking about our future plans. He tried to sound convincing as he explained that he was “set for life” because he was able to get a job at a local factory. Even in a group of harsh, mocking, teen boys, no one said anything.