It was 1974, the summer before my senior year in high school. The Beach Boys just released their Endless Summer album and every red-blooded American teenage boy was ready to live those everlasting lyrics of hanging at the beach, surfing and hot-rodding around town chasing girls.
Our beach was Red Cedar Lake, our surfboard was a slalom water ski, our hot rod a 1973 Chevy Cheyenne truck named Rhonda and our girls none other than the northern girls made famous by David Lee Roth. It was a summer according to Seinfeld—about nothing.
Fast forward forty years and keep your foot on the accelerator. If you are a teenager involved in athletics your summer will be an endless parade of practices, games, weightlifting, sprinting, tire rolling and rock hauling.
Each of your coaches will have carefully planned out your summer vacation as if you were training for the next Olympics. Finding a beach combing teen in a little deuce coupe might be more difficult than you think and unfortunately it is a traffic jam of expectations that is forcing many athletes off the three-sport highway.
As a high school coach for the past twenty-five years I am well aware of the crammed schedules facing today’s athletes. In my younger days I was as guilty as the next overzealous coach in setting an unrealistic summer schedule. More recently I began reducing my summer calendar in hopes of returning some free time to my athletes only to find out that another coach had something to replace it.
Renowned sports physician Dr. James Andrews said, “They (coaches) train them like professional athletes at a young age.” The fear that the player down the street is getting ahead causes parents to push their kids to do more. And today more is always seen as better. Parents and players pile up “frequent driver” miles in search of the best training opportunities.
This whirlwind schedule often puts athletes in compromising positions. Teammates can find themselves pitted against each other when trying to decide between which game, practice or workout session they will attend. Not surprisingly, at many schools coordination between coaches is minimal.
What makes all this even more interesting is the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association’s stance on summer contact. All sports, except football, now have unlimited non-school contact. However, the real interesting part is that summer program “requirements” don’t exist. The WIAA rule states that, “out of season and summertime activities must be voluntary.” And it continues, “Taking or requiring attendance, providing incentives or connecting playing time and/or lettering requirements to out of season programs is prohibited.”
Coaches are forbidden from allowing summer participation to influence their season decisions regarding who plays and who doesn’t. In short what you don’t do cannot be held against you.
Despite that stone cold fact coaches are there taking attendance, calling and texting players who don’t show up and in general placing the expectation to follow their training regime. Even a novice can read the implied between the lines obligation that you had better attend. Every coach has told a summer truant, “you don’t have to be here, but if Jimmy works harder than you this summer and beats you out next fall, don’t come complaining to me.” Message delivered—it’s voluntary, but you better be here!
Recently I was talking with the parent of a rare three-sport athlete that will be a senior this fall. He was telling me how his son, if he could do it all over again, says he would not be a three-sport athlete. The number one reason—loss of summer family time, vacations cut short, weekends packed with tournaments and the endless barrage of training requirements.
We as coaches speak out of both sides of our mouth, praising three-sport athletes and then making it nearly impossible for them to be one. The irony is that coaches who need these three-sport dinosaurs are the very reason many are becoming extinct. We force players to make choices and then are punitive when they don’t choose our sport.
In am the world’s biggest believer in the value of athletics and quite frankly some of the summer antics I had time for, weren’t in my best interest. Like a lot of things today, we have reached the far extreme of where we were forty years ago. I don’t believe either extreme is the right answer—sort of like today’s politics. It seems common sense and moderation in athletics is more difficult to find than a phone booth. Some schools cannot even agree to place one meager week of the summer off limits from all sports activities.
Sport seasons no longer have a beginning and an end. The monotony of specialization has replaced the excitement of the changing sports season. High school sports have become about the relentless pursuit of winning and the emphasis on individual achievement. No longer are summers fun filled days with family and friends.
We use to hope for endless summers, now I wonder if some athletes can’t wait for them to end.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at email@example.com