Athletic Development at the High School Level: What It Is, What It Isn’t

There are many people involved with high school athletics who mean well. They have admirable intentions, yet their misguidance or misinformation renders them more of a liability than a resource for athletic and personal development.

There are also those that are in it for all of the wrong reasons. Some may think they have good intentions, but are truly blinded by their own ambitions, self-serving agendas, or desires to live vicariously through the athletes they interact with.

What both of these types of coaches/people have in common is their misunderstanding of athletic development at the high school level. And, as gratifying as coaching can be, it doesn’t mean a whole lot to the athletes if it isn’t done for the appropriate reasons and in the right context.

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Exclusively using examples commonly seen over my years in the high school setting, I hope to create a more clear picture of what athletic development is and is not at the high school level…

Athletic development at the high school level demands an emphasis on personal development more than any other level. Most athletes are not going to play at the next level.Winning is important, and I’m painfully aware that job security in coaching (even at the high school level) oftentimes comes down to winning percentage. But, focusing solely on sport performance without managing and encouraging personal growth in the classroom and in life is not only short-sighted, but impractical. Return on investment when it comes to student-athletes is measured in success, both on the field/court and in life. Failing to place a strong emphasis on the latter is failing your athletes.

Athletic development at this level is about advocating, not enabling. Standing up for your athletes and striving to provide them the best possible resources is one thing. Bailing them out every time they decide to miss an assignment, skip a class, or act out is another. Protect our student-athletes, we must. But, we must only do so when they actually need protecting, not because protecting them gives you the greatest chance to win that week.

Athletic development with youth athletes is making decisions based on what is best for them, not what best aligns with your views. Sometimes your own personal insights or beliefs – as well as they may mean – just don’t line up for a particular athlete. You have to be accommodating. You have to welcome diversity. You have to make choices that are only out of their best interest.

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Athletic development is always evolving, coinciding with the evolution of our youth. Scorn, mock, and detest the “new generation” of athletes, but they are here to stay. That is until the next iteration of athletic and youth culture arrives. Be an “old school coach” all you want, but your thought processes and coaching style still needs to adapt and evolve to reach a greater audience over time. Your potential to help athletes will diminish the longer you remain set in your ways despite all indications pointing to a needed change of pace.

Athletic development at the high school level is preparing your athletes for their current level first and foremost. Let their “next level” coach train them and treat them as if they’re at the collegiate or professional ranks. This is a tough one to get on board with, as we all want to prepare our athletes for what lies ahead of them. You can and should do this by instilling the disciplines and virtues of a mature young adult. You should not do this by holding them to the same expectations as you were held to as a collegiate or professional player. Nor should they be trained in the weight room as if they are a professional.

Athletic development at the high school level is not centered on the premise that more is better. No, your athletes do not need to workout 5 times per week just because they’re small in size. Maybe they just need to mature, biologically speaking. Or maybe they just need a coach who is viewing their development through the lens of long term development. You have 4 years to develop a freshman, not just one season. Where is the kid now? Where can we get them in 4 years? And how can we safely get there?

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Athletic development at this level is giving the athletes what they need, not what they want just for the sake of compliance. For example, many of my freshman want to get to advanced training methods. Of course, they want to use heavy weights and all of that. Could I ensure nearly 100% compliance by giving them what they want? Would it make my life easier? Sure. But, it just isn’t what is best for them. I liken it to giving a child dessert before dinner. Once you open that door (especially when the appropriate behavior is still being learned) it is hard to reverse course without major resistance. Of course, compliance is a huge component of any athletic program. We want our athletes to enjoy their sport, training, and academics, thereby ensure high participation and engagement. But, we can’t abandon our beliefs just because it will make the job easier.

Athletic development in the high school setting require that you actually care enough about your athletes and your craft to continue your education. Whether it is done formally or informally, continuing education should take place in some capacity. If it does not, it is guaranteed that your athlete is not getting the best resources possible. Will con-ed assure that you are providing your athlete the very best information. No, but it certainly bridges the gap between your limitations and your potential as a development tool and resource.

Athletic development is, as a head coach, surrounding yourself with quality people/assistants. I have never been a head coach, but I have seen and been around great ones. I’ve also seen less-than great ones. The great ones seem to have a knack for surrounding themselves with talented and/or passionate coaches that can provide for the athletes and program. The head coach can then manage the overall development of the program, while the assistants can impact the lives and careers of many more athletes. It’s not easy to recruit many high-quality coaches who can commit the kind of time required for such little monetary compensation. But, some of the best coaches I’ve been around have been able to do it. When the skipper has a clear vision and purpose, and his/her actions reflect them, it is hard not to buy-in as an assistant. For example, I’d follow Andy Lyon into battle any day.

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Athletic development at the high school level is exclusively centered on the development of the student-athlete, not the coach’s ego, pride, resume, or personal interests. With the masses now using social media, it is easy to get caught up in self-promotion instead of an athlete-promotion. But, by coaching the athlete, you have only earned whatever stake they are will to give you in their life. It is a privilege to say that you have coached any of your athletes, not just the ones who succeed on the field. The reward of coaching or “developing” student-athletes in any capacity (as a teacher, mentor, or coach) is not a laundry-list of professional players or college commitments, nor is it bragging rights or name dropping, it is about the memories, experiences, and relationships that you are fortunate to build.

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Ultimately, coaches may be in the business of athletics for any number of reasons. But, to lose sight of the true goals of athletic development at the high school level would be doing a disservice to those they are serving.

Respectfully,

RJF

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One thought on “Athletic Development at the High School Level: What It Is, What It Isn’t

  1. A good post might be what the student athlete could do to manage a situation where he or she has a coach who has outmoded beliefs, or perhaps an agenda which isn’t necessarily about the player’s happiness or development. A lot of high schools, particularly at the freshman and junior varsity levels, have coaches that can frankly be destructive to the spirit of the child. Having the insight of a coach from ‘the other side of the curtain’ on how a child can deal with this would be very beneficial. Of course this applies to AAU or travel ball as well, or even more so.

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