By Dev K. Mishra, M.D., President, Sideline Sports Doc
Today’s post is a follow up to last week’s, and I am straying from our usual injury and fitness topics.Please bear in mind that what follows is one man’s opinion and doesn’t represent anyone’s official policy. The decision by the US Soccer Federation to go to essentially a year-round schedule and prohibit their male Academy players from participating in high school soccer is an interesting one, and I think it’s reasonable to take a look at a few other popular boys’ sports to see how they do things.
What’s Up With High School Baseball, Basketball, and Football?
Baseball is one of the few sports that allows drafting of top prospects in high school, still allows them to play in high school, and in many instances also allows them to play in college. The typical elite baseball player is being identified very early- sometimes as early as age 12. The best of these players will be involved in elite travel teams, have personal coaching, play in “area code” tournaments, compile a video highlight/statistical portfolio early on. The typical D1 or pro prospect has been identified through this system and is further scouted at prominent high school programs. These players are strongly encouraged to play high school baseball, and are often contacted by D1 coaches in their freshman or sophomore years. The high school experience is built into the culture of the sport, even though a good deal of scouting takes place in the club or travel team system.
Basketball is a bit tricky. The very best of the best can unfortunately be involved in the shady world of “street agents” as early as middle school, with a token freshman year of college merely serving as a stepping stone to the NBA. But that’s just a tiny handful of players. For the vast majority of elite basketball players a combination of high level travel team (often run by AAU) and exposure in high school ball is required. Thus some players will skip college straight for the NBA but no one skips high school ball.
And football is still all about Friday Night Lights, especially in the south. Even as it’s become essential for elite football players to seek additional exposure in showcase events, all-star games, and 7-on7, the high school football team is the central part of a teenage football player’s competitive experience.
So what’s different about soccer?
Soccer is the most popular participant sport in the world, and at the world-class level we in the United States are playing catch up. Naturally, US Soccer looks to established soccer nations for models of best practices, especially at the youth level. Apparently the rest of the world doesn’t think much of scholastic soccer.
And that’s fine, if the culture of youth sports and education in your country support this. But in the United States, high school sports represent a very unique tradition. The professional football, baseball, and basketball players in this country don’t seem to have been harmed by playing high school ball. All the professional athletes I’ve cared for over the years have spoken very favorably of their high school sports experiences.
Somehow I think US Soccer got this wrong. I’m sure it wasn’t their intent, but the directors of the Academy program come off sounding incredibly arrogant. “Tough Choices” for the athlete. But what if they are right? Several Academy coaches say that they polled their players, who overwhelmingly stated they were fine to never play high school soccer. The answer will probably be found somewhere between the extremes of the heated rhetoric.The answer will also be found wherever we follow the money.
I’m not pining for the bygone era of the 1950’s, and change is inevitable. Until someone figures this out you can find me on the sidelines of a high school football game this fall. I hope to see you there.