Whether it is a major blizzard moving through the Midwest and East Coast, a tornado ripping through the plains, or a tropical storm forming on the way to the Gulf coast, we know how devastating a major storm can be to our communities. We may or not be aware that there is a storm brewing on our own soccer front. This soccer storm, with some collaboration and communication, can be blown out to sea or it could devastate and rock the soccer world. That storm is the high school vs. club soccer debate.
The new slogan flying around out there is, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” As a high school coach for two decades in the Midwest, for the most part we had a pretty good relationship with the local club team. In my case, I was the president and coach of our local club as well as a large school high school boys and girls varsity coach. Our club and high school schedules meshed quite well: both organizations taking off while the other was “in-season.”
When people would bring up the high school vs. club issue, it was because a few players would leave for an ECNL team or US Club team that required a 10-month commitment and did not allow the player to do both. A high school coach or team may lose a player here and there but it only affected a small number.
On top of that, the state high school governing bodies had rules in place to prevent athletes from competing in the same sport during the same season. A player for me was not allowed to go play a soccer game on the weekend with a club team. During the high school season, the players belonged to the high school team and commitment was a character trait we taught and cherished. The biggest club issue we had was keeping our players from getting too active with a club team of a different sport like basketball or volleyball during our season.
Imagine my surprise when I took a new job in Florida as a high school coach. The number of ECNL clubs on the West and East Coast and the South are higher, and the Florida state high school association has no rule about playing on teams outside the high school. Players on my team were trying to be committed to our high school team and to a club team that was also practicing and competing at the same time.
What does that look like? Here is a two-week example:
HS-high school, C-Club, P-Practice, G-Game
Monday P; Tuesday HS-G; Wednesday P; Thursday HS-G; Friday HS-P; Saturday C-G; Sunday C-G
Monday P; Tuesday P/C-P; Wednesday P; Thursday HS-G; Friday HS-P; Saturday C-G; Sunday C-G.
As you look at the sample schedule of a two-week portion of my schedule, what are some concerns you may have? Should players be practicing twice in one day? We are talking about a 3 p.m. high school practice and a 7 p.m. club practice. What about competition days? Depending on the weekend event, a player following this schedule is competing 3-6 times per week? Do you see any rest period in this schedule? What if the high school team has a Saturday event?
Players start to choose what games and practices they attend, causing a real problem with commitment. Is it possible to commit to two programs? Can you see the problems that arise? The culture I walked into did not see a problem with a girl missing a high school practice or two during the week yet playing in the games. What are you telling the team about committing to practice and the team?
Players were choosing club over high school because the club coach uses the college scholarship carrot and holds back playing time. Holding back playing time in the big tournaments means less exposure. Parents have invested money and time away from other family activities to pursue the promise of a college scholarship. That can be an article all by itself, for another day.
Another concern from the high school side is the disrespect shown to high school coaches from the clubs. A letter I received prior to my season from an ECNL coach detailed the times a player we shared could attend my high school events. He made it very clear that this player, a junior in high school, would commit to the club team first. He did not want her playing high school, but he was allowing it as long as she did exactly what he said.
Instead of making a rule for his ECNL players to forgo their high school seasons, he manipulated them. My belief is that he was afraid of the backlash from the parents if he did not allow them to experience high school. Most of the high school coaches want the players to enjoy the high school experience and work with the athlete. The coach from this team had no time for the high school coaches involved, and let them all know in this letter, the superior opportunity he provided.
This puts a lot of pressure and emotional strain on these young adults. These players are trying to meet the demands of both coaches, not wanting to disappoint their teammates, their coaches, or their classmates. It is an impossible task for the players. High school is about the total educational experience and most of the coaches I associate with do their best to accommodate these players in conflict.
In the Midwest I appreciated the rule about no club during the sport season. While I did not like losing players to ECNL or the club, there was a rule from the state association and from the ECNL. A player was not in the position to do both; they had to make a decision. The simplest solution is for the governing bodies to take a stand. As a coach, if I say they cannot do both, those players transfer to a school that allows it. The playing field is not level and we still do not solve the issue of young players being put in the middle.
Another issue arises for the states that play a winter season. If we take out the “elite” players, those following the ECNL path, we still have the local club teams. If high school is played in the winter, there are many club tournaments throughout the South and Southwest. Disney has awesome facilities and provides a unique competitive experience for club teams. With the college season ending in November, many collegiate coaches use the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks to attend these club tournaments to recruit. For those winter high school leagues, maybe a competitive window could be put in for high schools to take a short break and allow for club competition. Or maybe places like Disney need to offer a high school bracket in the tournament.
This issue is not going away anytime soon. Maybe it is time for the leaders of all of these organizations, the NFHS, the NSCAA, US Club Soccer, U.S. Soccer, and anyone else with a stake in this game to get together and have a dialog. It is time to put the egos away and truly look at the best interest of, not only soccer in this country, but of the well-being of our kids.
High school coaches in this country are often treated like second-class citizens. Many of these men and women have sacrificed long hours and low pay to provide a truly unique experience for young kids. Many of your high school coaches have chosen to remain in the high school game even though they had the opportunities to make more money working for a club because they value what the game can offer as far as developing life skills.
Most of the coaches who demean the high school coaches refer to high school soccer as nothing more than a recreational program flourished in high school. Many received high school honors, some even obtained scholarships from their exposure in high school. Now because of financial gain they kick it to the curb.
Let’s start a dialog. Let’s get people together and come up with a strategy to divert this storm that is starting to corrode the fabric of our game. Whether you coach U-5, high school, college, club, or professionally, we are in this together. Let’s put the children first again and send this storm out to sea.
(Greg Winkler is the NSCAA’s Boys High School Advocacy Chair. Currently girls head coach of George Jenkins High School in Florida, he was 2012 NSCAA National Youth Coach of the Year, 2006 Wisconsin Youth Soccer Coach of the Year and 2005 NFHS Midwest Boys Coach of the Year. Winkler is the author of Coaching a Season of Significance.)