Commentary: High school sports is a balancing act more than ever

Commentary: High school sports is a balancing act more than ever

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Commentary: High school sports is a balancing act more than ever

It’s getting worse.

There are social media distractions; underpaid, overworked coaches feeling the strain of carrying a program year-round; administrators pressured by parents; parents spending ungodly amounts of money for camps, coaches and clubs; and athletes pulled in different directions.

How does everybody keep their sanity in today’s high school sports world?

“I think the message for coaches and parents is, ‘Competitive high school athletics is a phenomenal experience for kids,’ ” Chandler Principal Larry Rother said. “That’s the way it should be. The lesson they can learn on the field is so much different than what they can learn in the classroom.

“But that takes all of the partners working together.”

As another academic year ends, there is no break.

Kids head into more high school activities. Spring football moves into 7-on-7 passing tournaments and big-man contests. Basketball goes into club with June primarily the month high school coaches spend with their players in leagues and tournaments.

RELATED: Michigan basketball coach resigns because ‘parents have taken the fun out of it’

Soccer and volleyball and baseball, it never stops.

There’s always something.

Chase for scholarships feeds the beast

And the chase for scholarships feeds the beast.

“It’s difficult to create balance for student-athletes, because of all the distractions in their lives,” 36-year Phoenix Horizon baseball coach Eric Kibler said. “Social media. Pressure to perform to get scholarships and the amount of money spent on playing year-round and the culture of pressuring kids to specialize at such an early age.

“Kids should be allowed to play what they want without any outside forces trying to influence them otherwise. We call them games for a reason. Have fun and develop life-long relationships that last more than any championships. Let the kids enjoy the day and the process of getting better in a sport.”

BLURRED LINES: Are parents getting too involved in high school sports?

As it is, the state is losing coaches. And it’s not just because Arizona ranks among the lowest-paid in the nation for teachers, some of whom are given an additional $2,000 to $4,000 stipend to lead a sports team.

If it isn’t parents clamoring to get their kids playing time or the demand to keep everybody together year-round to get the program in championship contention, it is issues that are threatening the core of high school sports.

Such as hazing.

Chandler Hamilton football coach Steve Belles still has his teacher’s job, but, while the investigation continues over the hazing allegations that led to the arrests of players in his program this spring, the five-time state championship coach won’t be leading the Huskies next season.

Pressure is greater now than ever

There are more pressures now than ever for coaches to have their players monitored, but to what extent? And when does that cross the line into stalking kids in the locker room?

It’s not an easy job.

“A great coach has attributes that translate into the private sector and many times for an AD, you are looking at candidates for a coaching position that are not in the education field,” said former Scottsdale Chaparral football coach David Huffine, who will be leaving his Scottsdale Coronado athletic director’s chair next school year to assume those duties at Mesa High. “One of the main priorities I think all ADs want is to have as many coaches as possible, especially head coaches on campus and teaching throughout the day.

“So many issues come up that are alleviated or at least reduced because coaches see their student-athletes in the hallways or classrooms. Academics, attendance and behavior are always concerns for coaches and ADs and, when the more coaches on campus that have relationships with student athletes outside of the classroom, the better. As an AD getting the right leader for the program that has the ability to form a staff and communicate with the community, that often means getting the right teacher in the classroom.”

But even if a coach feels he is doing things he has done for decades with success, it doesn’t keep that coach bulletproof.

Phoenix Desert Vista baseball coach Stan Luketich, who began the school’s program in the 1990s and led it to back-to-back state championships in the late ’90s, was fired this spring, he said, because the administrators told him he didn’t relate well with millennials.

“This is probably not new to millennials,” Chandler’s Rother said. “This is probably something that has been going on for years and years and years. Parents have perceptions of their kids’ abilities, and coaches have a perception. One of the major things that upsets parents and becomes issues for coaches is playing time. It’s never going to go away. I have a great athletic director (Jim Culver) here at Chandler High School. I have a great district athletic director. They are very supportive of coaches when it comes to playing time. We try not to talk about playing time.

“Coaches have a job to do, and that is to put a competitive team out there. We’re trying  to win games.”

Using a ‘team first’ approach

Chandler Seton Catholic girls coach Karen Self, who won her ninth state championship at the school last season, says her “team first” approach weeds out egos.

“If people don’t like that, they don’t last in my program no matter how much talent they have,” Self said.

Self uses parent meetings before the summer and season to help establish expectations. Those expectations are discussed extensively, she said.

“We also make sure we are honest with players and their parents,” she said. “Playing at this level isn’t for everyone. It requires a great deal of sacrifice. Being honest is crucial. Sometimes, that may feel brutal at the time, but is necessary unless you want a cancerous environment in your program.

“I do expect parents to ask questions. That is a reasonable expectation. I think it would be weird if you couldn’t talk with the coach. However, I don’t talk about playing time – ever. My message is for parents to ask how their child can contribute more, if they aren’t sure. We also pull kids aside on a regular basis and meet to discuss what they are doing well and where they can improve.”

Chandler football coach Shaun Aguano is building a national caliber program. His teams have won two of the past three state championships and is scheduled to host national powerhouse IMG Academy of Bradenton, Fla., in August. He said it’s important to be honest with parents from the start.

“You play the best players, but I’m going to love and care for all of them,” Aguano said. “It’s a competition every single day, in practice and in games. All of our kids understand, if they’re the No. 1 guy, they’re going to play a lot. If they’re the No. 2 guy, they have to work to be No. 1. I go over that with the parents in the parent meetings.”

Edward Barcello has tried to create balance for his basketball-playing son and daughters. Alex Barcello, who is graduating from Tempe Corona del Sol, was honored as the Big School Player of the Year last season. Sarah Barcello was named Big School Player of the Year for girls basketball for a second straight season as a junior. Alex has signed to play at Arizona. Sarah is going through the recruiting process.

Edward Barcello has always been cautious about overuse, which can lead to injuries.

“As a parent, you encourage your child to work hard and not put the pressure of obtaining a scholarship on themselves,” Barcello said. “Putting them in the position with someone who can help maximize their abilities, that is very hard to find.”

Social media can make things more challenging

It can be difficult for parents and coaches to keep athletes off social media.

Social media has become the forum for student-athletes to announce college offers and commitments. Others see that and feel the need to do the same. Jealousy can ensue.

Some parents try to limit those devices and keep the focus on academics and athletics, maximizing their abilities in those areas.

Phoenix St. Mary’s football coach Tommy Brittain feels technology is consuming leisure time of this generation and “renders the joy and satisfaction of hard work and sacrifice far less appealing.”

“Why train with your friends for the future in the real world of work and sweat and heat when you can access a virtual world in an instant that requires nothing at all?” Brittain says.

Gilbert Higley football coach Eddy Zubey is developing something special with his teams getting better every year and more players earning college opportunities. But he encourages his players to do other sports.

Higley running back Draycen Hall became a state medalist in track this spring, even after being named Gatorade Arizona Football Player of the Year last season as a junior.

As much work as Hall puts in on the field and in the weight room, like many kids in high school, he checks in on Twitter and catches up on the latest offers from peers.

“I do believe that there is definitely more pressure to perform well and have offers,” Hall said. “I feel like the more offers you have, the more followers you have, and the more people know about you.

“For me, I just try to remain humble and know that without my team and coaches I wouldn’t have accomplished anything. I always try to give my team or coaches ‘shout outs’ for all the help they give me. Running track, as well, brings pressure to social media, because if you’re good at football, people expect you to be good at track and expect you to tweet about your track times.”

The leash will be off in July, when the Arizona Interscholastic Association won’t have out-of-season practice rules, other than no helmets and shoulder pads in football.

Zubey said his football team will play in a round robin league at Gilbert Campo Verde for three to four weeks and in two to three tournaments this summer.

“I don’t feel that being able to practice year-round will affect our program too much,” Zubey said. “We will not change what we have been doing for the last three years as far as our offseason goes.”

Phoenix Pinnacle 2019 quarterback Spencer Rattler, azcentral sports’ No. 1 football prospect in Arizona in his class, balances his hectic sports life with basketball after football season ends. He picked up football offers from Notre Dame and Alabama this spring.

“Of course there’s pressure with having success,” he said. “But you have to live up to it. I love the pressure and performing.”

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