Young athletes take up sports for various reasons: their parents encourage it, their friends are doing it, they see the sport on TV, they’re watching their older siblings, and want to try. By the time they graduate from high school, American youth have many opportunities to practice those sports, to receive coaching, and to compete against various levels of competition. When they are old enough to play on school teams, many will simultaneously play for club, travel, academy, or AAU teams. Individual-sport athletes will compete in tournaments, often earning regional or national ratings from their finish in those competitions.
Despite being a dinosaur, growing up and learning to play sports in a simpler era, I don’t presume to give advice about an athlete’s participation in non-school teams and events. However, I have some strong opinions about the factors that need to be present for an athlete to have success. My 40+ years of school and college athletic experience has shown that athletes who are aware of their motivations and honest about their strengths and weaknesses have the best chance of enjoying and benefitting from their formal athletic career, whether it ends in eighth grade or at the conclusion of a four-year college career.
Those who continue to play sports throughout high school are driven by both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. It’s okay for an athlete to want to earn a letter, or a college scholarship, if they are honest about those aspirations and realistic about the work and skill necessary to achieve them. They will also need to develop some intrinsic desires (love of the game, love of competition, for example) because those motivators are the most reliable when “the going gets tough.” Moreover, intrinsic motivators allow for more diverse definitions of success, allowing athletes to set and achieve appropriate goals.
A recent article in The Atlanticmagazine portrays an unrealistic, largely unhealthy obsession with sports in one sector of American society:
Whatever reaction one has to the details in the article, I hope the reader can gain some perspective. What is in the best interest of the young athletes? How will their efforts in school and non-school sports influence their development into productive adults and future parents of their own children?
Several young Ram athletes offered thoughts about how school sports remain valuable, even if their non-school competition will be essential in their quest to be a college athlete:
Nidhin Kumar ’24 plays a regular schedule of USTA-sanctioned tournaments, but he notes that when he plays tennis as a Ram, it helps him to grow as a player: “You feel like you’re playing for a team… I have the other players back me up and help me improve. Plus, I will play against 17- and 18-year-olds this spring, which USTA tournaments don’t allow.”
Other athletes, who are also exposed to high-level club teams point to the encouragement and first-class training they receive from their W+H coaches as a strength: “Here in the Wardlaw+Hartridge soccer program I feel welcomed, well trained and in shape,” Adam Eisdorfer ’25 said.
Of course, there can be an additional workload that goes with playing travel and school soccer at the same time. Rewa Gandhi ’27 acknowledges, “Sometimes it gets tiring by Friday due to having 10 practices in a week plus games.” For now, she thinks the costs are worth it.
Our Director of College Counseling, Chris Teare, offers this perspective from his experience as an athlete, coach, parent, and college counselor: “If young people compete for the love of a sport, they can deal with their academic and athletic workload by prioritizing.” As Mr. Teare’s college football coach taught him: “There are three aspects to life here: the academic, the athletic, and the social. You can do TWO of them really well. Choose wisely.”