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States Strive to Involve Students in Athletics Before High School

By Cody Porter on February 08, 2017 hst

State associations across the country are constantly exploring new ways to deliver the many benefits of interscholastic athletic participation to as many students as possible – even before they reach high school.

For several years, Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) Executive Director Jack Roberts has spearheaded an effort in his state to increase participation opportunities for students at the middle school level. Roberts reasons that sixthgrade participation exposes students to the lessons and skills acquired through education-based athletics at an earlier age, and those benefits aren’t as inherent in community-based sports and club teams, where specialization and burnout have increased.

“We feel strongly in the need to nurture our middle school and junior high programs. We think those programs are the roots of what feeds high school sports, if it’s done right. That’s our motive here,” Roberts said. “Not because we want to be the kings of middle school sports, but because the better we believe they’re done at that level, the richer, stronger and more educational the high-school level will be.”

Words like “burnout” and “specialization” are often associated with the culture of community-based and club activities. Roberts believes hundreds, possibly thousands, of high school-age athletes turn to non-school sports programs in order to play more, travel more and receive bigger trophies. He added schools simply cannot keep up with the demand and let communities run those programs.

A change to the MHSAA Constitution in 2015 allowed for sixth-grade participation through middle school membership. Previously, just seventh- and eighth-graders could participate. The MHSAA’s junior high and middle school membership sits at 760 schools – an increase of 55 schools from 2015. While the increase is good news, Roberts believes many high school-age athletes turn to non-school sports to play more and travel more and see value in that.

“While we’ve been at it, especially focused for about five years – putting us ahead of some state high school associations – it makes us late to the party,” Roberts said. “We should’ve been doing this 20 years ago because between 20 years ago and five years ago non-school sports moved in and took over the youth sports market while we were asleep at the wheel; while we were worried about money and having
too much to do. Schools lost the youth sports market to more commercially oriented and aggressive non-school sports promoters.

“We know the reason that most of the non-member schools at this level do not join the MHSAA is that they want to do their own thing – make their own rules – and they do not see enough benefit in MHSAA membership to overcome the advantages of their local autonomy,” Roberts said in his “From the Director” blog on the MHSAA website. “They want to schedule more contests and/or sponsor longer seasons than is permitted by MHSAA rules. They are not much concerned with consistent application of playing rules, eligibility rules and limits of competition, which MHSAA membership requires. They are not much concerned with providing MHSAA-registered officials for their contests or MHSAA-purchased catastrophic accident medical insurance for their student-athletes.”

Kerwin Urhahn, executive director of the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA), echoes Roberts’ belief. Urhahn said a sport such as basketball features a 10-game regular season and two tournaments.

“A club or AAU team may practice twice a week, if that, but they’re playing a whole bunch more games, so the skill development and the things coaches are trying to teach about teamwork aren’t necessarily understood. They don’t get that because they’re just playing games,” Urhahn said. “There’s opportunities missed that we teach our junior high and high schools when you’re talking about dealing with success, failure and doing your very best every time you go out there.”

Contest rules, just as at the high school level, are set by junior high/middle school administrators, according to Urhahn. Although not commonplace, Urhahn said MSHSAA schools like the “laid back” atmosphere that comes with the absence of a postseason.

“It’s simply an opportunity for kids to learn life skills by participating in sports and activities at the seventh- and eighth-grade level,” Urhahn added.

Based on his encounters, Urhahn believes students prefer to play high school athletics in order to play with their friends. While parents are concerned with the lack of travel and games, Urhahn said schools
provide the chance for student-athletes to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Beginning the journey at the middle school/junior high school level also presents students the opportunity for multi-sport participation instead of specializing in one sport.

Illinois enjoys the unique circumstance of an education-based organization overseeing middle school and junior high programs. Working alongside the Illinois High School Association (IHSA), the 967-member Indiana Elementary School Association (IESA) has served middle schools and junior high schools in the state since 1929.

“I think it’s very important that kids at our level do not specialize; that they do experience as many activities that their school offers as possible,” said Steve Endsley, executive director of the IESA. “That’s especially so in smaller schools where there is a student-body population of seventh and eighth graders of let’s say 40 kids. We have schools throughout the country that are a part of a rural population, and if two or three students decide to play basketball year-round, how does that impact the other school activities offered? They need those bodies to make up a school softball team or track team.”

Endsley believes a lot of people are currently looking for direction in running junior high schools and middle schools.

“The association provides a structure and has rules in place that govern the number of quarters kids can play or the number of events teams can play,” Endsley said. “Academic eligibility is maybe the most
important aspect of what we do for interscholastic competition.”

Until five years ago, the IESA, like many state associations, didn’t allow student-athletes to participate in club sports during the same season of the same athletic program. However, Endsley said that rule was recently rescinded with the increase in club sports participation. As an example, he said under IESA rules, student-athletes could not participate in state wrestling meets because a club event took place the same day. Whereas in basketball, it “became a difficult bylaw to equitably enforce” because student-athletes could still play both.

“At the club level, it is all about winning,” Endsley said. “At the interscholastic level, there are many lessons to be learned and kids are used to a regional level of play that features NFHS rules … We should also never forget that it should be fun. At the end of the day, these are 13- and 14-year old kids.”

Roberts said states are best served if they can retain athletes within the education-based setting while also placing an emphasis on the wants and needs of students and parents. To Roberts, those desires
often come in more school-sponsored competition, which the MHSAA is doing this spring as the presenting sponsor of six junior high track and field meets. Likewise, the Ohio High School Athletic Association
(OHSAA) will host its first state junior high track and field meet in 2017, joining its cross country event.

“Just like most member organizations which need to look constantly for new, younger members, the enterprise of high school sports needs to be recruiting new schools which serve younger grades,” Roberts said. “It may not just be a matter of growth; it may be a matter of survival.”