High school sports seasons are set in stone. However, times change. Is it time to examine the high school sports season?
Assumption 1: Most high school programs are now year-round programs playing in fall, spring, and summer tournaments.
Assumption 2: Most high school basketball players specialize in one sport before playing varsity basketball.
Using Jean Cote’s three periods of sports development, the Sampling Period covers ages 6-12 and encourages children to participate in as many activities as possible. The Specializing Period (13-15) sees teenagers eliminate some activities and concentrate on a few activities. The Investment Period (16-18) sees athletes choose their sport of choice and invest fully in their development in that sport. If we match these periods to the high school system, the Investment Period most closely overlaps with varsity sports.
Not every teenager transitions to the Investment Period. Some maintain a more recreational approach to sports and remain in the Sampling or Specializing Periods, playing multiple sports and not dedicating oneself to the full development of their skills in an effort to maximize their potential in that sport. In some areas, this is the purpose of J.V. teams: some high schools sponsor Freshman, Frosh-Soph and J.V. teams, and the competitive progression is Freshmen to Varsity, Frosh-Soph to Varsity or Freshmen to Frosh-Soph to Varsity. The J.V. team often includes juniors and seniors who likely will never play varsity, but who want to continue playing (some areas have a different progression).
Based on the above assumptions, why not lengthen the high school season?
Currently, official practices start around November 15 and state champions are crowned around the first week of March. That leaves 3.5 months (roughly 14 weeks) to play between 25 and 40 games, depending on the team’s success. Therefore, teams average 2+ games per week, which usually leaves 3 days for practice. In the off-season, teams practice less and play more; a team might practice once per week and play in a weekend tournament with four games or a twice-per-week league.
Lengthening the high school season would create a more appropriate practice to game ratio. Let’s say teams play 32-42 games depending on success in a lengthened season that starts October 1 and ends April 1. That gives six months or approximately 24 weeks to play the 32-42 games. That creates an average of less than 1.5 games per week, which translates to one game per week with more games in less time during play-offs or at the end of the season when the season is more focused on performance and less on development.
One objection would be gym time. However, high school programs and club teams manage to find gym time for practices and games, so it seems possible. After all, the first assumption is that most teams play year-round already.
I would keep the current sports seasons for the frosh, frosh-soph and junior varsity level, since these players are not in the Investment Period and therefore should be encouraged to participate in multiple sports. I would play fewer games at this level to create a better practice:game ratio, limiting teams to 20-25 games rather than the current varsity range of 25-40.
Of course, many basketball players do play varsity basketball and another sport, especially at smaller schools, so decisions would have to be made. However, decisions always have to be made. Nothing is perfect.
A lengthened high-school season could give more control back to the high school season and limit the time in out-of-season competition. A lengthened high-school season would give college coaches more opportunities to recruit, visit high schools, etc. High School federations could sponsor a summer basketball period in July to provide additional recruiting opportunities for college coaches.
Eventually, I imagine that basketball will move more like soccer, where many top players opt out of the high school season to concentrate on the club season. In basketball, this change will take the form of a year-round club season, like my proposed Elite Development League, or possibly a lengthened high-school season that creates a more development-oriented season, more in line with a European model.
As a society, we have to define the purpose of our sports activities. Do high school sports exist to support the academic mission and provide recreational and fitness opportunities for students? Do they exist to help students maximize their athletic potential? Do they exist to provide competitive environments between schools?
Once we define the purpose of high school sports, we will have a better idea of the changes to be made in the future. If high sports exist to help students maximize their athletic potential, we should lengthen the high school season to create a more development-oriented schedule coupled with more competitive opportunities. However, if school sports exist to provide recreational and fitness opportunities to complement the academic setting, the club-based EDL would create the more developmental and competitive opportunities for those students looking for more from their athletic participation.
By Brian McCormick, PhD
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League