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Narrowing the field

October 02, 2006|Shari Roan | Times Staff Writer

THE long, sweaty summer practices are over. The pep rallies have begun. Fall sports are underway around the nation.

Cory Harkey, 16, is part of the action. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound junior at Chino Hills High School is symbolic of the elite athlete who has come to dominate interscholastic high school sports. He practices to the point of exhaustion almost daily and plays on private club teams to maintain his star status in several sports. He dreams of a college scholarship in basketball or football, and college scouts undoubtedly will scrutinize his potential during the coming year.

Sara Nael, 17, is not part of any team. A senior at the same school, she won't go near a volleyball game this fall, having failed to make the team as a freshman. She considered trying out for something else but eventually concluded that playing in high school sports "doesn't look fun."

The two students represent what is both positive -- and distressing -- about the state of youth sports today. High school athletes are fitter, more skilled and better trained than ever before. But these top-notch athletes, say many health and fitness experts, have become the singular focus of the youth sports system -- while teenagers of average or low ability no longer warrant attention.

"What is happening at the high school level is, we're principally satisfying kids who are elite athletes -- the best, the most skilled, the most developed in their particular sport," says Bruce Svare, a critic of the nation's youth sports system and director of the National Institute for Sports Reform, based in Selkirk, N.Y. But, Svare adds, "we're forgetting everyone else in terms of their health and fitness needs."

Although more than 7 million adolescents -- almost half, nationwide -- participate in high school athletic activities, according to the National Federation of State High School Assns., researchers such as Svare say the statistics belie the truth about youth sports.

For starters, a growing student population is pushing up overall participation numbers. And the national figures include activities such as recreational bowling and cheerleading that traditionally have not been considered competitive sports. Plus, researchers add, the participation rate is inflated by small and private schools where participation is typically high.

In large urban high schools, such as those in Southern California, the interscholastic sports participation rate is thought to be much lower, 20% to 30%, says Svare, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at State University of New York at Albany.

The face of those urban teams has changed dramatically in recent years. Scores of students today -- including average teenagers who have played recreational sports for years before high school -- are losing out to athletes who often specialize in one sport, play on private club teams and have personal coaches or trainers.

"The level of fitness and ability that kids have to have now is so much greater than it used to be," says Mike West, athletic director of 2,800-student Chino Hills High School and a certified trainer with the National Athletic Trainers' Assn. "When students come in as freshmen, they want to be part of a team. If they don't make it, it's very disappointing. What do they turn to? Some very focused kids will find another activity. But others -- they go a different way."

The reasons for the declining opportunities have long been in the making. Gradual funding cuts have slashed the number of teams offered at many high schools; teachers, whether simply uninterested or overburdened, are less likely today to volunteer to coach freshmen teams or intramural sports; and the emergence of club sports has forced those of average ability or limited financial means to the sidelines. Moreover, say critics, teams are too often formed with the goal of entertaining the public, not providing an educational experience to students.

But with soaring rates of obesity and plummeting fitness scores among adolescents, some educators and health experts are pushing for changes in the way schools run athletic programs.

"High school sports has the obligation to be educational," says Daniel R. Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. "That doesn't mean coaches can't cut kids. But they need to be just as concerned about getting all kids to develop a lifelong love of activity as they do about winning."

Fewer teams

Adults may remember the days when high schools provided freshman-sophomore teams, "B" teams and intramural sports programs in addition to the varsity and junior varsity squads. The array of teams provided opportunities for kids of various levels of skill and dedication.

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