What to Look for in a High School Sports Program

photo: what to look for in a high school sports program
The Osan American High School girls basketball team of Osan Air Base, South Korea

Your child loves sports and wants to play at a high level. You’re on the search for the right high school. What to look for in a high school sports program? I suggest assessing high school athletic programs by using three questions:

  • What opportunity will your child have to participate?
  • What quality of teaching and learning will they get in the program?
  • What are the values that undergird the program?

1. The opportunity to play

“This is the thing that is most often missed,” says Jim Ketcham, director of Athletics at San Francisco University High School. “If you send your child to a school where making varsity is a low-odds proposition, you’ve probably put your kid in a situation where they’re not going to be very fulfilled in athletics.”

“Freshmen aspire to be on a team and be accepted,” Ketcham says. “Sophomores want to start to believe they’re going to make varsity. Juniors need to believe they’re going to play, even if they’re not playing much yet. They’re not going to be very fulfilled if they don’t believe they’re going to be playing next year.”

None of the other benefits of athletics are possible if the child isn’t participating. So, first make a realistic assessment about the opportunities for your child to participate and earn playing time.

2. The quality of teaching and learning

Sports offer amazing learning experiences! Through sports, young people have the opportunity to learn how to master their minds as well as their bodies, how to collaborate with other people in stressful situations, how to rebound from disappointments, and much more.

Some athletic directors and coaches think of themselves first and foremost as educators. They are constantly thinking about how their sport offers opportunities to help students learn these lessons. They care about wins and losses, for sure, but they care just as much about what students are learning along the way.

“Quality of the coach is everything,” says Ketcham. “Do the coaches seem settled and happy? Are you hearing good things about them?” If they are emotionally fulfilled, they’re more likely to stay at that school and be there for your child, he adds.

3. The values that undergird the program

Todd Beane runs Tovo, a development program for coaches and high-level school-age soccer players in Barcelona, Spain. Top U.S. players and coaches come to Spain to work with him each year. I asked him for his advice about assessing high school athletic programs.

“Ask yourself, ‘Does this school have a good values system around sport?’” he suggests. “You can’t tell much by looking at a school’s website. They pretty much all say the same thing: ‘We believe in the whole person. We want to develop people on the field and off the field.’”

The question is whether the school is living those values. To find this out, you need to have a few conversations and maybe watch a practice.

Putting it all together

“You want to talk to the athletic director and the coach of the sport you’re interested in,” Beane advises. “You want to see if what’s on the school’s website is really being spoken. Athletic directors will reveal to you what they’re proud of. If that’s wins, you’ll be able to hear that. Or if the language is constructive and holistic, you’ll hear that.”

“Of course, the athletic director might just spout the website,” he cautions. “So you also want to talk to a coach and, if possible, observe practice. You want to look for yourself: Is what’s being spoken of actually happening?”

Most good programs will let students and parents stop by and watch a practice. If they won’t let you come, Beane says, they may not be comfortable with sharing what’s going on — and that’s cause for concern.

“When I observe practice, I’m always looking for two factors: learning and joy,” Beane says.

As you consider athletics as part of your school decision, you want to match up your child’s aspirations with the school’s purpose. If your child is very serious about their sport and they hope to play in college, look for a school that can help your child develop to that level. If your child is interested in many things beyond athletics, look for a school that puts athletics in perspective.

Ketcham offers some final words of wisdom. “At the end of the day, don’t overestimate the importance of athletics in your child’s life. Will your child be happy at the school if they blow out their knee and they can’t play anymore? You want the answer to be yes.”

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What to Look for in a High School Sports Program