Check back regularly for thoughts on interscholastic and co-curricular educational athletics and activities from Luke Swanson, Assistant Principal and Athletic Director.
October 18, 2016: Thank You and Farewell, Plymouth High School
Since the 2013-14 school year, it has been my privilege and honor to serve the as the second athletic director in school history, and the first administrator who has overseen Plymouth High School activities as well. During this time, I have looked forward to coming to work every single day, due to our coaches’ never-quit attitude, our student-athletes’ eternal optimism and energy, our student body’s support, our staff’s unconditional dedication to our students, my fellow athletic directors’ innovation and contributions to educational athletics and activities, the Plymouth High School and PCCS administrative teams’ dynamic leadership, and our parents’ financial, logistical, and emotional support and advocacy for our programs. In the past few years, we have accomplished much to be proud of, and none of it would have been possible without a total team effort.
Before the honor of serving as Plymouth’s athletics and activities administrator, I had the awesome responsibility of teaching English and coaching soccer and track and field at PCEP. In June 2012, I made what I said at the time was the most difficult and emotional professional decision of my career: to stop coaching in order to focus my efforts and energy on pursuing a career in educational leadership.
Until today, that decision still stood as the choice that I have wrestled with the most in my career as an educator. However, today I announce that I have accepted a new position at Lake Orion High School. Those who know me know that I have three young children and that I drive a tremendous distance to work every day. While my work with students at Plymouth High School is consistently rewarding, I can perform better if I am a closer part of the educational community. I envy those who work at PCEP who are able to drop in on a Saturday to watch the school musical or attend a Friday night football game with their families, or help out in a clutch situation at the school over a holiday or weekend.
I will never forget the relationships we formed, the successes we savored, the trials and tribulations that we worked through together, and the hard work that we accomplished. Thank you to the entire Plymouth Wildcats community for your hard work, dedication, and for allowing me to serve you.
My time at Plymouth High School will end on November 2.
Yours in Educational Athletics and Activities,
September 25, 2016: Reserves
Several times per season in any given sport, I receive a mixture of well-intended constructive criticism and corrosive complaints regarding playing time.
First, allow me to state that “I’ve been there.” I have fidgeted nervously on the sidelines during my daughter’s youth soccer game as she was called to the sideline for what I perceived to be one water break more than the rest of her teammates. My wife, privately to me, questioned this water break, stating that we all families pay the same amount, and at this developmental stage, why are some girls playing more than others? As it came to pass, our daughter told us after the game that she had asked Coach for water, since her throat was dry and she could not play well until she drank. Well, that explains it.
Even in “everyone participates” high school sports like track and field or gymnastics, some athletes are invited to compete certain meets while others are not. In other sports where a finite number of athletes compete on the playing surface at any given time (volleyball, football, hockey, lacrosse, etc.), some players rarely (if ever) see the sideline, while other players may joke that their “position” is “left outside bench, second string.”
Why do high school teams not provide equal playing time for all, and what is the purpose of carrying reserves (subs) who may or may not experience significant playing time?
Earlier, I stated that last year my wife and I questioned playing time in our daughter’s recreational youth soccer team. However, as student-athletes mature and competitive sports become more…competitive, the focus of athletics teams expands to not only include development, but also to become more aggressive to achieving the goal of winning. Becoming more competitive is not a negative; many aspects of life become more competitive with time, from applying to college to finding a job. Competition breeds success, and if we are not preparing in practice to win, then why do we keep score and record wins and losses? There is nothing wrong with sports teams preparing in practice to win, feeling good about a victory, and oppositely experiencing the sour feeling of defeat.
With that in mind, anyone in-tune with educational athletics is cognizant that school sports teach much more than athletic skills and “how to win.” Student-athletes learn prolonged and voluntary dedication toward a goal, time management skills, leadership in an emotionally-charged setting, the ability to teach and learn from others, and how to win and lose with grace and dignity.
With these two factors (competition and life skills) in mind, we can see why high school sports teams do not distribute playing time equally–the coach has a goal and obligation of fielding a team (within the rules and ethics of the game) that has the best chance of winning, and students who receive less playing time than others can still contribute through positive contributions like encouraging teammates and leading by example at practice.
Of course, there is always the factor that no team can compete well with the bare minimum number of athletes–a soccer team that carries just 11 players is doomed for failure as soon as a starter sprains an ankle or misses a bus. It is the role and responsibility of the 12th player to competitively push the other 11…that “sub” should always try to earn a starting spot. Whether or not she is successful, the victory is clear–the rest of the team must work harder to keep their own position on the depth chart, and the team is better off with the best 11 playing, no matter whether one of those players was formerly a substitute or was always a starter.
Like all other things in life, when expectations do not match reality, the lense through which we view the situation determines whether the feedback to our children will be constructive (How are you positively contributing to your team’s success through the role that you have on the team?) or corrosive (Your coach doesn’t know what she’s doing, and you should be playing a lot more. Your coach is holding you back). As parents, we must always ask whether we are helping our kids learn positive values that will stick with them for life, or negative attitudes that will hinder their success in and outside of sports.
August 19, 2016: Scheduling 101
How are high school interscholastic schedules created? Who decides upon opponents, dates, times, and “home” or “away?” Educational athletic scheduling is a complex, yet interesting, process.
Many factors are important when scheduling teams, including league-mandated contests, competitiveness of opponents, geography, historic rivalries, sportsmanship, private vs. public school considerations, and other interests.
Plymouth High School participates in the Kensington Lakes Activities Association. This association (also called a conference or league) is comprised of 24 schools in Wayne, Oakland, Livingston, and Genesee Counties. Depending on the sport, the Association provides schedules for between 60% and 90% of a team’s season.
Plymouth also participates in the Michigan High School Athletic Association, the governing body that determines eligibility, rules, state tournament formats, and other guidelines for member schools. The MHSAA limits the total number of regular-season contests or days of competition for any given sport in a season. For example, football is limited to nine regular-season games, baseball 38 games, and wrestling 14 days of competition.
Given that the KLAA provides the schedule for the majority of contests in most sports, it is then up to the coach and/or the athletic director to fill in the rest of the schedule. In some sports, such as track and swimming, most coaches prefer not to “max out” the schedule in order to prevent athlete fatigue. In others, such as football, the expectation is to play a full schedule every year.
Football is unique among MHSAA sports because, unlike all other MHSAA sports where every team has the opportunity to participate in the first round of the state tournament (playoffs), football teams must qualify for the playoffs by either winning six regular-season games or earning enough “playoff points” with five wins to qualify. Thus, football presents unique challenges in scheduling. Perennial quality football teams, such as Plymouth, have to find matchups with willing teams. Many potential opponents do not find it is in their best interest to play high-quality teams, so that leaves teams like the Wildcats few opponents to play. Thus, in our one “open” game each season, Plymouth sometimes has to travel relatively far distances, like to Utica Eisenhower, to find a game. Other teams, like Canton, have had to travel to other states (Canton traveled to Illinois last year) in order to play a game.
In most sports, when scheduling outside of the league schedule, the expectation is to play one year at “home,” one year “away.” Sometimes, there are formal written agreements to guarantee at least a two-year series. Other times, two teams line up simply bec
June 9, 2016: In A Student’s Own Words…
Those who coach or participate in interscholastic athletics know their value. Recently, I asked an eleventh grade student on our varsity baseball team, Nik Patel, to record a video explaining what he sees as the value of playing for the Plymouth High School Wildcats Baseball Team. Although we are saving the video for another time, Nik’s words, from his own perspective, are much more meaningful than anything I can write here.
“My name is Nik Patel, I am currently a Junior at Plymouth High School. I am also on the Plymouth Varsity Baseball Team. I would first like to thank President Crouch and members of the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools Board of Education for allowing me to share my thoughts on the impact of athletics on my education here at Plymouth High School.
Sports have been a large part of my life starting as early as when I was 3, playing soccer and now baseball. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to experience a variety of different sports. I have had the ability to participate in sports for my school at West Middle School, and now at Plymouth High School. The lessons I’ve learned and the friends I have made have aided in the development of the person I am today.
Along with athletics, education is very important to me. My parents have always asked me to make it a top priority. I’ve worked very hard and taken challenging and difficult classes, whether it be at the Honors level or at the AP level. Independently, the academic load can be very stressful. Finding an outlet, another source to supplement the education becomes very important.
For me, sports is that outlet. Through athletics, I’ve learned life lessons that have translated to not just improvement on the playing field, but focusing my attention on academics.
Sports has taught me patience. It has taught me that sometimes I will fail, but that it’s ok. I’ve learned success doesn’t happen overnight. It takes hours and hours, months and months of practice to be a champion, to be successful, to become an expert. This is the case in sports as it is in academics. The more you practice, the more you study, the better you get.
Sports has taught me the importance of respect, networking, and teamwork. Each may be defined differently, but at the same time, each is the same. Realizing I can count on others to help me excel and in turn reciprocate that is very fulfilling. It’s taught me humbleness and camaraderie.
Some people feel sports takes up too much of a student’s time during high school, and therefore focus on education is diminished. They feel with increased need for global education in the country, we need to forgo these extracurricular activities. I would disagree. I believe we are putting too much stress on students. College admission is getting more difficult and competitive. Standardized tests have so much weight put on them. Adding more stress without providing an outlet is going to provide the opposite effect.
Next year, I will be a senior at Plymouth High School. My four years will come to an end. I still remember my first day of football conditioning in the summer of 2013. As I graduate, I will have played sports all 4 years, will have completed 6 AP courses, multiple Honors courses, the STEM Engineering program all with a GPA above 4.0. There are many influences in my life that have gotten me to this point, the most important being my family, but the teachers and coaches in the Plymouth Canton Community School district have played a major role as well.
My younger brother starts at the park in the fall. His sport is soccer and he is very excited to represent Plymouth High School on the soccer team. I hope that when he graduates , he will have had the same opportunity with academics and sports that I have.
Thank you to Nik and all the other student athletes who express what interscholastic athletics means to them via social media, word-of-mouth, or through formal statements like Nik’s. It is wonderful to be involved with such motivated, well-rounded students such as Nik, and I am thankful to have the opportunity to help Nik and other students find their niche through interscholastic athletics.
March 30, 2016: What Good Is a League?
Whether it is the NFL, the NBA, the BIG10, or the Kensington Lakes Activities Assocation, all athletic conferences undergo “growing pains.”
Recently, the KLAA has been in the spotlight due to a push by a few schools to “realign” the current divisions in order to create a more competitively equitable structure.
When the KLAA was formed in 2008 out of a merger of the Western Lakes Activities Association and the Kensington Valley Conference, school districts were under intense financial pressure to reduce costs, especially in what some people see as “auxiliary” programs such as athletics, despite athletics consuming less than 1-2% of the total budget in most school districts. In order to achieve lower transportation costs, promote local rivalries, and get student-athletes home earlier after athletic contests, the KLAA decided on the four, six-team divisions, based almost completely on geographic proximity, that the KLAA still uses.
As a former teacher, coach, and current parent, I have long seen the effects, both positive and negative, that athletics can have on our students. The positives far outweigh the negatives, as I outlined in my October 6, 2015 blog entry (see below). However, weekday contests resulting in late nights and pressure on budgets are two continuing issues that we must give due diligence, in order to emphasize the education in “educational athletics.”
The reason schools (and teams beyond the realm of educational athletics) organize into leagues is to compete against teams that are similar in quality, philosophy, and organization, while reducing travel as much as possible. The best league organization for student-athletes will always keep these core values at the forefront. However, if schools in any league, from the BIG10 to the KLAA, feel that their quality, philosophy, organization, or location is not conducive to membership in that league, then schools should certainly conduct a cost-benefit analysis in terms of league membership. As a lifelong University of Michigan fan, I have a hard time understanding Maryland and Rutgers’ membership in the BIG10, and perhaps the recent alignment debate in the KLAA begs the question whether the KLAA is working well for some, but not for others.
Ultimately, I have fought, and will continue to fight, for decisions that benefit our student athletes academically and athletically.
March 3, 2016: Joe Durocher, ATC, Isn’t Just…
Joe Durocher, ATC, is not just the trainer at Plymouth. Joe doesn’t just assess and treat bumps, sprains, and strains. Joe doesn’t just educate our kids about head injuries, hydration, heart health, and heat safety. Joe doesn’t just file reports, call doctors, talk with concerned parents, and help put together written pieces for our website (http://plymouthathletics.com/trainer). Joe doesn’t just deliver water to the playing fields, notify the AD of potential scheduling conflicts, point out issues in our facilities, and help create gym and practice schedules. Joe doesn’t just know every athletic team at Plymouth inside-and-out, analyze game play as well as any ESPN broadcaster, and give students tips to improve their shot, serve, or spike.Joe is also a friendly face in the athletic department, an anchor of rational thought, and a caring person. Joe’s knowledge of our student-athletes is often as thorough as their coaches. Joe is trustworthy, Joe is reliable, and Joe is solid.”Trainer Joe” isn’t just an athletic trainer. “Trainer Joe” is Plymouth Athletics.We thank Joe Durocher and all Certified Athletic Trainers for their service all year, but especially during National Athletic Training Month.
February 19, 2016: What Schools Do
In the educational landscape of 2016, it’s impossible to shrug off the paramount importance of two numbers-based concepts: Budget and test scores.
However, I doubt that there’s a student at Plymouth, or in America for that matter, who wakes up on a Monday morning after a week-long vacation and declares, “I want to make sure I improve my school’s test scores today, and I will be sure to minimize my impact on the district’s budget this year.”
Education systems consistently fail that put inordinate weight on improving test scores or sacrificing programs to satisfy budget shortfalls. Look no further than Detroit, and the EAA, for a local example. Too much emphasis on testing (which should be a measuring tool) reduces actual learning, while shortchanging programs to make short-term budget decisions leads to a long, slow bleed that ultimately kills schools and extinguishes teaching and learning.
We have fantastic teachers at Plymouth High School and throughout PCCS. They are fantastic because, when able, they spark the inquisitive, natural-learning nature that leads to true learning, not just learn-for-the-test that destroys the learning spirit. We also have fantastic extracurricular programs, led by dynamic and charismatic educators in athletics, music, and the arts.
Together, our teachers and our extracurricular coaches and leaders help establish and reinforce the concept that students are not just numbers, not just test scores, and not just pieces of a budget. They are learners, they are performers, they are competitors–and they learn how to perform, compete, and learn in our schools.
January 31: The Best of the Best
In 2007, when I was coaching JV boys soccer at Plymouth, I watched a senior named Colin Rolfe dominate defenders and goalkeepers in every varsity soccer match he played in that season. The ‘Cats didn’t win the state championship, but I knew that Rolfe was something special–the perfect combination of size, speed, strength, skill, athleticism, and toughness (he had a penchant for getting elbowed in the nose–bloody noses were “his thing”). I knew that Rolfe was something special. Click here for an article on Rolfe, who has played professionally in the MLS and USL.
With just 10 years of senior classes having gone through Plymouth, the Athletic Department has seen more than its share of successful teams and individuals. From individual state champions (Kyle Rodes in golf, Jane McCurry in track & field, and Sarah Dombkowski in swimming), to future NFL players (Kyle Brindza and Brennen Beyer), to amazing team state champions (girls golf in 2012 and 2013), and to “Dream Team” members like Rolfe, the Wildcats have been loaded with success for the past decade.
Former Plymouth athletic director Terry Sawchuk (who still coaches with the football program) saw the need to recognize individual and team accomplishments, and placed the All State Wall, Athlete and Scholar Athlete of the Year boards, record boards, and team championship banners in the athletic wing. Now, in 2016, Plymouth will honor those student-athletes who, through their accomplishments as members of Plymouth Wildcats interscholastic athletic teams, rose to the level of “elite.” The first-ever Plymouth Athletics Hall of Fame will be unveiled later this spring, with the selection committee meeting later this week to vote on some 15 teams and individuals who were nominated by automatic, objective criteria.
Visit http://plymouthathletics.com/2016/01/25/plymouth-high-school-athletics-hall-of-fame/ for more information on these nominees, as well as the nomination and selection process.
We truly are proud of all of our student-athletes’ accomplishments on the field and in the classroom, and we are excited to recognize the achievements of our very best.
January 18, 2015: Why Kids Play
When students are surveyed as to why they play sports, from city, to country, to suburbs, and from recreational leagues, to premier “travel” organizations, to educational athletics, the overwhelming answer is “to have fun.” This answer trumps others, such as “to get a scholarship,” “to win,” and “to please my parents.”
After all, we do still call it “playing” sports. It is supposed to be fun.
It’s amazing, then, how frequently we see student-athletes who enjoy playing multiple sports as youth, but feel compelled to focus on only one sport as high school athletes.
The reasons why students narrow down their resume’ to only one activity are broad, but can include pressure from scholarship-hungry parents, club sports that essentially ban students from playing anything but their brand of ball, high school coaches who are inflexible in scheduling or downright hostile to other sports, fear of injury, and of course the fact that some students may simply get “cut” from their second or third sports team, thus naturally narrowing it down.
Never mind that statistics firmly show that D1 scholarship athletes are frequently multi-sport athletes, or that athletic trainers and doctor often highlight the dangers of overuse injuries resulting from sports specialization, or that club sports are often run as for-profit companies that do not have individual athletes’ best interest at heart. The trend of sports specialization continues, with the coach who actually encourages multi-sport participation becoming increasingly rare.
The reasons for multi-sport high school participation are varied and plentiful: Athletes get to have more fun, develop new skills, receive varied styles of coaching, avoid burnout, and represent their school in multiple venues and seasons.
Many high-level athletes participated in multiple sports–just open the “roster” section of any professional sports team, from the US women’s World Champions soccer team to the University of Alabama NCAA Champions football team, and multi-sport participation is often the norm, not the exception in these elite organizations.
At Plymouth High School, we are constantly looking for and taking measures to allow, encourage, and facilitate multi-sport participation. From programs that take a break before 4 on 1 practices commence following a sports season (thank you, gymnastics coach Pam Yockey), to coaches who actively communicate that in-season sports have priority over out-of-season conditioning (thank you, football and girls lacrosse coach Jake Wieloch), to teams that make accommodations for students who want to participate in club sports while HS sports are in season, there are many ways for programs to help students become well-rounded athletes. Plymouth coaches are sitting down together in March to plan summer workouts to reduce conflict and promote multi-sport participation.
Thank you to all our coaches and parents who value our student athletes, and remember that when the bottom line is “fun,” we all win.
December 11, 2015: RISE to Win
Check any newspaper or current-events website, and the hoppers are literally overflowing with stories regarding racial and ethnic turmoil. Whether it’s immigration from the Middle East or Mexico, stories from the Black Lives Matter movement or police being targeted just because they wear the uniform, or other topics related to race, ethnicity, religion, and discrimination, one must wonder why, in 2016, we are still challenged with these turbulent times. Great progress has been made in the 150 years since the Civil War and 60 years since the start of the American Civil Rights Movement, but there are still significant hurdles to clear.
With the purpose of promoting racial and ethic equality, Plymouth High School has teamed up with the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), a new organization that states, on their website (RISEtoWin.org):
“The Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting understanding, respect and equality on and off the field. Our goal is to harness the unifying power of sport to advance race relations and drive social progress.”
RISE invited me to serve on the RISE Michigan Leadership Council, where they recently presented their proposed curriculum for beginning an instructional/participatory series with school sports teams in several pilot schools around metropolitan Detroit. This curriculum, combined with the multi-faceted approach RISE is developing, has great potential to utilize athletics to help promote the very values coaches highlight every day.
I challenge every Plymouth Wildcats student, parent, coach, and supporter to “Take the Pledge” at RISEtoWin.org, to live up to that pledge, and to spread the word and encourage others to do the same.
We already love sports, and we all envision a world free of the types of headlines we see all-too-often…so we have nothing to lose, and much to gain.
#RiseToWin today! More information at http://plymouthathletics.com/2015/12/08/plymouth-hs-joins-rise-risetowin/.
November 30, 2015: Integrity
Unlike the NCAA, member schools of the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) do not have “compliance officers” (school officials whose job it is to ensure compliance with all NCAA rules and regulations). Schools are charged with maintaining compliance within the MHSAA, but ultimately, much of that compliance depends on the good will and integrity of its member schools and their staffs.
The MHSAA handbook, at 131 pages, is full of rules and regulations to ensure that educational athletics are conducted in ways that are fair, equitable, safe, and educationally-sound. Regulations are as “big” as making sure all participants have valid and current records of physical examinations on file at the school, to other lesser-known sections on the payment of officials, exceptions to the transfer rule when courts are involved, and everything in between.
Sometimes, ADs hear whispers and rumors of schools or individuals who are allegedly not “following the rules.” Inevitably, two questions arise: (1) Can we get them in trouble? (2) Why do we have to follow the rules if this type of thing is widespread?
I believe in educational athletics. We have more rules and regulations for coaches and participants than “youth” or “AAU/club” sports because of our educational emphasis and to ensure that all athletic activities fit within the larger academic learning focus of the school. And because I believe in educational athletics, I believe in fair play. Life is full of competitions, and the only competitions worth competing in are those where the participants strictly adhere to the rules. What fun is “paper-rock-scissors” when your partner suddenly declares “fireball!”?
Thus, my answers:
(1) I expect our teams, players, and coaches to comply with all athletic department, school, district, MHSAA, and legal rules and obligations, for all of our safety, fair play, and the integrity of educational athletics.. If others aren’t following those rules, it affects our students, and there is evidence, I will first discuss the matter with their athletic administrator to determine whether there is need to further discuss with governing bodies.
(2) We are better than that. We do things right for the sake of doing things right, for our kids, and for the sport. If we lose a game to cheaters, we have not lost in life.
Fair play is up to the integrity and honesty of those playing, coaching, administering, and refereeing the game. It starts with all of us.
November 22, 2015: Why Do We Care?
Around any Thanksgiving table this November, the topics of sports, Star Wars, marching band competitions, or the Middle East may arise.
What do these topics have in common, you ask?
For someone who “does sports” for a living, I enjoy engaging with friends, acquaintances, or merely strangers on the topics of the lively Wolverines, the perpetual-underdog Spartans, the Same Ol’ Lions, or even better, high school sports teams. However, I was recently asked, “Why do you care?” Meaning, “Why do people care about sports teams?”
My five year-old son summed it up a few months ago, when his older sister saw “game over” on the screen as she failed to reach her goal in an old-school Super Mario Brothers Nintendo game. He said, “Don’t worry, video games don’t matter in real life.” Or do they? Do games matter?
The short answer, as far as “why we care,” is that, especially at the high school level, we see our sons and daughters, students, friends, and classmates working, sweating, and striving to be better than their current selves. What sets high school athletics apart from all other levels of sports, from youth “club” sports to the collegiate and professional ranks, is that students in a high school setting have much more in common with each other than anywhere else. The student asking you for help on her homework may be the star of the basketball team, your prom date may be the football captain, or your best friend could be the ace golfer. Our close relationships in our tight-knit community lead to us “rooting” for each other.
The long answer: People are, at our genetic cores, tribalistic. Many eons ago, whether our ancestors on the plains “rooted” for the “right” or “wrong” team may have been life-or-death decisions. Those whom we rooted for were often related to us, genetically. It helped our own genes (shared with others in a family setting) to make sure that those whom we shared meals and huts with were victorious. More recently, when every young man was required to participate in warfare, “rooting” evolved into patriotism. Now, when only a small segment of our population willingly volunteers to wear the uniforms of the armed services, it is evident that our human tendency to “root”–for a sports team, a marching band, or the “good guys” in Star Wars–has roots deep in our past. People love getting behind a cause and fighting for their team, period.
Two sociologists, Barry Schwartz and Stephen Barsky sum up the “rooting” phenomenon in their 1977 article in the journal Social Forces:
If residents invest themselves in favor of their local athletic teams, it is partly because those teams are exponents of a community to which they feel themselves somehow bound. … A local team is not only an expression of the moral integrity of a community; it is also a means by which that community becomes conscious of itself and achieves its concrete representation.
Furthermore, consider that most sports actually loosely resemble traditional warfare. Take football–each team has its own turf, attempts to “invade” the other team’s turf, take possession of its material goods (the ball itself), has “commanders” (coaches and quarterbacks), and its “soldiers” are clad in armor. Teams have colors, mascots, and flags, “home bases” (stadiums), and coaches and ADs alike can oft be heard giving speeches to “fight for something greater than ourselves” (think Braveheart). It doesn’t have to be football; marching band, debate club, cheerleading, and hockey all share most of these resemblances. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are universal, whether it be actual conflict or “just a game.”
Ultimately, however, it is of the utmost importance for us to remember that even though Braveheart-style battles are mostly a thing of the past, real wars are still being waged. This Thanksgiving, let us joyfully celebrate wins, acknowledge our losses, and most importantly, thank those who fight to keep us, our freedom, and our way of life safe every day. Perspective is critical in all things, and let us keep this perspective in mind the next time we “root” at our next game.
With that said, “Go ‘Cats!”
November 4, 2015: Too Much to Lose
When I was a freshman at Kalamazoo College in 2001, I volunteer-coached hurdles at Portage Northern High School during track season. This was an exciting opportunity, as the Huskies were defending state champions and boasted some huge track and field (and football) athletes, such as brothers who were state champs in discus and shot put and a state champion sprinter in the 200m as a sophomore, 100m as a junior, and slated to be the “next Tim Biakabatuka or Tyrone Wheatley at Michigan.” With Charles Rogers and Stu Schweigert having graduated the year prior, the path was cleared for Northern’s senior superstar to sweep both the 100 and 200 meters at the state meet, lead his team to its second-consecutive MHSAA Championship, and glide into U-M as a double-state champion.
Some people blame unfortunate events on fate, karma, or an outside power. I blame them on personal choices, lack of discretion and discipline, and failure to “play out the scenario.”
Coach came to track practice one sunny May afternoon, late and obviously in distress. Some of the track athletes were already discussing the day’s incidents. Coach said what he could, which wasn’t much: “Boys, something happened today, and we need to prepare for Regionals this weekend without our #1 sprinter and relay anchor.” The gasp was audible–several teammates’ chances at qualifying for the state meet in sprint relays rested firmly on their fastest teammate.
In short, this student was caught not once, but twice with something that can derail a season. If viewed selfishly, choices like these can derail or destroy a student’s season and career–collectively, they can derail an entire team’s hopes. After the second incident, his scholarship to the University of Michigan was withdrawn, and the Portage Northern track team failed to live up to expectations to win the state meet.
This sprinter and football tailback a talented athlete, a nice person, a dedicated athlete, and surely two bad choices (which to many people would have not amounted to much) should not have defined his entire athletic career; but like college recruiters will tell you–the first question that goes through a college football coach’s mind when he sits in a recruit’s living room is, “Will this athlete cause me to lose my job?” As a recruit, please let that answer be “never.”
Are incidents like this rare? Only in our dreams. Too often, high school students do not use discipline or discretion, make poor personal choices (the first of which involves surrounding one’s self with an upstanding group of close friends), and fail to “play out the scenario” (A will lead to B, which will lead to…).
Students, please play out the scenario. Understand that a suspension is not just a few days off school–it’s a jolt to your career and your team which can lead to a complete derailment. Keep the train on the tracks, surround yourself with positive and quality people, and use discretion and discipline not only on the field, but off as well. Your future self, and your teammates, will thank you.
October 27, 2015: To Seed, or Not to Seed?
Traditionally, most state tournaments for the Michigan High School Athletic Association are “unseeded,” meaning that in district and regional meets and tournaments, schools are divided up around the state strictly based on geography, they compete against each other, and depending on the rules for advancing in the tournament for a particular sport, some teams or individual athletes make it farther in the tournament than others.
For example, in the MHSAA soccer tournament, Plymouth is usually grouped at the MHSAA “District” level with Salem, Canton, and a smattering of Livonia, Northville, and Wayne/Westland schools.
Unseeded tournaments allow minimal drive times for all involved, thus minimizing transportation costs to school districts and boosting revenue for the MHSAA and host schools.
The Michigan High School Athletic Association does not charge its member schools any dues or fees. The majority of the MHSAA’s operating funds originate from gate fees at its many state tournaments–the (usually) $5 that spectators pay is split up between the MHSAA and host schools. Host schools use this money to offset the costs of hosting the tournament and sometimes for a little profit for the school district, while the MHSAA uses its income for a wide variety of purposes.
However, all over the state, just listen to the discussions after games at the entry levels of the MHSAA tournament, and players, coaches, fans, and athletic directors often lament the lack of seeded tournaments. Frequently, highly-ranked (and sometimes undefeated) teams square off in the first round of the tournament, while lesser teams find themselves battling it out with another mediocre opponent on the other side of the tournament bracket. In sports that don’t have “brackets,” like cross country or tennis, certain regions are bunched-up with quality teams, with other regionals lacking good competition. When only certain individuals or teams qualify for the state finals, the complaint that the tournament is unfairly formatted seems sincere and noteworthy.
Thus, the conflict. In an era of ever-constricting school budgets, how do we preserve income from these geographically-bound tournaments for both schools and the MHSAA while enriching the experience for our student athletes and teams? Can we do right by both, without causing decreases in revenues?
We can. Two sports in the MHSAA are seeded, and one of these sports is one of the MHSAA’s “bread and butter” tournaments–football. Football and boys lacrosse are the only two seeded tournaments sanctioned by the MHSAA. In both cases, proximity serves to divide participating schools into geographic districts or regions, while some measure (or combination of measures) of team quality seeds the teams within those geographic regions. In other words, lines are drawn without regard to teams’ records or quality, but within those lines, quality results in a more-or-less fairly-seeded bracket.
In basketball and soccer, two sports that are offered by a huge number of MHSAA schools and that have quality teams “clumped” into geographic concentrations around the state, the time is now for seeded tournaments, albeit at a very basic level that preserves geographic proximity as the core driving factor. Rather than a complicated point system, district host schools could simply be responsible to seed their brackets based on teams’ records without unnecessary complications like strength of schedule (baby steps!), with 2 points for a win, 1 for a tie, and 0 for a loss.
The following brackets illustrate a HYPOTHETICAL geographically-based soccer district, both unseeded and seeded.
This “lightly seeded” model could serve to create fairer, more competitive tournaments in soccer, volleyball, basketball, hockey, team wrestling, baseball, softball, girls lacrosse (as well as the already-seeded sports of football and boys lacrosse).
Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves: Can we provide a more enriching, memorable, and fair experience for our student athletes, or will “that’s the way it’s always been” continue to foster feelings of undeserved early-round exits by some of the state’s top teams?
October 18, 2015: That’s Life
There are few things in life that give the emotional rush of winning a “big game.” Check with any champion, and they’ll tell you that frankly, winning feels awesome.
With that said, in most athletic competitions, there is only one winner. One state champion. One city champion. One game winner. One individual champion.
In terms of our most visible and publicized fall sport, football, I’ve had a rough weekend. Our Plymouth Wildcats varsity football team lost the lead for the first time all game on Friday night with less than two minutes remaining (and thus lost the Conference Championship), and, as though that wasn’t enough, my alma mater Michigan Wolverines likewise lost the lead with no time remaining to give that outstandingly ugly trophy back to MSU for another year. In both games, emotions ran high, sleep was lost, and athletes, coaches, and fans alike woke up both Saturday and Sunday morning feeling like they were just roused from a bad dream.
I’ve been quietly hoping for about a decade that one day, I would have the opportunity to quote the venerable rock band Van Halen’s lead singer, David Lee Roth, in a blog like this. Appropriately, from Roth’s song “That’s Life”:
“That’s life, that’s life, that’s what all the people say
You’re riding high on Monday, shot down in May
But I, I ain’t never gonna change my tune
When I’m back on top in the month of June”
The Wildcats and the Wolverines both have coaches who are second-to-none in their ability to “coach up” their players, refocus their emotions, and move on to the next hurdle.
Ultimately, after the dust has settled and life is back to normal, we know that the value of educational athletics is in the life skills and personal characteristics developed in participants who compete in a voluntary, rigorous, highly competitive environment. Literally, the blood, sweat, and tears that go into athletic competition re-materialize as respect, dedication, perseverance, humility, and leadership on the other side.
Winning feels great. But knowing that all great journeys have ends, I can rest well at night (well, most nights) knowing what spectacular results come out of the grinder that is participation on an educational athletic team.
“Been up and down and over and out and I know one thing
Each time that I find myself flat on my face
I pick myself up and get back in the race
That’s life, that’s life, and I can’t deny it
Many times I thought of quitting, babe, but my heart wouldn’t buy it”
October 6, 2015: The Value of Educational Athletics
10, 20, or 30 years after graduation, ask a high school graduate what she remembers most fondly from her high school “glory days,” and she’ll likely respond with a memory of participating in (as a participant or a fan) at a high school athletic or activities event. Whether cheering, running, wrestling, throwing, catching, passing, dribbling, or some combination, athletics, and specifically EDUCATIONAL athletics, provide some of the “richest” experiences available to our youth today.
That is not to say that sports provide the most important experiences, in terms of what colleges look for. Good grades, good test scores, and success in the classroom are the main considerations for college admissions officers. But the leadership, teamwork skills, dedication, commitment, ability to win and lose with grace…and not to mention the academic benefits that sports provide…these are the value of our educational athletics programs.
We need not look further than some of our most esteemed educational and public health institutions to underscore the importance of educational athletics to the wellbeing of our learning institutions. Below are several resources and articles showing that every dollar invested in athletics programs is a dollar well-spent.
So, while we struggle to find methods to increase academic achievement in the classroom, perhaps we should look no further than the gym, the field, the pool, or the courts. The answer may be in the shape of a ball, a puck, or a whistle.