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After Class: High School Athletics

Growing up in the United States, it doesn’t occur to most of us that sports’ relationship to high school is actually a uniquely American thing. According to The Atlantic, it all started in 1852, when Massachusetts became the first state to require kids to go to school. Once daily activities started being monitored by the state, it didn’t take too long for leisure to be included on the school schedule. Historic events such as the Great Depression and World War II fed our country’s hunger for something to fight through or for, and thus competitive sports, among all age groups and including pro athletics, exploded. Think of those small towns where the high school football team is everything. Even in major cities, including the DC Metro area, sports such as tennis, soccer, and baseball have very successful travel teams that produce incredible athletes who play at the college level and even beyond. Outside the United States, the popularity of and organizational support for sports are far less intertwined with public education than is the case here.

In the beginning, “free time” was regulated to foster qualities such as cooperation, work ethic, agility, and others. Over time, though, the competitive nature of sports became, well, even more competitive. Now we find ourselves in a world in which toddlers are groomed to become the next LeBron James, Serena Williams, or Cristiano Ronaldo. And for the very select few who make it anywhere near that far, kudos to them. But for most of us, organized sports are limited to the K-12 years, with fewer playing at the club or intramural level in college, let alone at the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) level.

For potential recruits, there are lots of moving parts to consider: establishing relationships with coaches, participating in ID camps, and creating highlight videos and athletic profiles, all on top of rigorous, time-consuming practices and game schedules. It takes a lot of work, and because of that, college admissions often “forgives” recruits for having only one major extracurricular.

These days, many schools actually require a sport. When I was in high school, I was disappointed to learn that marching band didn’t fulfill my sport requirement (note: I still disagree with that policy). So, as the strapping young athlete I was, I signed up for a bowling league to fulfill my athletic hours. Did bowling matter in my college application? Unlikely. Was it personally fulfilling? Sorta. But I got the hours I needed. Not every student possesses the same level of athletic prowess (read: virtually none) as I did, and many will dive into sports quite happily. Even the less successful athletes still gain valuable experience in learning how to fail, keeping at it, and all those great sports-related mantras. Student-athletes not only experience joy and develop important skills but also showcase a willingness to contribute to their school community in valuable ways.

Sometimes, though, I get questions about whether it’s OK to drop a sport. “Won’t colleges think I’m a quitter if I leave the squash team?” Probably not, especially if it’s because of other pressing demands on your time such as academics, family responsibilities, and other interests (e.g., organized school activities). To colleges, non-recruited athletes still showcase important skills – sportsmanship, grit, leadership, etc. – but the sport is probably going to end up as a line on you resume, not the end-all, be-all of your identity (at least let’s hope not).

Participating on an organized team, especially in school, is a great way to show you know how to contribute to your campus life. But you can make the same impact in your own life (and in college admissions) through unorganized sports as well. Maybe you like to run or play tennis with friends or hike when you go camping with your family. All of these are worthwhile activities to pursue for their personal and athletic value and are totally appropriate to include in your application for college down the road.

Whether or not your school requires you to be on a sports team, I urge you to find a way to stay active and develop the skills that athletics teaches. And this is coming from a former bowling league member who averages in the 60s.

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