Practice outside of school hones skills, allows high level playing
After a summer of attending showcase after showcase, traveling to and from the East Coast, junior Sean Browne hangs up his Mad Dog and Texas Nationals jersey. He replaces them with the comforting navy and white of his ESD uniform, earnestly awaiting the beginning of the 2023 lacrosse season. For Browne, nothing beats playing as an Eagle.
Adolescent and teen athletes looking to take their game to the next level often turn to club sports as a way to improve skill. Club sports are teams outside of school that require payment to join and play for. Oftentimes, these teams travel for games and tournaments and usually consist of players who look to play their sport at a higher level and often expose their players to college coaches for recruiting purposes. For many high school athletes, playing club sports in addition to school sports is a way to improve skill, confidence and playing ability.
“I decided to play club lacrosse because my older sister did, and she loved it,” Browne, varsity lacrosse captain and University of Virginia lacrosse commit, said. “ I wanted to take my game to the next level and become serious about lacrosse, and I thought club lacrosse was the way to do that. I definitely think that playing club is an advantage. All the extra reps and extra coaching gives you more experience and skill.”
For freshman Courtney Del-Cid, playing club sports is not only a one-sport decision nor only a one-club experience.
“I have played club soccer for seven years and club lacrosse for five years,” Del-Cid said. “Both sports have been so enjoyable for me throughout my life. I have played for multiple different soccer clubs, but the main ones I have played for are Sting Soccer Club and FC Dallas. As for lacrosse, I have played for one [club] lacrosse team my whole life, which is Grit.”
Playing club sports offers athletes a chance to play sports year-round, consistently improving skill and gaining new experiences.
“It gives me an advantage because club sports allow me to get year-round training, keeping me on my toes,” Del-Cid said. “I also get the opportunity to play against other kids at the highest levels nationwide. Playing against better people helps me improve by learning from them, which prepares me for more extraordinary things to come.”
However, while athletes appreciate the experience that comes with playing club sports, others wouldn’t trade their high school experience for the world.
“I think it really depends on the sport,” Browne said. “But there is a different kind of pride [and] something to play for when you’re playing for your school team and representing your community.”
Many coaches and players have noticed an increase in participation in club sports. Some attest this to the hope of college-level participation in sports that many athletes strive for. According to a poll conducted by the NCAA in 2019, 91 percent of NCAA mens basketball players played both club and high school basketball, while 82 percent of mens lacrosse players played both high school and club lacrosse. As for the women, 88 percent of soccer players played both high school and club, and 94 percent of softball players played both high school and club.
“There is definitely a major increase in club sports [in the past couple of years], which has its benefits,” Browne said. “But I do not necessarily think it’s a good thing. Some of the clubs are pay-to-play, which takes away the competitive nature of playing club. Kids don’t have to work hard to make a club because there’s so many options.”
For some athletes, training for their sport outside of school does not require joining a club team but instead taking lessons in their free time.
“I decided to take cheer lessons outside of school to improve on my flexibility and to work toward getting my jumps to be better,” senior varsity cheerleader Ava Hobbs said. “When I first [started lessons], I felt I needed a little guidance on cheering and what it would take to get me to the varsity level, so I think having those lessons at first made me feel less pressure and more comfortable.”
In order to prepare for cheer spring tryouts, many cheerleaders, no matter their experience level, partake in private lessons at gyms across the metroplex, hoping to improve their skill and their chances of making the varsity cheer team.
“I would take most of my lessons leading up to tryouts,” Hobbs said. “I would usually go two times a week for an hour to an hour and a half. I feel like taking lessons helped me be better prepared and understand what was expected of me, the things I learned were very helpful when trying out and throughout the season.”
But some varsity athletes do not feel the need to participate in a club sport or just simply cannot find the time.
“I have never been able to find time for club sports in my schedule,” sophomore varsity field hockey and soccer player Ella Ferguson said. “Especially since high school, it has become increasingly difficult to balance academics with athletics, and I felt playing on a club team would make that balance much more difficult to control.”
Despite not participating in a club sport, Ferguson recognizes the benefits of playing at a club level.
“I feel like club sport players do have certain advantages over players that do not play club,” Ferguson said. “These advantages include more practice time, high level of skill in games and practicing with players of extreme technique. Club players are generally more comfortable in advanced playing atmospheres than players that don’t play club since they are constantly put in athletically demanding situations.”
Varsity lacrosse head coach Jay Sothoron begs to differ.
“I’d say probably 90 to 95 percent of my players play club lacrosse,” Sothoron said. “I think there’s a couple different factors that are gonna make you a better player. I think if you’re a kid who plays club sports, but you don’t lift, you’re gonna fall behind. The nice thing about lacrosse is that there’s a lot you can do on your own. You can go out and hit the wall, shoot on your own. You don’t need a specialty coach.”
Sothoron has noticed the uptick in the prevalence of more lacrosse clubs, and as a result, more lacrosse players who play club.
“Lacrosse has become more mainstream,” Sothoron said. “There’s a lot of ways to make revenue off of kids, and that never used to be the case. There’s still some good in [playing club sports], but I don’t think it’s a necessity.”
During the summer, ESD boys lacrosse operates as a club team, traveling to two or three tournaments around the country in order to help with the recruitment process.
“In the club scene, it’s a lot of ‘me-ball,’” Sothoron said. “When I was a college coach, we always preferred to watch kids play for their high school. You can actually watch them run team offense, team defense and kinda see how they do with their lacrosse IQ, off-ball movement. A lot of minor things that you don’t normally think about, but recruiters are.”
Sothoron also recognizes the importance of simply taking a break from lacrosse instead of spending a summer at tournament after tournament.
“Our season is long [at ESD],” Sothoron said. “I ask a ton of these kids, but I think it’s good to be a high school kid. Some kids are on a plane, in a hotel, on a field for 80 percent of their summer. And then they’re right back at school starting football on Aug. 1. I think there’s some value in just shutting it down for a little bit and letting your body heal.”
And letting your body heal is something that every coach and every player should take into consideration. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, an estimated 3.5 million child and teen athletes get injured each year playing sports. The CDC states that half of these injuries are preventable — most of them come from overuse, not wearing proper equipment and lack of time to rest and heal.
“I’ve been coaching for 20 years in high school and college,” Sothoron said. “I’ve never seen the amount of wear and tear injuries that I have had in the last five years. These kids never really get much of a rest. It’s hard at ESD, even outside of clubs, if you’re a three-sport athlete, you don’t get any breaks.”
However, while Sothoron recognizes the benefits of club lacrosse in terms of college recruitment, he also believes that playing club lacrosse is not necessary.
“There’s value in club lacrosse, no question about it,” Sothoron said. “[But] if you’re really, really good, club lacrosse isn’t essential because [college] coaches will find you. It’s the middle-of-the-road kids that I think club is important for because it just gives them more opportunities to get out in front of college coaches.”
Some athletes also feel pressure from their parents to participate in club sports, leading to high expenses for the parents and burnout for the athletes.
“Parents need to find the line of understanding that it’s okay not to sign up for everything,” Sothoron said. “Finding quality over quantity is really important. If you overdo it, you’re gonna burn your kid out; you’re gonna deal with injury. It’s hard [because] parents don’t want to hear that maybe their kid isn’t good enough to be recruited.”
Despite the intensity, athletes find value and take pride in playing for their club team, appreciating the extra experience that club sports provide.
“Club has helped me form relationships that will last a lifetime,” Browne said. “Whether it’s coaches or other players, I have been able to become close with people all over the country. Club was imperative for the recruiting process and really helped prepare me to play at a high level.”