For 18 years, between ages 5 and 22, I lived in a jersey. Sometimes it was green, sometimes purple; usually it was red. From clinic soccer at Lutherville-Timonium Recreational Council to Division I lacrosse at Stanford, I lived to compete.
Now, two years after hanging up my cleats, I am able to step back to examine the game from a different angle.
I coach high school JV girls lacrosse and spent this past summer coaching an elite-level club team. My players hailed from eight strong public and private school programs.
While coaching, I often stop to consider my high school career at Roland Park Country School. I mostly remember face paint, spirit parades to Bryn Mawr, and tossing the ball around after practice until we couldn't see it any longer.
I do not remember stress fractures, personal trainers, lacrosse tournaments during basketball season, hiring a recruiting specialist to help me get into college, or paying outrageous dues to play on a club team.
I am left to ask: What happened to high school sports in the six years I've been gone? When did being a high school athlete become a job instead of a pastime?
I talk to many athletes and parents who believe playing a sport is the golden ticket to college. Don't get me wrong; I understand what a powerful tool athletics can be in admissions and scholarship. With college tuition at many schools rising over $40,000, it's no wonder parents and athletes are desperately striving for scholarships. But at what cost?
Today, I see athletes who look tired, injured and worn out - and they're 15.
Any honest Division I athlete will tell you she commits about five hours a day, six days a week, to her sport, and more when she's injured. Talk with any athlete who is tough enough and loves the game enough to practice 30 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, for four years, and I guarantee he was not burned out in 10th grade.
I coach several good high school athletes. They compete at that level and thrive there, but I know they are not physically or mentally prepared to enjoy playing at the elite college level.
Too many of these athletes, and their parents, refuse to see Division III, club or intramural programs as an acceptable next stop. Because these athletes do not get the recruiting letters they want, parents send them to personal trainers, sign them up for additional club teams and ask high school coaches to write more letters.
In an attempt to help their children succeed in college sports, parents are sabotaging them. When will someone draw the line?
In the spring, I spend 10 hours a day teaching and coaching high school athletes. I can see the pressure, physical exhaustion and stress weighing on them. I can hear the fear and anxiety in their voices when they talk about sports.
At 18, there was nothing I would rather do than play lacrosse (or basketball or field hockey) against Bryn Mawr. I lived for the thrill of competing, and so did my teammates. The energy before those games was absolutely contagious. It didn't matter the season because we were all playing for the pride of our school and our love of the sport. No one was thinking about how this game was going to help her college career.
When are athletes, parents and coaches going to realize that the best athlete is the athlete who loves to play? She is fresh at the beginning of each season and has a healthy body that is fit but not overworked.
No club team or personal trainer can replace an athlete's love for his or her sport. It is that passion, that drive, that desire that bodes success. Sadly, I see that light quickly dying in the eyes of young athletes.
Kelsey F. Twist teaches and coaches at Roland Park Country School and elsewhere. As a student, she was named The Sun's Female High School Athlete of the Year and the U.S. Lacrosse High School Player of the Year. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.