SBLive’s Preps Lab podcast with T.J. Cotterill: Is it time to re-imagine the purpose of high school sports?

This inaugural episode of SBLive’s The Preps Lab podcast with T.J. Cotterill takes a step back to look at the bigger picture of high school sports and ask the question: is it time to re-imagine their purpose?

With prep sports on pause during the pandemic in Washington, as well as many other states, host T.J. Cotterill sat down with coaches and athletic directors in the Seattle/Tacoma area for their reflection on what it means to be involved in the world of interscholastic athletics and how that has changed throughout the years. 

Our four panelists – Wilson girls basketball coach Michelle Birge, who is in her 13th year there, Eastlake football coach Don Bartel, Tahoma athletic director/football coach Tony Davis and Seattle Prep athletic director Sam Reed – hit a wide range of topics around that theme. 

What is supposed to be the point of high school sports? How have they navigated COVID restrictions and relationships with athletes in their programs, the impact of outside influences such as 7-on-7, AAU and trainers and the increasingly growing trend of sports specialization? (Editor’s note: The episode was recorded in mid-November.)

Listen to the episode here, and subscribe below:

(Full archive of the Preps Lab podcast)

Episode breakdown

  • What is the purpose of HS sports supposed to be? (1:20 minute mark)
  • Handling the coach-athlete relationship amid COVID restrictions (8:00)
  • Has a win-at-all-cost mentality infected HS sports more and more over the years? And how do you combat it? (10:40)
  • Practical applications and strategies for building relationships with athletes in 2020 (22:00)
  • The impact of specialization on HS sports and physical/emotional impacts (33:30)
  • Navigating the tense HS coach-trainer-club coach relationships (42:30)
  • Avoiding the win-at-all-cost, transactional approach and instilling program values (50:00)

About Preps Lab

The Preps Lab with T.J. Cotterill is a podcast where you will hear authentic conversations about how things get done in high school athletics. Whether it’s a coach, athlete, athletic director of other contributor in the world of improving student-athletes’ experiences, we’ll hear from them and their practical ideas and philosophies on what they do to create successful environments in the ever-evolving world of prep sports. Episodes publishes every other Tuesday.

About the host

Cotterill has been covering high school sports for more than a decade. He’s a former sportswriter at The Bellingham Herald and The Tacoma News Tribune, where he spent more than three years as their high school sports coordinator and a year covering the Seattle Mariners. He is a substitute teacher in the Puyallup School District and assistant coach with the Puyallup boys basketball program. Reach T.J. on Twitter @TJCotterill.

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Quotes from episode one

Bartel: “All of us who have really been in this long enough know that the idea behind HS sports hasn’t changed. Only one team in 4A wins a state football championship every year, so you better have something to give kids besides that. If not, then you’re not going to be around very long. You’ll burn out and they won’t find much use in you.” 

Bartel: “Our superpower is being in person – walking in a room and feeling what’s going on and knowing who is doing what or feeling what or thinking what and responding to that. And now we live in this virtual world for the most part where our assessment techniques aren’t the same. The paradigm has almost flipped to where the kids are in control because of their level of engagement through the screen … I can’t put my arm around a kid right now. Just can’t do it.” 

Davis: “I think it’s as important as it has ever been to keep reminding ourselves, both for the kids and for the adults, that we’re going to get through this. And we’re going to do it because we’re going to stick together as we work through it.” 

Birge: “We got some of our girls who don’t have food right now and are living in situations I know are tough just because of my previous relationships with them and are struggling with school. So it’s really not even about talking basketball.” 

Birge: “We’ve always believed in my program that you’re teaching life lessons through the game. Normally it’s the game that teaches those lessons and you can use metaphors to connect it. But now it’s more about life and connecting it to ball – when has this come up in ball and how did we get over that hump?” 

Birge: “Being a female coach in this district for 12 years, there are several males, and females I would argue, who have this Messiah complex. That their way is the end-all way. I don’t think I’m the end-all result. I think I’m one factor in a student-athlete’s success.”  

Bartel: “I don’t think what’s really been acknowledged, and maybe I’m making something up, but I don’t think we have really acknowledged the amount of pressure parents feel when they have talented children to continue to feed that ability to do those things. Honestly, the only way to do that is pay the money. And it’s incredibly difficult to do that.”  

Davis: “What’s gotten lost a little bit – there’s nothing wrong with having a really good high-school sports experience.” 

Bartel: “Let’s recognize this fact: The overwhelming majority of people are on the mountain of average and that’s the target audience for the pay-me crowd. Those kids are the 80 percent of kids with average to a little above-average ability – kids who work hard, kids who are coachable, those are the kids who are targeted and sold this idea that if you pay me this money, then we’ll get your these offers. That money would be so much better spent somewhere else. Shoot, it would be better spent on diet and sleep than traveling and doing every little thing because you fear you’re going to miss out.” 

Birge: I can’t work with (athletes) right now, which my gym is usually open 24 hours a day seven days a week, but that’s no excuse not to chase your dream. You just have to think outside of the box … it’s all about their vision, and then making sure you align their vision with their work ethic. Otherwise it’s just not going to work.” 

Bartel: “I wanted to be the hero. I wanted to save kids. That’s my job and that’s what I wanted to do. But I didn’t realize until later that saving people required them to be victims, so I was almost creating this situation where I would be able to step in. But with maturity you figure this out – our job is to guide them along the way. Position ourselves as someone who is empathetic, but also have the expertise and credibility to show the way.”

Bartel: “I feel like I tell kids this every year: We won the state championship in 2012. We cried when the game was over. We won, but we still cried. Why? Because it was over. Same thing that had happened all those years before. That part never really changed.”

Birge: “Some of my best players have hated me for two weeks and haven’t spoken to me. However, the relationship after the fact, when they understand what was trying to be delivered to them, it’s not always easy to hear and there are probably other people who will give them the message they wanted to hear, but it’s not the message that’s going to get you where you need to be. It’s not aligning with your vision and your dreams.” 

Davis: “There is nothing cooler than seeing a former player with their kids. Because, and this is going to sound like a brag and it’s not intended to be, but you’re going to start hearing things that you used to say to them. It makes you feel really good.” 

Reed: “Despite everything we talk about and preach about multi-sport athletes and the stats and stuff, I find myself as a parent slipping right back into doing everything I preach not to do. So I realize just how hard it is to break that cycle and do what seems counterintuitive despite all the research and all of the facts that would say otherwise.” 

Davis: “Maybe not all outside trainers are like this, but they’re trying to get paid. We’re trying to develop quality young men and women.” 

Birge: “I can’t tell you how many basketball games I go to and so-and-so’s trainer is out there with his camera who is now this expert on how to get kids to D1. I’m not sure what their resume is or if they’ve ever actually gotten a kid to D1. But there is that pull.” 

Birge: “If there is one positive thing from this COVID: There are several of our kids who are burned out from sports. Not just mentally, but physically they were burned out … because of the constant wear and tear of a season and AAU and everything else.”

Bartel: “Seven-on-seven will never be football. That part of it is incredibly important.” 

Bartel: I’m not an opponent of specialization, per se. I just feel kids and parents have to come to an understanding and agreement about what they can handle in their families.” 

Bartel: “For me, it was all about winning. I needed to validate who I was as a human being because I was a coach and if I wasn’t a winning coach then it wasn’t worth doing. At the end of the day you realize what a fleeting and horrible thing that is because you’re building these transactional relationships with teenagers. You, kid, are going to make me feel good by doing this. There are some people who are fine with that.”

Bartel: “Kids need rest. When I have kids emailing me at 2 in the morning because they left our practice to go hit, and then go do homework and then they’re traveling to a tournament that weekend and then you talk to the parents and they say ‘He’s fine, he can handle it.’ And I’m like, ‘He’s crying at lunch … he’s not handling it.” 

Reed: “There are good people, good programs and good places where our young men and women can go and develop as people outside of our wings. Just like there are high school coaches who aren’t good, unfortunately. I mean, it becomes less to me about where they are coming from, but how they are connecting for kids and the why for it.” 

Bartel: “Coach (Steve) Gervais used to say to us all the time that you’ll be judged how the 65th man on your roster feels about his experience. That kid is just as important as your starting quarterback.” 

Birge: “Our program is consistent in the message we give kids: It’s not all about basketball. It’s about being a good human being and making great choices and getting yourself to the next level. The next level could be college, the next level could be trade, it could be wherever your next level is. But you have to take some people along the way. You have to be a good teammate, student, be coachable, approachable and teachable.” 

Davis: “I tell kids that If all you get out of this 10 years from now is how to block a trap or run a Mike stunt, then I have failed you all miserably. If you made the choice to be part of this thing, there is more that we’re going to expect from you and more that you should expect from us.”  

Thank you for joining the discussion on SBLive!

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