Vacation Policies Come Under Scrutiny

By Staff

Athletic Management, 14.6, October/November 2002,

Part of the appeal of scholastic sports is that they help provide a well-rounded education. They’re one part of a young person’s life, along with family, academics, and other pursuits. But conflicts between these areas inevitably arise. One that’s getting increasing attention at many high schools is vacation policies. For athletic administrators, it can be a no-win situation.

The pressure is most common in regions where schools take week-long spring breaks when families traditionally travel together, but it is also an issue during winter holiday break. Some coaches don’t want players who’ll be away to even try out for their teams; others penalize those who miss games and practices.

But those coaches are often pitted against parents who don’t want their sons or daughters to have to choose between a team and a week of family togetherness. Athletic directors trying to set policies must make decisions that are guaranteed to leave some group unhappy, often with school boards watching their every move.

Fulton High School near Syracuse, N.Y., faced growing divisiveness a few years ago between players who stayed and players who left during the traditional April break. Many of those who stayed either resented players who left, or had to forfeit games for lack of teammates. Sometimes both occurred. Those who returned from vacations complained about losing their place on the team just because they spent a week with their families, Athletic Director Tom Eggleston says.

So Fulton set a policy for the most-affected sports: softball, baseball, and boys’ and girls’ lacrosse. Before tryouts, student-athletes who planned to go away for break were told to try another sport or play at the junior varsity level.

This past year, district officials re-examined the policy after it was challenged by a softball player who wanted to attend a family reunion in another state. The district decided to return to the previous policy, which was still in place for all other sports: The athlete must notify the coach that he or she is planning to leave town during a vacation period, and the coach will outline a vacation training program. The athlete may have to sit out some games after vacation and lose starting status or playing time.

“We’re not looking to penalize them,” says Eggleston. “We’re looking to be fair to the kids who stay. And our number-one concern is safety. It would be irresponsible for students to return from a 10-day vacation and have us just stick them out there with no idea what kind of physical training they’ve done.

“We’ll try our new procedure, and we’ll see how that goes this spring,” Eggleston continues. “It continues to be an area we are discussing and all districts are discussing, I think.”

Concord-Carlisle (Mass.) High School Athletic Director Brent Clark says his coaches had been setting their own policies until several years ago, when Clark, seeking uniformity, put out the word that athletes were expected to stay in town for scheduled contests. Coaches were to take special circumstances into account—weddings or family emergencies, for instance—but the policy was clear: If you’re not going to stay, don’t come out.

“I told the coaches to make sure parents were aware that if their son or daughter was going to be a varsity athlete, there was an expectation that they fulfilled the schedule,” Clark says.

For five years, Concord-Carlisle followed the no-vacation policy. “We got half-a-dozen grumblings from parents,” Clark says. “My response to them was, ‘This is a varsity experience. If you want quality family time, you’ve got eight weeks during the summer.’”

Then three years ago, a new superintendent arrived and, at the direction of the local school board, re-examined the policy. After meeting with coaches, parents, and athletes, the superintendent decreed that athletes were free to take vacations during official break periods. Coaches could determine athletes’ readiness to play upon their return but were not to punish solely for missed time. Clark says he fought the change, but can live with it.

Some schools in southern Maine have avoided scheduling contests during the April vacation. It can make getting in a full spring schedule tricky, but after a long Maine winter, the break is appreciated, says Lisa Tanguay, Athletic Director at Marshwood High School in South Berwick.

Marshwood’s policy is that an athlete must practice one day for each game he or she missed before playing in a contest upon their return. “A lot of coaches will schedule just one or two practices over vacation, or they’ll make them optional,” Tanguay says.

Northview High School in Grand Rapids, Mich., gives coaches flexibility in making rules but seeks uniformity through a policy explained in its student handbook, says Athletic Director and Assistant Principal Mark Thomas. Students must let coaches know their plans for official breaks—or for missing games and practices due to other school activities—in advance, and coaches must clearly outline their expectations.

“You have to respect both sides of the issue,” Thomas says. “Communication is key. We put that responsibility on our kids because that’s what we do in life.”