Rethinking Offseason Coaching Restrictions

By Staff

Athletic Management, 15.2, February/March 2003,

When high school coaches are shut out of youth-league and club teams in the summer, are their education-based philosophies and approaches to sports being unnecessarily shut out, too? Or are the reasons for restricting coaches’ involvement with their athletes outside of school-based teams as valid as ever?

Those are the questions that Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association Executive Director Ned Sparks is posing to MPSSAA members. Current Maryland rules forbid coaches from most summer instruction with players, but Sparks is wondering if the limits have outlived their usefulness and should be altered.

“Between AAU, clubs, exposure camps, etc., today’s athlete has multiple opportunities. In fact, so many that the high school coach, once a central figure, is now being pushed further into the background,” Sparks wrote in the Association’s fall newsletter.

There was no single event that prompted Sparks to raise the issue, rather an overall concern about how prevalent non-school athletics has become in many places. Other states are examining the same question, but in Maryland, changing the state association’s rules is a weighty matter because they’re adopted by the state Board of Education.

One possible change is suspending the rules banning out-of-season coaching for a period in the summer, say June 15 through August 1, Sparks explains. Current rules forbid out-of-season coaching, coaches accompanying their athletes to camp, and one-on-one or group out-of-season practices. Exceptions are made for situations such as a baseball coach working with a local American Legion team, but the coach’s school team may comprise no more than half the out-of-season squad’s roster. The restrictions apply to all coaches, whether they are teachers or non-faculty coaches.

Sparks says he wants MPSSAA members to consider whether student-athletes could benefit from more involvement of education-based coaches. “A long time ago in America, it was decided there are good things that happen with young people playing athletics,” Sparks says. “If they’re very much interested in it and they enjoy it, it’s a good way to reach them. There are values that they can be taught. But sometimes folks coming at it from a different point of view don’t see it that way. It’s not that educators are any better than anyone else, but they at least have a values-based perspective on athletics.”

However, there may be a case for keeping the current rules, Sparks adds. For instance, if the restrictions were removed, would high school student-athletes become captive to their coaches and their sports? Would coaches feel they must work year-round with their teams because that’s what competitors are doing?

“Do we still like the idea that a kid might want to be a multi-sport player?” says Sparks. “Does he wrestle and play football because wrestling keeps him in shape for football? What about the kid who goes away for the summer or who doesn’t want to do everything year-round?”

Sparks has started receiving response from his query, and notices one trend so far: Younger coaches are generally warmer to loosening the out-of-season restrictions, while veterans are more likely to question tinkering with the system. Sparks expects a firm written proposal to be developed by the MPSSAA by late winter or early spring of 2004, which would then go to the state Board of Education.

Maryland AAU President Kathy Campbell says she is strongly in favor of relaxing the summer restrictions because it would mean more qualified coaches in summer sports, instead of parents who may or may not be qualified. “As the rule stands, we are doing a great injustice to these athletes,” she says.

Whatever happens, Sparks believes the changing nature of youth sports necessitates the discussion. “Thirty years ago, the suggestion of having six weeks during the summer when our regulations wouldn’t apply would have been absolute heresy,” he says. “But when you look around at what is going on, you have to ask yourself, ‘Are our regulations really hurting our own people?’”