Improved academic performance, broader perspectives and higher self-esteem are all benefits from participating in high school activity programs. Educators encourage students to be involved because of these benefits, but what do we do when students want to participate in multiple activities and those activities, practices, trips and games conflict with each other? The issue of sharing students so that they are well-rounded and get the most of our programs then becomes the job of the coaches.
The answer is not simple. Smaller schools often see the same group of kids who are the most involved, but the same can also be true for larger schools. The key is exercising flexibility by everyone involved.
First, coaches and sponsors can be more lenient on mandatory attendance requirements for practices or competition. Lacy Cannon, West Texas A&M University professor and former speech coach, required that her high school students attend two tournaments per semester. They could choose what worked with their schedule.
“For example, if you were in band, you know that you won’t be able to go to any speech tournaments in October, so you need to plan for November or December to get your required tournaments in.” Cannon said.
Educators should check with state rules to see what events are required, like an official or state-sanctioned competition versus a scrimmage, and which events have a state-mandated date for competition to occur or to be completed. Students and parents should be informed of these circumstances so they can be better informed when making decisions.
Next, it is important to communicate with other educators and programs. The key is early and consistent communication with not just other coaches, but administration, students AND parents with a focus on compromise, flexibility and being reasonable. One strategy is to use if/then communication. Planning ahead and deciding how to accommodate everyone’s schedule in a calm, diplomatic manner is essential to the process.
When we build relationships with our colleagues, value what they do and support each other’s programs, educators can make sharing work. Danny Stottlemyre, retired speech coach at Seminole High School in Texas, suggests sitting down with coaches and sponsors before the year begins to make a plan that does not force the shared students to make a choice based on some anticipated punishment or a lowered grade.
“That makes the kids more comfortable making a choice because we have created a relatively stress-free competitive environment,” Stottlemyre said, “It may not be ideal for us as sponsors, but at the end of the day, it serves the kids.”
Additionally, coaches need to help the students work through the words they will use to communicate. Students need to have some conversations themselves, using their own voices to discuss what they can or need to do.
Katelynn Butler, from Caprock High School in Amarillo, Texas, argues that the point is “to give the kids the power to direct their own lives and time according to what they prioritize. They may not choose what we want, but that’s part of their learning.” Educators must be advocates for our students but should also “fact check” what students tell you. When a consequence seems exaggerated, like being kicked off the team for missing one practice, chances are there was a miscommunication or misperception.
High school is the time to allow students to explore and find where their passion lies.
Coaches should convince students that they can participate in more than one activity to ensure they have the best experiences and are well-rounded. Amy West, a retired coach from Cooper High School in Lubbock, Texas, noted the following:
“The talented students we are ‘fighting’ over get lost in the shuffle and feel torn in their loyalties,” West said. “They feel like they have to ‘choose’ one program over the other. We need to remember that high school is the testing grounds for our students to find their niche, connect with their people, and discover what brings them joy and satisfaction. If we make them narrow down their talents to only one specific field, we could snuff out some incredible potential.”
No one really likes to share. Our human nature is to be selfish and want what is best for our programs. Melissa Witt, debate coach at Hereford (Texas) High School, says it best, “At the end of the day, kids see who cares about them as individuals and who is just interested in building up their program. A kid will stay and work hard for one of two reasons - love of the game or the love they feel from the people on their team, including that coach.”
Ultimately, decisions will have to be made. The reality is that students will not be able to do everything they want to do. But sharing is often possible. The educators in these situations need to remember that they are professionals and not let selfish ambitions get in the way of student success.
“The things it comes down to are culture of the school, connections with sponsors and – ultimately – the commitment, determination, and communication of the student,” Cannon said.
When we focus on relationships and what is best for the students, then we can all cheer when our amazing competitors win in everything they do – not just our events.
Mellessa Denny of Amarillo High School in Amarillo, Texas has coached high school speech and debate for 22 years, with students participating on the local, state and national levels. She is the past president of the Texas Speech Communication Association, and in 2018 was selected as TSCA Secondary Teacher of the Year. In 2019, she received the NFHS Section 6 Outstanding Educator Award.