COACH’S CORNER: Sophomore year has become the make-or-break season for all the wrong reasons

Managing the expectations of every player (and parent) in a program isn’t easy for any coach, particularly when you’re dealing with the immense amount of athletes at a place like Homestead, led by Coach Chad Zolman.

High school football in Indiana has been played for many years. Most programs work with three teams: a varsity team made up of mostly 11th and 12th graders, a junior varsity team made up of 10th graders and a ninth-grade team.

For years this structure was adhered to. f course, there were exceptions to this.  Some of the greatest players in the history of Fort Wayne football played varsity as early as ninth grade, but the vast majority would not see varsity playing time until at least their junior year.  This was widely accepted by pretty much everyone. 

However, in the last half decade or so, that has changed. This status quo of sticking around at your school until your time has seemed to disappear. Instead, we know have constant shuffling of players across many different schools and programs. Unfortunately, some players are leaving their programs for others solely based on playing time.

What is the reason? What caused this change?

The answer is one of the most complex and difficult challenges high school football coaches face now and will continue to face in the future. 

Let’s start with the obvious. The landscape of high school sports has changed. Athletes now have a much greater sense of individualism. This comes from many things – the growing abundance of club and travel sports that can be very influential, the lack of loyalty to a program tradition and also the reality of modern athletes focused more on promoting their brand and image. 

These reasons have caused players to focus more on themselves. It’s very normal on a Friday night after the games are completed to see players posting on Instagram or any social media platform about their individual achievements, not their team.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with wanting to promote yourself. But it’s just a monumental shift from how things used to be. It’s not just 1 vs. 11, it’s 11 vs. 11. Football is a TEAM sport. If you were to ask most high school football players, I would venture to guess that many are more focused on their statistics than whether they win or lose the football game. This mindset has led many players to think they have to be playing varsity as a sophomore and, if they aren’t, transfer somewhere where they will.

The positive of this mindset shift is that many players are getting an opportunity to show their skills at a very young age.  Many players are getting varsity reps much earlier. This is giving them more film to help them in the recruiting process, if college is their goal. Just look at the number of starting sophomore quarterbacks in the last couple of years in the 260, and that is a good thing. So much young talent is flourishing at the high school level due to this and kids are getting an opportunity to play football at the highest level, even before they reach their final two years of high school, which is a big flip even from just 10 years ago. 

But with every positive comes a negative. Coaches across the area have told me that they feel like they’re walking on eggshells with some of their players. You may have a very talented sophomore receiver who maybe isn’t in the best physical shape to handle all the stresses of Friday nights, but if you don’t play them now you run the risk of losing them to transfer down the road. 

For years, many coaches could plan two to three years out knowing that a freshman or sophomore player would be a future starter. That’s not a guarantee anymore.

Along with that, we are seeing less and less commitment to the team. It’s often disappointing to see many players more concerned about themselves than the scoreboard. I can speak from experience that there’s nothing better than being a part of a great team, even if you’re not playing. The connection to a team atmosphere is a positive skill that can take you far in life no matter what you go into. 

I talked to several high school coaches who all mentioned how they have had to change their rhetoric and how they talk to players and parents. Coaches have had to adapt to this changing landscape, many saying that they don’t release their depth chart until the first Friday of the season, fearing that if they were to announce starting positions earlier, a player may bolt for a different program.

It’s now crucial for coaches to make sure that their sophomores are a part of their varsity team. It’s also important to make sure that they are keeping the players focused on how the team, not necessarily the individual, can get them to where they want to go. 

This has made coaching very difficult.  Not only are coaches taking on the tasks of game planning, designing practice and watching film, but now are taking on being college advisors for many kids and trying to preach to them why staying within their program benefits them for the future. 

Not every program is facing these challenges. Programs with tradition and a history of success don’t see as many players transferring out, but it does happen. At certain teams in which this is minimal, it is mostly because coaches have established expectations within the program and both parents and players respect the decisions. But in some younger, less-established programs still trying to find their footing, the urge can grow quickly and strongly within players that their decision to leave is just because, in their mind, the coach doesn’t know what he is doing. 

This problem isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, it will probably be an even bigger issue as the world of high school football continues to change and evolve. As a coach, you have to do what you need to do to keep your players in the program, yet not compromise your principles. That can be a delicate balancing act.

Numbers are down across the city in many programs and coaches can’t afford to lose any players. Unfortunately, this will lead to some athletes playing on Fridays before they are ready, which could lead to injuries and, as we’ve already seen this season, a disparity in talent.

It’s an uneven contest with dominant teams and doormats. 

It seems the days of sticking with a program for four years are long gone.  There is hope, however, that coaches can find some stability and maintain their programs. But it also will take a greater commitment from players and parents to put in the work and be patient.

But until that time, coaches will have to adapt to this wild new landscape of high school football.

Coach‘s Corner appears weekly at Outside the Huddle. The author Ben Martone played football in the SAC and has coached at North Side and Northrop. He is currently a teacher at Weisser Park Elementary in Fort Wayne Community Schools.

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