I probably heard this phrase mentioned by someone else a long time ago because I rarely have an original thought! I may have very well coined the phrase myself because I have been using it so long! The first time I actually recall hearing it was when I was in high school myself and someone made the comment about a football player a year ahead of me. This particular young man was an incredible athlete for a small town Iowa high school as a freshmen, and unusual for the time, there was speculation that he may even challenge for some varsity playing time. Freshmen simply did not play varsity football in the late-1970’s! His story did not work out like a lot of people speculated. Yes, he did get on the field in the first varsity game of this season playing wingback and returning kicks. In the second game he blew out his knee and missed the rest of the season. Over the course of the remaining three years, he continued to play football, ran sprints on the track team and threw the shot put. He was an all-conference athlete, but he never reached the level that so many had believed he would before that first football game his freshman year of high school. It was about him that I heard an adult remark that he was an “8th grade All-American” and never panned out in high school.
The term refers to those students who perform at a very high level in middle school who people believe are destined for greatness in whatever sport it might be in high school. More often than not, at least with boys, they are more physically mature than their peers and are thus able to dominate smaller, weaker peers. Many of them have some natural ability and strength, and have not had to work very hard at developing skills and fundamentals. With females, it is a little different. In fact most of them have not matured physically but have some strength and a high level of flexibility and coordination. They also have a strong sense of determination and mental toughness that gives them an distinct advantage over their peers. Many of these kids do succeed at a high level, and as word of their exploits spread, people develop high expectations for when they step out under the bright lights of high school athletics. Some parents (and grandparents) are talking college scholarships and are making mental lists of where they plan to travel to watch their child play once they sign that scholarship offer.
What happens, and the reason I chose to write about this, is that all too often the “All-Americans” struggle and often quit in high school because they cannot live up to expectations. I find this something that needs to be addressed so that they can have a positive athletic experience in high school and contribute to their teams. We are all very aware of the differences in physical, emotional, and social growth among children. Take any classroom of fourth-graders and one will see 25 different shapes and sizes, and an incredible range of social and emotional maturity. Our athletic All-American is most often mesomorphic, physically mature male that is most likely the strongest, fastest kid in the class. He has a fundamental grasp of the rules and skills of the game, and can dominate nearly every game he plays. Most important, in many cases he does not have a great work ethic and borders on being lazy because he can still win without pushing himself. This happens at practice too, because at that age he is often the best player and thus he doesn’t have to develop a commitment to hard work and putting forth effort. Because of that, he relies primarily on his physical dominance rather than developing good technique and fundamental skills. He hasn’t had to! And, most of these fellas only compete in the local region and therefore rarely match up against an equal. Thus, the legend grows. Everyone in the community starts to hear about this outstanding young athlete coming through the ranks that will be in high school setting records before you know it!
I do want to qualify a very important point, there are a lot of outstanding young athletes, both male and female that come into high school each year and go on to successful careers, and some of them are really good as middle school students. What makes them different from the “All-Americans” are basically three things. First, they have developed a very strong work ethic and have drilled the skills and mechanics of the sport. Some of these kids may have actually lagged behind in physical development yet when they learned and practiced, they put forth a lot of effort, listened to their coaches, and spent a lot of time perfecting their skills. Second, they have parents that keep things in perspective, and have thus helped their child keep perspective. They also have a degree of humility and are goal driven. In a sense they do not read the headlines! And third, they have sought out a high level of competition to challenge themselves. They have not just beat up on the local competition, rather they have sought out a high level of competition to challenge themselves and grow.
Not that long ago we had a group of students come through that were very good athletes as youngsters, and a lot of people told them how good they were. Some of them were very driven and did whatever they could to enhance their chances of success at a high level. A couple reached that goal, but most did not. Some either gave up along the way, or injuries played a factor. That said, of all of the kids in that group, the one that left the biggest impression on me was a skinny little kid that as a young kid was an afterthought. However, he stuck with it, and once he grew a bit, developed some strength, improved his coordination, and developed a skill, he became a solid senior athlete. When he is middle age, he will be able to look back and take a great deal of pride in his perseverance and the success that came with it. Unfortunately, for many of the members in that group there will be a lifetime of “what-if.” I cannot help but think that this may have been a lot different if the expectations had been different.
We need to be careful about assigning All-American status to young kids. It is a label and a burden that many cannot carry. Youth sports are valuable, yet we must keep some perspective. Go to any kids event and someone will make a reference as to “when they are in high school.” Well, let’s get them to high school with good solid skills and a strong work ethic so they can succeed before we start planning state championship parades.