Athletes face pressure on, off the field

Athletes+face+pressure+on%2C+off+the+field

By Alex Nicoll

Editor-in-Chief

@NicollMac

Wake up.

Senior pitcher Jensen Elliott focuses on blocking out critics when he pitches, like in this game on March 17. Photo by Mallorie Munoz.
Senior pitcher Jensen Elliott focuses on blocking out critics when he pitches, like in this game on March 17. Photo by Mallorie Munoz.

Go to school for eight hours. Race home to grab a track uniform for an hour practice. Squeeze in a quick dinner between practices. Endure a five and a half hour club practice. Then it’s back home for hours of homework.

Repeat.

“There were definitely times in junior year where I would stay up 24 plus hours because I was either catching up on stuff or because of workouts,” senior and Arizona State volleyball commit Kylie Pickrell said.

This is a typical week day for Pickrell. Pickrell, one of the most highly touted athletes to come through the halls of Coppell High School, is not alone in this time-consuming schedule. Most high profile athletes mimic a similar routine, whether it be going to an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) practice, finding time to add a couple of hours of conditioning workouts or private training sessions.

People hear about how time consuming being an athlete is or of the work ethic required to be performing at such a high level. People empathize with these kids and the struggles put on them to be the best. However, they may not realize the scrutiny these same athletes are put under, especially in high school.

They are expected to dominate their sport, have a social life, make good grades, all while being an upstanding citizen of society. There is little room for mistakes and the fall from grace is long and hard for high school athletes.

Former Coppell football coach Joe McBride, now at Dripping Springs High School, has years of experience dealing with these star athletes and he has seen the good with the bad, and he has some advice for those future athletes.

“I always tell them don’t get caught up on the ego side of things, being on ESPN or stuff,” McBride said. “Be humble and understand that you are starting at the bottom again. Nobody cares how good you were in high school once you get to college because they were all good in high school, too.”

While McBride has had experience with these kids, it is sometimes lost on people the effect that these expectations have on the parents of the athletes.

“It’s not an easy thing to say what this kid is going through because to others it would seem like a dream,” mother of 2014 CHS graduate and current Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, Coppell Middle School North history teacher and coach Martha Thomas, said. “But there is a constant pressure to do what’s right and to live in the straight and narrow path, whereas if they were doing something else or they lived somewhere else nobody would care.”

Thomas is no stranger to the pressures put on star athletes. Her son was a five-star recruit with offers from top colleges from all over the nation. He played in the Army All-American game and was a three-year starter for Coppell.

The challenge is to keep these athletes grounded which can be difficult to do when everybody around them elevates them to star status. Kids seem to want to emulate them because of their prowess in sports, yet once they stoop to their level, they can become hostile towards them and these athletes lose their star status in their eyes.

“There’s a target on your back because a lot of people don’t like athletes, surprisingly; they feel that we all love the attention, and if you make one mistake, everybody is going to know and try to fire you up for it,” senior and Oklahoma State University pitcher commit Jensen Elliott said.

There are pressures to be social, which could involve making poor and illegal choices.

“I don’t drink, I have never done drugs and I try to keep my distance from that,” Pickrell said. “When I go out in public, and if someone saw me doing something like that, they would think differently of me, and I don’t want like a freshman or anyone saying ‘Oh yeah she’s great at what she does but she’s just like every other athlete that plays high school sports but goes out and drinks’.”

“I can’t be going out and messing around like that.”

Pickrell and Elliott are not alone in their stance; many athletes rise above the rest and are role models for others.

There are multiple reasons why these kids choose to not partake in these extracurricular activities. Pickrell has dreams of playing overseas and then playing in the 2024 Olympics. Elliott attempts to emulate his brother, University of Oklahoma pitcher and 2012 Coppell graduate Jake Elliott, as a strong Christian and baseball player.

Athletes are under more scrutiny for people who attack them because of their skill. Either they struggle and fans expect more from them or people think they are not as good as what they are described to be.

“Pressure definitely comes from all different angles,” Pickrel said. “Pressure from the coaches because they see me everyday and know what I am capable of and then pressure from fans as well because I’ve been successful with volleyball for a long time. So if I don’t play well, I can get heat from many ways, saying that I am boosted as a player when I’m not.”

Once this happens, athletes know that they will be called out for a poor performance.

“If I don’t succeed or have a bad game people are going to remember that and use it to try to bring me down if they don’t like me,” Elliott said.

Athletes attest to feeling the pain and sting from these negative comments. Professionals catch flack but can be judged because they are paid to play; high school students are not.

“It definitely gets tough at times,” Pickrell said. “There are days where I just think about it all and feel down on myself because it makes me upset that people try and make fun of me for being successful at something. [Volleyball] is something I enjoy, why would people make fun of that?”

However, for just as much as they can take the abuse and judgment, athletes are adept at defending themselves and being having to deal with critics all the way back in high school, they have time to work on it.

“If there comes a time that people try to rip on me, I can look at them and say ‘Look, stop don’t make me lay out everything I have been able to do because of [volleyball],” Pickrell said. “The success that I had is not something I just wear a sign around with all my accomplishments on it. I am not going to flat out tell you how great I am.”

Athletes either directly confront their so-called “haters” or they can take a different approach altogether.

“I just ignore them; it gives me motivation to get better,” Elliott said.

In today’s rise of social media, high school athletes are able to connect with more and more fans and are more accessible to coaches, fans and the media.

“People know who you are and know your story better than other students,” Elliott said.

Athletes are prevalent everywhere on social media. Once fans of a school learn about a possible recruit, the athlete becomes flooded with new followers and people waiting for their decision. This popularity, while flattering, sets dangerous precedents.

“Be careful with all the social media. Kids get in trouble with that,” McBride said.

Not only do athletes have to walk the straight and narrow at school, they have to do it online as well in fear of something unfavorable being posted about them.

“When [Solomon] had decided to pursue college football, we showed him stories of players who had gone kind of wrong on social media,” Thomas said. “That was huge. Keeping his circle small and to reminding him that his decision to play college ball were business decisions and not emotional decisions.”

Differentiating between business and emotional decisions for Solomon meant that his parents wanted to make sure he understood that wherever he went, he would be “paid” to play there; in other words, he was paid by scholarship to play football there.

Another facet of being touted as a high school star athlete is the recruiting process. Many with aspirations to go pro in a sport dream of going to a Division I school on a scholarship. Yet, they sometimes can be in danger of losing all eligibility because of being taken advantage of from coaches or other people that try to exploit them.

“The whole recruiting process has become socialize now and blown up on the media. It’s easy for a kid to become a diva,” McBride said. “You have been blessed to have these opportunities; you don’t need to be arrogant about it.”

One of the most important ways to bypass this is to follow the NCAA Recruiting Rules, and more importantly, to have a support system of family and friends that keep them out of trouble.

“People knew we were pretty straight-cut and a friend of ours had worked previously in the NCAA, and he told us that we need to read the recruiting policies for football, so I copied them and had them out all the time,” Thomas said. “I knew if something wasn’t right so I would say. ‘Hey, we’re uncomfortable with that.’ We had problems a little bit but not that much.”

Outside of family, athletes rely on their coaches or mentors as well. These individuals come with experience and usually have the best interest of the athletes at heart when dealing with problems.

“I’m kind of like an agent,” McBride said. “I coach him up on how to act and protect him from the Internet and media stuff. The second thing I do is to make sure the coaches are being honest with what their expectations are and I want them to lay out exactly what they have for my athletes.”

Coppell head soccer coach Chad Rakestraw has brought the soccer program into the forefront of being one of the premier teams in the area. Back-to-back state finals appearances with a title in 2013, Rakestraw is known for his leadership policies that he attempts to instill in his players that foster a family environment that brings the team together.

“We talk a lot about our kids’ character and who we are off the field, in the classroom and in the community,” Rakestraw said. “To keep the guys grounded it starts with them understanding that it is a privilege and honestly a gift to be able to play for a program and part of a team.

“We really talk about leadership and try to serve the whole group, to serve others in that group and in your school. When you serve others and are putting others before yourself it causes you to be thankful for where you are at and what you are able to be a part of. That’s where it starts.”

High school athletes go under a lot more pressure than just what appears on the outside or what is shown on the field, court, rink or any other place they play. From possible recruiting violations to a video leaked to Twitter of someone drinking at a party, athletes are raised on a pedestal in the public eye.

“There’s actually a girl that I waved to once and she started to cry,” Pickrell said. “We were at a tournament in Frisco and she was watching us play. She kept saying ‘Kylie, Kylie!’ and I turned and waved and said ‘Oh hi’ and someone tweeted picture of her crying to me.”

While these athletes deserve respect and admiration for their skill and perseverance, it is difficult to understand that these are still young kids who are still learning to navigate being a high profile athlete. Elevating kids to superstar status can be detrimental to their development. Some can overcome, while some succomb to these pressures to do it all.

“Pride is always followed by the fall,” McBride said. “That’s in Proverbs in the Bible and that will be your downfall.”