Middle school players from Spaulding and Mount Abraham compete during a Mini-Metro basketball game in Barre.

CVU Athletic Director Dan Shepardson recently played a key role in relaxing Vermont’s out-of-season coaching policy, letting coaches work simultaneously at the varsity and youth levels.

Shepardson is one of two ADs on the Vermont Principals’ Association’s Activity Standards Committee, which approved recommendations that a school’s coach may coach at any level during that sports season, but not during the other two seasons in the school year.

Out-of-season practice is still not permitted under the direction of that individual, preventing coaches from working with their high school team year-round. Only paid coaches are affected by the policy and all restrictions are rescinded from the last day of school to 10 days before the start of the fall season.

A Mini-Metro basketball coach helped spark the latest change by requesting a definitive answer about working with two teams in one season last winter. VPA Associate Executive Director Bob Johnson was surprised when members of the Activity Standards Committee and Vermont State Athletic Director Association supported a move to allow the multi-level coaching.

Shepardson is optimistic that the impacts will be mostly positive, especially in smaller towns with a lack of experienced coaches. But he also wants to let things play out and then address the issue again if major problems arise.

The longtime basketball referee knows a thing or two about Vermont sports after coaching soccer for seven years at Northfield and four years at Norwich University. He spent 10 years coaching at CVU, where he’s beginning his fifth year as AD.

While Shepardson is a big believer in developing athletic skills 12 months of the year, he cautions against specialization if it detracts from other important things. And he’s wary of potential recruitment issues where student-athletes feel pressured to play a sport year-round because of out-of-season coaching.

Shepardson took a break from the preseason grind to discuss the state of athletics in Vermont. As a spoiler, he has bad news for Vermont natives betting the farm on a future in professional sports.

TA: Why was there this change for coaches in-season to also coach Mini Metro or Pee Wee hockey?

Shepardson: “There was a coach last year that wanted to coach Mini Metro during the basketball season. Now Mini Metro starts in October, and the winter season doesn’t start for basketball this year until Dec. 2. So you can’t coach Mini Metro or anything else until the winter season begins, if it’s a winter sport. But Bob Johnson’s feeling last year was that there was a high school varsity coach that wanted to coach a youth team during the basketball season, and Bob said that’s out-of-season coaching. And we all said, ‘No it’s not. It’s in-season.’ I can’t imagine many varsity coaches wanting to coach in addition to what they’ve got going on already. Having the time or the energy — whether it’s Mini Metro, or fifth- and sixth-grade or some Rec. Sport. But if they want to, why should we tell them they can’t? In the fall, if one of my coaches here wanted to coach a Rec. soccer program, they can now do that. You can coach anybody, at any age, any level, during that season. So in the fall a soccer coach can coach any person at any age, whether it’s school-related or town-related or community-related. And it doesn’t matter what gender, it doesn’t matter what age, they’re legal to do that.

TA: Was some of this designed to help small schools?

Shepardson: “Yes. If you’ve got a K-12 school, maybe they need that high school coach to coach the junior high team because they really can’t find anybody else. So it’s either have a high school coach coach, or put a parent in charge who knows absolutely nothing about the sport. Or potentially not have the program. Now you can have a high school basketball coach able to coach his or her seventh- and eighth-grade basketball team. In the past they couldn’t have coached it because they had eighth-graders involved. But now, during the season, you can do that. With Mini Metro, they won’t be able to start in October and do tryouts and all that stuff. They can start coaching come Dec. 2 this year. Hockey is the same thing. They can’t coach in the fall, and Nov. 20 is when hockey can start this year. Once Nov. 20 rolls around, then a high school coach could coach a Bantam team or a youth team. But not until the season — as defined by the VPA — starts. And then when the season — as defined by the VPA — ends, that’s when their involvement with the youth program or whatever they’re doing also has to end. For basketball, they can do AAU during the winter. But whenever basketball season ends, around March 15, then they’re done with AAU because otherwise they’ll be coaching out of season.

TA: Either for Activities Standards or for VSADA, when this was presented, were there some reservations or concerns about the new policy change?

Shepardson: “Absolutely. Even though I’m the one who made the recommendations to go to this, I’m not certain it’s the way to go because of unintended consequences. I’ve done a lot of rules for basketball, and you have an intention for putting that rule in place. And you try to think through all the things that could potentially occur as a result of that rule change. But many years of experience has taught me that there are unintended consequences as a result of that rule change.”

TA: With this specific instance, do you mind mentioning one or two of the potential negative consequences that have been raised to you?

Shepardson: “The concern that most ADs feel is specialization: That by allowing a high school coach to coach out of season, there’s way too much pressure on a kid to play that out-of-season sport and to specialize in that sport. Pick a sport that has a successful program. Around here you can pick our girls basketball program, or St. J’s basketball program. What if Ute Otley or Jack Driscoll were there wanting girls to play basketball in the fall, and wanting girls to play basketball in the spring? They already play all summer. So there’s a lot of undo pressure. It’s not coming from Ute, per se, because I trust that she wouldn’t do that. But it’s just the mere presence of her in that program. And now you’ve got a choice: Are you going to play basketball in September and October, and in March, April and June? Or are you going to play soccer or cross-country or field hockey or track? Pretty every single AD knows how many parents encourage specialization, and we all know how bad it is for kids. There’s no research to support specialization of any kind. The vast majority of Division I athletes were all multiple-sport athletes in high school. Specialization is just bad. It’s overuse injuries, it’s burnout — there’s all kinds of negatives. And my son did it, so I’m walking the talk here.”

TA: Was your son Todd a year-round soccer guy?

Shepardson: “He was also playing basketball up through sophomore year in high school. He did soccer in the fall, he did basketball in the winter, and then springtime was club (soccer) and ODP. And then his sophomore year in high school he was going to be one of two kids that were going to swing between JV and varsity, which would have helped him, and he blew out an ankle against U-32 in a basketball scrimmage. It was one of those high-ankle sprains that are painful and slow-healing. And he decided that he was going to give up basketball and play soccer indoors. And I tried to tell Todd, ‘It’s an absolute waste of your time. If you were down in Hartford (Connecticut) or Boston, with some really good players to play against that could help you improve, that would be one thing.’ But I told him, ‘You’re going to go to this indoor soccer in the winter and you’re going to be one of the best players there. You’re not going to get any better.’ In soccer he was an offensive force. In basketball he couldn’t shoot a lick, but he was an athlete and he could play defense. So he used to guard the other team’s best guard. And I said, ‘If you would just play basketball, and learn to be the best guy on the floor defensively. Your job is to shut down the other team’s best shooting guard. And then you bring that defensive mentality to the soccer field, you improve yourself tremendously.’ But he played soccer year-round, to his detriment in my opinion. But hindsight is 20-20.”

TA: And are there some pay-to-play concerns with Vermont coaches?

Shepardson: “Absolutely, we get that all the time here. And I’ve told parents this for years back when I was coaching here. Not so much in the smaller towns like Northfield, because there tend not to be as much club stuff in the smaller towns in Vermont. But I used to tell people: ‘I’m not going to tell you your son has to play soccer year-round to make my team. I’m just telling you that 90% of the players who make my team play year-round.’ And there is certainly a financial implication to that. One kid I used as a posterboy was this kid Doug Pierson, who’s now a special educator in Shelburne. Dougie basically played year-round baseball. The only time he played soccer was in the soccer season. And he made the varsity here at CVU as a sophomore. But by his senior year he was losing out playing time to some sophomores who were playing year-round. He made the team because he’s a tremendous athlete: He’s big, strong, fast and athletic. But where things broke down a little bit was the tactical side of things, because he just didn’t play as much. So his decision-making wasn’t quite as good, he wasn’t as familiar with what guys were doing. He still made the varsity for three years and didn’t play year-round. But he’s certainly the exception, not the rule, when it comes to our program here with 1,300 kids and a ton of kids playing. So it’s the idea about equity and the ability to play on these travel teams and come up with $3,000 or $5,000. It’s 100% true.”

TA: Do you feel like the introduction of club teams has really boosted the level of competition in Vermont the last 10 or 20 years?

Shepardson: “Yes and no. I think that the average soccer player in Vermont, both male and female, is much better than the average soccer player was 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. But the top-end player is no better. The best kid coming out of Vermont now, most years, can’t play Division I. And you don’t see anybody going to the ACC or going to the Big East — stuff like that. The U12 kids are doing stuff now that U16 players couldn’t have done 20 years ago. But that top-end player, we’re not producing anybody that’s going to go on and be an impact player in D-I. I don’t know why. I don’t know if there’s enough competition — I don’t know what it is. And when I talked to the parents at our (preseason) meeting, I tell them, ‘None of these kids are going to play professionally.’ I said, ‘You can start throwing statistics at me, but the one player in my opinion who’s a Vermont guy who ever played professionally is John LeClair. Other that, name me a true Vermonter 3 not somebody who just went to school in Vermont — who’s played professionally and made it?

”So when you can name them on one hand, that tells you that it’s not our goal. We can’t be banking on trying to turn kids into Division I scholarship athletes. It’s just not going to happen. Most kids in Vermont can’t play Division III. If they go out and honestly look at the Division III caliber of whatever the sport is, the average Vermont kid would struggle to play Division III college. The things we do turn out that doesn’t get a lot of notoriety are cross-country (running). We’ve had some boys and girls coming through our program that have gone D-I to some big school. And your skiers, obviously, can go on to the national and elite level. But the popular team sports, you just don’t see it in soccer, field hockey, basketball, football, baseball. D-III is about as good as they can hope for. But most parents or kids don’t want to hear that.”

TA: In other states like California and Florida, a lot of the high-end athletes don’t even play for their high school. Is that a trend where if you’re in the elite group, you play for your club in whatever sport it is? And maybe you don’t even care about playing for your high school?

Shepardson: “So there’s two aspects to that. In a lot of places in the country, soccer is played in the spring. And I think if soccer moved to the spring here, there would be decisions. We already saw it when some of the kids who opted to play for Synergy versus playing for CVU. If the kids asked me, I was trying to tell them, ‘Why would you ever consider not playing for CVU when you know you’re going to be playing with good kids against great competition.’ You know you’ve got a chance to win a state championship every year. You know you have an opportunity to go on and play in college. And you’re going to have hundreds of fans, if not thousands, at a game. So you’re going to go play club soccer in the fall when most kids your age aren’t playing club soccer. So the only way they can get any sort of a practice together is to have 12 14- to 16-year-olds all together. So you’re playing against these little kids. And you go to these showcases. Do you think there’s going to be college coaches there? What do you think the college coaches are doing in the fall? They’re coaching their college team. So they’re not getting seen by anybody. It’s a complete waste, in my opinion, of four years of high school, which can be the best years of your life.

”Springtime, however, for soccer in Vermont and New England, that’s where you get seen and you get known. You do play better competition. Whether it’s Nordic or Far Post or whatever, you get out of the state and you get out of the ‘big fish, small pond’ mentality. You get out into Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts and you get beat up a little bit because the kids are a lot better. And it opens your eyes that, ‘Oh, maybe I’m not quite as good as I thought I was.’ And every Division I college coach in the country is at these ODP camps. You spend one year in ODP and you’re seen by more people than you’re ever going to see in four years of club soccer. So to give up high school to play club, in my opinion, is crazy. And there are absolutely places in the country where club sports are killing high school sports.”

TA: One think that’s popping up in hockey is a couple of these club teams are telling their players that they can’t play high school hockey.

Shepardson: “As I said, anything that’s getting kids to play year-round is not healthy for anything: for the development of the kid, for their health and well-being. It doesn’t generate better players. Obviously you have to play. If you’re a saxophone player, and you play saxophone year-round versus saxophone for two months of the year, who’s going to be better? It’s not rocket science here. But there is a balance between playing too much and doing other things in your life. Because unless you’re that exceptional person, you’re probably not going to be that professional saxophone player either. So to dedicate your entire life to music, it does a lot of good things for you academically and all this other stuff. But if you’re going to sacrifice everything else to play the saxophone, I don’t think that would be healthy either.”

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