Homeschoolers are sometimes portrayed as sports misfits. Despite Tim Tebow’s success in college and professional football, the popular myth is that homeschoolers may not have the physical prowess or social skills to successfully play team sports. Upon winning the coveted Heisman Trophy, Tebow was quoted by columnist Izzy Lyman as saying, “That’s really cool. A lot of times people have this stereotype of homeschoolers as not very athletic—it’s like, go win a spelling bee or something like that—it’s an honor for me to be the first one to do that.”
Tebow benefited from a Florida law allowing homeschooled students to play high school sports. That is a not a possibility for Virginia homeschoolers, whose participation is prohibited by the Virginia High School League, which makes the rules for public high school varsity sports in the Commonwealth. While VaHomeschoolers has worked to improve this situation, for now, we must choose either an alternative to playing high school sports or an alternative to homeschooling, such as
- Exploring alternative recreational or competitive opportunities in our community – commonly not available in rural areas for kids over 12
- Establishing a homeschool sports team at the appropriate level in our community – if there are enough potential homeschooling players (not in our town)
- Contacting local private schools to see if they allow homeschoolers on their teams – (our town does not have a private school with middle school or high school sports)
- Enrolling in local AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) sports teams – (not available here)
- Abandoning homeschooling and enrolling full time in public or private school in order to be eligible to try out for the school team
At this point, our youngest son is middle school age, and we live in a less populated area where his participation in soccer, his sport of choice, topped out over the last several years with a very good all-star recreational team that plays recreational tournaments. Most of the kids in our community who are good enough begin focusing more on school sports at this age, and it becomes harder and harder to get enough same-age kids together for a competitive community team. It’s theoretically possible he could have played for the local public middle school team, where permission to play may be made by the school division or delegated to a school principal. However, he was reluctant to play for a school team when he wasn’t a student at the school. In a small community, this would have been notoriety he was not interested in, especially knowing that in the current environment, he would not have been welcome to move up with his teammates to try out for the high school team when the time came. While the school coaches had actually coached Nick in recreational and all-star soccer and expressed interest in him for the middle school team, we didn’t pursue it, so we don’t know whether he might have been allowed to play by school officials.
We made the decision to allow Nick to try out for a competitive soccer team in another community. His strong left foot, a sought-after attribute in soccer at his level, no doubt contributed to his making a Richmond Kickers classic team. (Yes, he works on his right foot, and we know about the importance of ambidexterity!) He also benefited from dedicated coaches who taught him well. In fact, one of his rec coaches is a former university and professional player in Mexico, and he is one of the coaches of both the middle school and high school teams in our community. When then-12-year-old Nick saw the agility ladder on the ground at the try-out held at University of Richmond, he was well-prepared for the fancy footwork patterns, to be executed double-quick.
So since August, we’ve been commuting 90 miles for twice-a-week practices at Bryan Park in Richmond, as well as driving to Richmond and several hours east and south for games on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s been a sacrifice of time, but we do a lot of road-schooling with audio books, conversation, reading, and sketching, and it’s proven a great way for Nick to get one-on-one time with a captive, driving mom.
There have been many on-the-field positives about the experience. Nick is now playing with his own age-group, something that has rarely happened in our more rural community, where he often had to “play up” as a recreational team struggled to field enough players. In soccer, this is not always such a disadvantage as an 8- or 9-year-old, but when players are 12- to 15-year-olds guys on the field together, the older players have a significant testosterone-laced advantage in length of stride, which can prove discouraging even to a very strong player—who is still not quite his petite mother’s height. Playing on a U-13 team has inspired Nick’s confidence in himself because he is competitive physically in this age group.
The players are also serious about the sport. While Nick still has many other interests and, as a musical jock, is just as likely to pursue a serious commitment to guitar as soccer, he is a player who enjoys playing with others who are focused and working to improve. Players rarely miss practice, and most of them work out at home. He is well-placed in ability level, having to work hard and get better to keep up with the others on his team but able to beat them out on any given day. This suits his intense personality, giving him an outlet for his drive. As for a commitment to fitness and skill, rather than quitting the sport, Nick is also continuing to work out on his own. We do a lot of ball drills that I’m able to help him with due to my tenure as a youth soccer coach (not taken up until my third child!), and he runs outside and on the treadmill. He juggles in the front yard for hours, and he can now keep the ball up for hundreds of kicks in a row. He does light age-appropriate weight training at the gym or at home with his dad or me.
We also enjoy the continuation of good coaching and a high level of organization. If I’m driving an hour and a half to a practice, I’m glad to know the coach is reliable and prepared for a great practice.
The higher level of competition and play is not necessary for all players; recreational level community sports are often a better option for busy families whose kids want to run, have fun, and enjoy the snack after the game. Individual sports are also great choices homeschoolers can excel in–fencing, ice skating, horse back riding, gymnastics, swimming. And, of course, non-homeschoolers can move into school sports when they reach that level. But soccer is an especially good team sport for homeschool kids, because club soccer—not connected to school attendance at all—is often strongly respected by colleges, if you are in hopes of having a recruited player. We’re not really in it for that reason and Nick is not competing at that level (at least not yet–if ever), but we know many families with talented athletes are looking for that possibility.
I admit that I miss our hometown friends in our local soccer organization, which has built an amazing soccer field and still fields a winning tournament team with dedicated coaches and some talented kids. Lake Gaston Soccer Association gave me the opportunity to become a certified youth coach myself and provided us with many hours of soccer and many memorable games. It was a tough decision to play soccer out of town, but without school soccer to move toward, this has been a good decision to give our son multiple practices every single week and competitive games every single weekend. That said, we’re grateful for the hours of work that go into coaching kids and providing facilities here.
If you are a homeschooling parent who suspects your kid may have interest and ability to be a strong athlete interested in competition, I urge you to cultivate his or her interest and abilities in soccer in particular. Our experience is evidence that a homeschooled kid can have enough athletic skill to successfully play at the next level.
Of course, I recognize not all families in rural areas would be able to do this kind of commute to compensate for not being able to play school soccer, which is frequently the only game in town for older kids. (This surprises my friends in northern Virginia, Tidewater, and other more populated areas of the state, where recreational and competitive soccer are offered by community soccer organizations for all age groups). We’re fortunate that I have a flexible work schedule, and we have reliable transportation and the resources to make this happen. Nick is also the youngest kid–this would be much more challenging, if not impossible, for a family that is still in the midst of home educating many young children. And I hate to take our time and resources to another community, when our rural communities in Virginia benefit so much from volunteering and support. So, this is working well for us, but I don’t see it as a comprehensive solution for all families. Still, I’m grateful for the blessing.
While his level of participation, or his participation at all, is up to him from year to year, I admit it’s exciting to watch Nick use his strength and skill to create big plays for his team. Those of us who experienced the thrill, skill and bonding that comes with competitive team athletics, or wish we had, may indeed be able to provide a similar experience for our own children.
For more information about homeschoolers and sports, visit the VaHomeschoolers sports access page.
An earlier version of this article originally appeared in the print magazine VaHomeschoolers Voice. Selected articles from Voice appear online at the VaHomeschoolers website. To receive the comprehensive full-color print magazine in your mailbox regularly, join VaHomeschoolers.