5 questions with Robert Zayas, New York State Public High School Athletic Association

State Wresting Championships 2013 II

Robert Zayas (left) at New York State Wrestling Championships 2013

We are delighted to have Robert Zayas, Executive Director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA), join us today for our “Five Questions with CJSM”  feature.

I met Robert at an inaugural meeting of the National Youth Council on Sports Safety (NCYSS) in Washington, D.C. last November, and I have been after him ever since to sit down with us to share his unique perspective on American youth sports.  He’s a busy man, as you’ll see, and so we’re all fortunate to have him join us.

With a clinical practice in pediatric sports medicine, youth sports are never far from my mind.  In D.C. Robert and I had a chat about some of the challenges facing the kids and adults involved in contemporary youth sports:  early sport specialization (the focus of an earlier blog post); the rise of youth league sports in parallel with interscholastic sports; the unique pressures the American athletic scholarship phenomenon places on young athletes; the evidence that participation rates are declining in landmark sports like football and soccer……it’s a world in flux, with lots of questions.

And so it’s great to have people like Robert Zayas involved in guiding the ship through these changing seas.

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1) CJSM: Congratulations! You have recently been named to the National Council on Youth Sports Safety.  Can you tell us a little bit about the goals of the council, and what you hope to contribute to the process?

RZ: Thank  you; it is truly an honor to serve as a member of the National Council on Youth Sports Safety.

In its first year, the NCYSS will meet quarterly to review existing research, explore alternative solutions, and develop a strategic plan for the implementation of a national set of guidelines on youth sports safety. The second year will include a best practices tour where the public will be provided with opportunities to learn about scientific and technological advancements, effective coaching and training techniques, and contribute feedback on methods that have led to a decline in injury in their respective communities.

I hope to represent the high school sports view-point on the council.  Most importantly, I hope to ensure interscholastic, education based sports are seen as an extension of the classroom and the impact concussions are having on the “student” in all areas of education.

2) CJSM: You are the Executive Director of the NYSPHSAA.  Can you tell us a bit about your background and what you see as the mission of the association?

RZ: My background in education and athletics spans a very short period of time when compared to other Executive Directors throughout the country.  Most often, my colleagues throughout the country have had the opportunity to work in the school setting for an extended period of time before moving into the role of Executive Director.  I took a bit of a different path; after teaching and coaching in Central Texas for three years, I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico to attend graduate school and happened to apply for a position at the New Mexico Activities Association as a communications coordinator.  Over a period of nearly 10 years I worked my way up in the organization to Associate Director which gave me the skills and knowledge to apply for the position of Executive Director in New York.  My current position is very much a dream job and one that I absolutely enjoy.

I see the mission of our association being pretty simple–to highlight and promote kids!  If we keep that as our focus each and every day, I really think interscholastic athletics will continue to flourish in New York.  Secondary objectives obviously revolve around ensuring all schools abide by the established rules and regulations voted on and approved by the membership and organizing and running first class state championship events for the membership.

3) CJSM:  We’ve talked before about the rise of club sports in the pediatric and adolescent population.  When you and I were growing up, we may have had only little league baseball or Pop Warner football as sporting options that were not directly connected to the schools we attended.  Youth in American now have multiple options:  travel teams, sports academies, etc.  What do you see as the potential benefits of this movement?  What do you see as the potential risks?

RZ: I continue to hear from parents that their son or daughter is going to play at the “next level.”  I recently heard from a father that his daughter’s club coach thinks she has potential to play collegiate soccer because of her leadership skills, work ethic and talent; she is going to be ten years old this summer.  I no longer fear that some have lost perspective on why kids participate in sports; it is now a sad reality that so many perceive the purpose of participation as being a direct path to college scholarships and even professional careers.  Specialization is very much changing the way kids play sports.  Parents are being convinced by coaches that it is almost required to specialize today and in some ways that is becoming the case.  I believe that 15-20 years ago kids specialized to gain a better chance of getting a college scholarship; today it seems kids are specializing to give themselves a better opportunity to make their high school team.  If the majority of the kids on a basketball team play year round, it becomes more difficult for other kids to compete for a spot on the team if they are only playing a portion of the year.

I do not see many benefits to the movement of specialization, but I understand it.  Parents want what is best for their kids; I am guilty of the same thoughts of “athletic” success for my daughters and I deal with the negative results of specialization daily.  My daughters by the way are 3 and 6 years old.  About a year ago, my oldest daughter finally swam the entire length of a 25 meter pool without grabbing onto the side of the pool.  That evening, without even really considering my words, I asked my wife if we should consider getting our daughter onto a club team since she is doing so well.

The potential risks are obvious for me, but do not appear to be obvious for parents who are less informed.  The risks range from overuse injuries to completely abandoning the sport.  Kids are burning out at younger ages today from year round participation.  At times, the sport they started playing because it was fun, becomes a job filled with practice requirements, lessons and games.  The costs parents pay for coaching, lessons and travel seems to be increasing as teams are playing in bigger tournaments, further away from home.

My greatest fear is that kids are not going to be able to experience sport as I did.  I got the opportunity to play nearly every sport growing up and finally settled on track and cross-country as a senior in high school; I ultimately ran at a small Division II college in East Texas.  I am thankful however that my parents never pushed me toward one particular sport.  I was never very good in baseball, but I never recall either of my parents swaying me towards running even though I couldn’t hit and struggled in the field!  I played baseball up until my Junior year in high school when I made the choice to focus on running.

4) CJSM:  If you had to compose a 140 character tweet about the favorite part of your job as NYSPHSAA Executive Director, what would it say?

RZ:  Having oppt 2 highlight & promote great kids who participate n HS athletics n NY. Enjoy impacting change 2 benefit kids! #NYSPHSAA

(CJSM: Robert, that’s pretty good.  I don’t know if you are the person behind the @NYSPHSAA twitter handle, but you sure could fill in any day of the week).

5) CJSM: In your opinion, what is the best thing a high school sports program can do to improve the safety of its student in athletes in 2014?

RZ:  In my opinion, high school sports programs need to ensure their coaching staff is well-trained and educated in the best practices of today.  Constantly providing professional development opportunities to coaches can be an effective way to ensure they understand and have knowledge of the most up-to-date programs being designed to benefit kids.  Probably the most important thing a sports program can do is to ensure the athletes are honest with their coaches, trainers, teammates and parents when it comes to concussions.  If kids are honest when they feel dizzy or experience other symptoms after taking a hit then they can receive assistance and care.  It becomes detrimental when kids ignore the simple signs of injury and attempt to play through it; this is where serious injury and even death can take place.

Robert J. Zayas

NYSPHSAA Executive Director

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Thanks for your time Robert, we hope to catch up with you at future conferences.  We’re hoping you’ll report back to us when you begin the NCYSS tour!

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About sportingjim
I work at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio USA, where I am a specialist in pediatric sports medicine. My academic appointment as an Associate Professor of Pediatrics is through Ohio State University. I am a public health advocate for kids' health and safety. I am also the Emerging Media Editor for the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.

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