By Jay Mathews

The Washington Post

My recent column on extracurricular activities crowding out time for schoolwork got a strong reaction from readers. The pressure of too much to do is central to our national debate over high school. But many comments came from an unexpected source -- parents and teachers who think that kids can handle it and that adults should butt out.

There is a time-crunch, they said, but students can learn how to balance competing demands. Extracurricular activities "teach students time management, the ability to multi-task and that there is more to themselves than just academics alone," said Alexis Conley, whose daughter will soon attend Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va.

"We left it up to the kids, and they got involved in things that interested them ... I would say encourage the kids to choose and focus, since it is their time and their lives," said Tom Martella, a Washington resident with two children.

Pablo Collins, of Kensington, Md., has three children who did sports and the International Baccalaureate program at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, in Bethesda, Md. "Kids are different, with different abilities and motivated by different things," he said. "Their sports regimen forced them to allocate their time accordingly, which probably helped their grades."

The contrarian argument that multiple pressures can be good for you reminded me of the biggest surprise I ever had in high school -- the cross-country coach refused to let me quit his team. His name was Connie Smith, something of a legend at that time. He arrived my junior year and recruited with such passion that the team tripled in size and began to set national records.

I was a so-so member of the tennis team who had signed up just for some exercise in the fall. I wasn't prepared to race several miles every day. I had homework. I told the coach I was quitting. Nope, he said. You have made a commitment and you are going to carry it out. I was a faculty pet unaccustomed to anyone saying no to me. I was deeply miffed.

Twenty years later, I saw Los Angeles calculus teacher Jaime Escalante use the same technique to entrap students in difficult math courses. Unable to escape, they eventually realized they could handle the material if they set their minds to it.

So I kept running cross-country. I got in better shape. My grades did not suffer. I discovered something that former teacher and coach Gary Ripple explained to me in his reaction to my column. "My players actually got better grades during their sport season because they had an effective complement to their studies and were on a tighter schedule with less idle time during the day."

Conley, the Arlington parent, said today's extracurriculars seem no more taxing than in her day. "I was a competitive swimmer in the mid-1980s and had 25 hours of practice a week," she said. "I ... had little time to be distracted by the myriad of distractions that are out there for teenagers."

Martella advised his children to pick one team sport, so they could learn about working in a group, and one individual sport they could pursue by themselves forever. One chose volleyball and snowboarding, the other baseball and skiing. Collins said two of his kids put a lot of time into crew, but it was their choice. "If the kids can handle it, parents should stop complaining," he said. "If kids can't handle it, cut back."

I could handle cross-country, but only that one season. The next fall I focused on student government and found myself back in a regular physical education class. I never got A's in P.E., but there was a cross-country unit culminating with a two-mile run. Astonishingly, I won, a big moment for a nerd like me. I later thanked Coach Smith. He taught me the rewards of pressure.