A GateHouse regional story examines youth sports that run year-round and how parents balance athletic excellence and burnout.
It's no secret that being an athlete these days is like a full-time job.
Club and travel teams have invaded the youth and high school sports scene. As soon as athletes finish up one season, it's on to the next with little break in between. Even after the school year is done, high schoolers and youth alike have replaced downtime at home with time in the weight room, on the diamond or on basketball and volleyball courts.
Look no further than Augusta for the perfect example of this. By the time school lets out, youth baseball and softball already have been well underway, as are seasons for the Butler County Cubs and several other area traveling baseball and softball teams. Augusta High School volleyball coach Rich Bishop has tried to start club volleyball teams. There are football and basketball camps to attend, tournaments on the weekends and good old-fashioned practices throughout the week.
This level of activity is becoming a necessity for teams that want to be competitive at the high school level.
"There is no question that offseason programs have become an integral part of high school athletics," AHS athletic director Doug Law said. "Our athletes can't just step on the field in August or the court in November and be ready to play. They must be in proper physical condition and have refined their playing skills to a level that allows them to compete.
"The required level of an individual's physical condition and playing skill increases with age," he added. "Athletes are going to need to work in the offseason, and especially the summer months, in order to be prepared."
The cost of all these activities certainly hasn't escaped the attentions of these athletes' parents. Lyndsay and Matt Pascal have two sons, Isaiah and Trevon, who are active in Augusta youth sports. Isaiah, who is a big fan of basketball, plays in the youth league during the fall and winter. He then gets about a week off before he plays for a YMCA team for the hand-picked Augusta Raptors. Right after that, baseball starts. Then back to basketball during the summer while throwing in three camps—one at AHS, an all-day camp at Wichita State and a Butler County camp. Lyndsay said she's thankful Isaiah only has about three one- to two-hour practices a week so they still can have family evenings, which are always important.
Camps add up to $350. It costs anywhere from $250 to $400 to play on all these teams and leagues. Uniforms add up to another $200. Pictures are $40. Shoes are $125 (Isaiah likes the new Kevin Durant's). Grand total is near $1,000 per year. Just for one kid. And he doesn't even deal with the expensive traveling teams.
Dawn Clausing is another example. She has four boys who went through Augusta programs. Two of them are done with high school and have moved on. Jonny will be an 8th grader next year. He plays football, basketball and track during the school year and is on a traveling baseball team (about seven tournaments per summer) and plays MAYB (four to five tournaments) during the summer. Justin, a 6th grader who hasn't even started school sports yet, plays little league football and is on a traveling basketball team that plays at the YMCA in Wichita, and he also plays for a traveling baseball team (at least eight tournaments).
While this can seem overwhelming, what Pascal and Clausing both understand as mothers is how important it is for their kids to have the desire to participate and compete instead of being forced to play.
"Isaiah goes to school with some boys whose parents make them play on all these other teams," Pascal said. "We have never forced Isaiah to play anything. I think that is awful and that's how you burn out a kid. When it's their choice, it's a little different!"
That term—burnout—is becoming more and more of an issue among parents and coaches.
"There should be some concern. This goes back to a balance in life and ensuring on some level the athletes are able to be kids and have fun," said AHS football coach Roger Robben. "It is okay and appropriate for parents to want to challenge and push their kids to be involved in as much as possible. However, the focus has to be on how motivated the athlete is to play the sports they participate."
Motivation is the key. Some athletes can't be kept away from the fields or gym because they have that desire to compete. And while regulating how much an athlete plays is a factor, coaches see the benefit of competing even at younger ages.
AHS wrestling head coach Brandon Terry knows this firsthand. Terry said that, while he feels kids can be pushed too far, it can be more important for some kids to get a head start to become a tougher athlete and to better understand the sport. He added that the parents need to take charge and balance how much time their kids put into athletics.
Terry feels that athletes also become more motivated as a student. Earning academic All-State honors is a big deal to Terry as it is to a lot of coaches. Whether it's because athletes have coaches checking on their grades or athletes simply developing a stronger work ethic, playing sports year round can spill over into the classroom, and research is starting to back this up. Statistics produced via large-scale surveys last year, such as at a 35,000-student Los Angeles district, revealed that athletes had an average GPA of anywhere from .55 to .74 points higher than non-athletes, as reported by the Los Angeles Times in 2012.
Where a big part of the imbalance comes into play is with an athlete's specialization of one particular sport. Sometimes an athlete will choose just to pitch for a baseball team or swing tennis racquets or golf clubs all year. Focusing on getting good in a singular phase of a game to be the most successful is becoming a common notion.
Coaches resoundingly disagree with that.
Matt Ingrim, the strength and conditioning coach and assistant track coach at AHS, said he sees multi-sport athletes develop a wider range of skills and interests, which helps keep athletes motivated.
"It seems burnout is a little more prevalent with those types of kids," Ingrim said of athletes who specialize in one sport.
While playing a singular sport year round can be key in perfecting a specific craft, that won't necessarily benefit an athlete who wants to make it to the collegiate level. Ingrim used to recruit for small colleges, and he knows what recruiters look for.
"Why wouldn't you want to recruit a kid that has a variety of skill sets?" Ingrim said. "As a recruiter, if you found out a wide receiver was a standout hurdler, that's exciting. Why wouldn't you want a kid that can do multiple things?"
"The fact that athletes are being pressured by summer coaches who do not care about the total athlete, but more about the sport they coach and exposing them to be recruited for college, is a major part of the problem," Robben said. "These coaches influence the parents and athletes to believe [that] focusing on one sport is better so they will be better at that one sport and someday earn a big-time scholarship."
Crossover skills between sports are very common. AHS basketball head coach and assistant baseball coach David Stephenson said he knows the value of having on his team a cross country runner, who is in good shape, or a football player, who can bring toughness and physicality to the court.
"It's kind of funny to watch kids who are a star in one sport be a role player in another sport. They get to learn all the different roles, and it just makes them a better person," Stephenson said.
He added that those are the types of traits recruiters look for.
"Every single one of them wants a multi-sport athlete. That's just a resounding thing I get from [college] coaches. It just shows you're more versatile and all that stuff," Stephenson said.
He is well aware of the perils of overuse injuries for athletes who specialize, particularly for young pitchers, who can develop shoulder problems from learning different types of pitches so early.
"Some of it's just not healthy, especially in baseball. Your arm wasn't meant to do that at that age," Stephenson said.
Other common types of overuse injuries involve catchers or volleyball players who can develop shin splints.
Published research conducted by Darren L. Johnson, MD, orthopedic surgeon and director of sports medicine at the University of Kentucky, states that younger-aged kids who specialize in one sport are more susceptible to injuries because only certain muscle groups are getting stronger, as opposed to a multi-sport athlete who is more versed to a variety of physical activities.
When athletes sustain a concussion or break a wrist, they have suffered an acute injury, usually resulting from a singular event such as a hit or fall. But an overuse injury develops slowly over time due to repetitive stress on tendons, muscles, bones or joints with inadequate amounts of rest.
While the threat of injuries may be a deterrent to playing sports year round, Law pointed out that balance is the key. He said training and preparation can actually do more to prevent injuries.
"There are any number of ways a young person can find to get injured," Law said. "While playing sports might create some level of exposure, I believe that the training and conditioning that goes into preparing our athletes helps to limit that exposure. There is, I think, a greater chance of a repetitive or overuse injury created by sport specialization."
For parents, understanding how to balance their kids' time and activities, learning how to monitor their physical and mental health, as well as accommodating travel time and expenses can be a full-time job in and of itself. There are a lot of factors to consider when allowing their kids to play sports year round, but it can be done right.
And for parents, getting to watch their kids play can be motivation enough.