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How much is too much?

Hours are long and the opportunities are plentiful if a child wants to play

Posted: August 1, 2009 9:31 p.m.
Updated: August 2, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Members of a William S. Hart All-Star team sit in the dugout on July 22 in a game against Kampgrounds of America Kangaroos of Australia at the Hart Complex. Children today play sports like baseball and soccer year-round.

 
As competition in youth and high school sports continues to reach higher levels, athletics have become year-round.

The question of, “How much is too much?” has become more and more common among coaches, parents and even players.

Obviously, there are positive aspects of athletes staying in a team environment year-round and maintaining physical fitness, but there are concerns too.

“One of the biggest things we forget beyond the physical problems there can potentially be, is the possibility of burnout,” says Adam Johnson, director of Santa Clarita Velocity Sports Performance, which has trained some of the most talented athletes in the area. “If you have been playing the same sport since you were in grade school, by the time you are a senior in high school you have the pressure of having to know so much about what to do.

“What school are you going to? What travel team are you playing with? Are you going to a junior college or a four-year university? With some of the athletes we train we have seen that they don’t have time to take time off because they are worried they’ll lose playing time or the coach will yell at them.”

As children grow into their travel or offseason commitments the concerns, exist, but many coaches are quick to point out the pluses, such as a greater familiarity with teammates and closer bonds among the players, who spend more time on the field.

“We have all heard horror stories about players getting hurt because they play too much between all the travel ball and high school,” says West Ranch head baseball coach Casey Burrill, whose Wildcats team just finished off a Valley Invitational League title. “Personally, my coaching staff and I love it. It gives us a chance to spend more time with the players and help them grow.”

Hart head coach Steve Calendo spent eight seasons coaching travel softball and had a pair of players in last year’s senior class that played on an American Softball Association 14-and-Under team that won a national championship before they put on a high school jersey.

“I think these leagues have a tremendous positive impact,” Calendo says. “Any player who wants to play softball at a collegiate level should play travel ball because it helps players get prepared for what is ahead. I look at it this way, if a player isn’t on a travel team she is missing out on the chance to play against the best competition out there for months. Players don’t improve at the same rate if they take that much time off.”

Recent Hart graduate Jessica Shults greatly benefitted from her time on travel teams in large part due to her ability to balance her on field responsibilities with the rest of her life.

Shults is now bound for Oklahoma, one of the best programs in the country.

“For a player like Jessica, travel ball was perfect,” Calendo says. “She knew how to take breaks. That’s the only thing that I really get concerned with. There are teams that play on Saturdays and Sundays during the high school season, which leaves the players no days off. Every kid needs time off to enjoy their youth so I always think it’s best for players to find teams that allow them to have lives too because before you know it your high school years are behind you.”

John McCarthy, a mixed martial arts referee, former assistant football coach at West Ranch High and owner of Big John McCarthy’s Ultimate Training Academy in Valencia, where people of all ages train, believes each growing athlete needs the freedom to stop when they want and to be allowed to set their own schedule.

“Some kids just want to play football,” McCarthy says. “They love it, and the more they play it the happier they are. It is when the kid is not wanting to go to practice, and the parents are saying, ‘No, you have to go.’ That’s when you really have to look at the situation.”

Burrill also sees a problem with how some of the travel ball tournaments are set up, especially at the high school level.

“I mean it isn’t hard to see that a lot of the teams play tournaments where they wind up playing five games in three days,” Burrill says. “You can only run so many pitchers out there. If you have a guy pitching in even the first game and the fifth game that isn’t much of a layoff. Still, I’d say the vast majority of coaches are very conscious of players’ health.”

Soccer has also seen an increase in year-round participation, especially at very young ages.

American Youth Soccer Organization now features 180 teams in Region 46, which is located in Saugus, and players start as young as the age of four.

“My daughter started a little older, which was alright, but she absolutely loves the program,” says Region 46 commissioner John Cox. “It isn’t like it’s a big change for kids to be playing at a young age. As long as I have been affiliated with youth sports kids have always started at the age of four. I mean, I started playing baseball when I was five, and that was decades ago.”

Over the summer, AYSO teams generally play between 10 to 12 games at varying levels of skill.

“We work hard to get a variety of levels for players with different abilities,” Cox says. “A major part of the AYSO is making sure it is a positive experience for the kids. More than anything it is about them having fun, and we would never push kids beyond their talents.”

The pressure for young athletes to perform is nothing new, but the amount of time and the fact that so many young athletes specialize in just one sport makes Johnson question whether athletes should diversify their skill sets instead of focusing on one sport from a young age.

“It has gotten to the point where one sports is so time-consuming that parents don’t have a lot of time for their kids to play multiple sports,” Johnson says. “Whereas, if you talk to a lot of the pro athletes we’ve trained, and you ask them how many sports they played, even through high school, they always say two, maybe three sports. I ask myself all the time, ‘What is too much?”

While it does not happen in all cases, what it may ultimately come down to is how the each individual person wants to approach their athletic career though their youth.

“It’s like anything,” McCarthy says. “Not everyone is made to play football, or baseball, or to fight. There are kids that want to spend all their time playing music, playing piano, playing guitar, getting into band. They have purpose. You should let them follow their passion.”

Burrill has a similar perspective.

Keeping the children’s best interests has to be priority No. 1, and every player should get the final say in how much they play.

“By the time kids get to high school, sports run year-round, so I can see the advantages of starting them out young,” Burrill says. “The thing is that by the time they get to high school kids get more of a say in how many teams you play on so that’s what would be a concern. But hey, Tiger Woods started playing golf when he was like two, and I think things turned out pretty good for him.”

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