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Getting Serious About a Sport

Michael Davis Photo

At Jim Boeheim’s Big Orange Basketball Camp, participants meet Syracuse University stars and compete in the Carrier Dome. The kids get an inside look at one of the top Division I programs in the country.

But the program does not promise that the kids will get exposure to college scouts, let alone a guarantee that they’ll even make their high school team. The same goes for Doug Marrone’s Football Camp, Le Moyne College’s Finishing Touch Soccer Camp and dozens of other summer sports camps in the region.

Many camps, in fact, share a similar philosophy: You may acquire the tools needed to eventually become a better player, but you only get out what you put in. And the goal of having a great time and an unforgettable experience should be just as important as the quest to become a better competitor.

“I think a lot of parents think these are big recruiting events, but they’re not,” says Kim O’Connor, coordinator of the Doug Marrone football camp. “It’s just as recreational as it is preoperational. Kids, whether they have potential or not, will have something to do by coming to the camp. This three-day camp alone hasn’t resulted in kids making major improvements immediately. This is something that we make sure that the parents are aware of before they send their children here.”

The Doug Marrone camp, which runs June 30 to July 2, costs $350 for the overnight program and $275 for commuters. As part of the experience, participants can enjoy the swimming pool and other SU facilities. The program serves about 400 kids in grades 6 through 12, with skill levels ranging from beginner to returning varsity starters who have potential to play college football.

Marrone’s camp, like most football camps across the country, is no-contact due to liability issues. The program includes lectures, demonstrations, skill sessions and small no-contact games.

The more serious high school athletes, area camp organizers say, typically participate in several camps over the course of one summer, including one-day showcases that are dedicated to recruiting (many of which are by invitation only). While camps don’t promise results, participants can take it upon themselves to meet college coaches and increase their exposure by returning to the same program year after year as their skills improve. O’Connor said Division II and III college coaches work at many camps run by top-tier coaches and subsequently recruit participants who make great strides, even though that is not the main purpose of the camps.

Central New York summer sports camps at college facilities range from $300 to $600 for a three- or four-day stay but offer lower prices for commuters.

Deena Swenson, of Seneca Falls, sent her son Connor, and daughter, Rya, to Tom Bonus’ Finishing Touch Soccer Camp at Le Moyne College last year. Both were under the age of 8 at the time and had only minimal exposure to the game. She selected that camp because its soccer program had one of the best reputations in the country, the location was close, and the cost, about $350 for the residential program, seemed reasonable.

“We wanted our kids to learn good soccer, but we also knew the men and women who played at Le Moyne were good people. We were looking for role models, and that’s what we got,” Swenson says.

“I guess the thing that impressed me the most was that they were playing a lot of little games within the game, and they were learning all about soccer without even knowing it.”

Tom Bonus says every child, regardless of his or her age and skill level, is given an oral evaluation at the end of the program that covers their strengths and weaknesses. Attitude and the ability to develop a life-long enjoyment of the game are factored into the mix.

“We try to cover all aspects of the game—mental, physical, tactical and technical,” Bonus says. “But it’s really important to add some fun activities in there.”

Swenson’s advice to parents who face the task of selecting one camp among many choices: First, find out as much as you can about the person who is running the camp. Second, make sure that you can afford it.

“Everyone wants the best for their children,” she says, “but you have to be reasonable and consider your budget.”

Jim Boeheim’s five-day Big Orange camp for boys 8 to 18 runs $365 for commuters and $535 for boarders. Cornell University’s five-day boys’ ice hockey camp costs $589 for boarders and $429 for commuters. The Cornell girls advanced field hockey camp, which is four days long, costs $419 for boarders and $289 for commuters.

While it’s taboo in camp circles to promise results, it is perfectly fine to target high-level players. Morrisville State College men’s hockey coach Brian Grady, for example, offers a skill-development program specifically for high school players who want to continue to the college level or juniors. That camp, which is for commuters only and runs from Aug. 9 to 25, features more than six hours of intensive off-ice conditioning, strength training, hand-eye coordination and development exercises. That program costs $175.

At Cornell University, the advanced girls’ field hockey camp for high school varsity players and prospects takes place on the same dates as the basic field hockey skills camp, which typically serves younger players. The same occurs for the girls’ soccer and lacrosse camps. This allows younger players to attend some of the same lectures and demonstrations as older players while competing separately.

“It’s good to have the younger kids watch the older kids play, and we’re able to maximize or combine our staff,” says Kath Fenzel, Cornell Sports School director.

Cornell does not do that with the boys’ programs, however, due to the large number of participants. Cornell also offers summer camps for several non-traditional sports, including fencing, rowing, sailing and rock climbing. All told, the Sports School program offers 41 camps per year in 24 different activities, and serves about 4,500 participants annually.

In recent years, Fenzel says, there has been an increasing interest in shorter recruiting camps that are staffed by coaches from several colleges in addition to Cornell.

“In the past 10 years we have seen more serious athletes,” she says. “They’re not interested in coming for the weeklong camp to play their sport and enjoy some recreation. They want to focus on their sport and maximize their exposure.”

Jim Eason, of Liverpool, has sent his sons Derek and Tyler to the competitive “Pin2Win” wrestling camps run by Phoenix High School varsity coach Gene Mills, a nationally acclaimed grappler who competed at Syracuse University and internationally. Eason’s sons got acclimated with the camp experience early in their scholastic wrestling careers and returned to more intensive programs as they became better competitors.

In wrestling, Eason explains, coaches from throughout the region circulate camp pamphlets at weekend tournaments. By the time the season ends, parents and children have dozens of programs to choose from locally and potentially hundreds nationwide.

“The number of choices can be overwhelming,” he says. “In our case, we looked at the notoriety of the person running the camp. There’s no one around here who was a better wrestler than Gene. And it was easy to find kids who went to his camp and came home raving about it.”

Mills offers commuter programs at Phoenix as well as an overnight camp in Forkville, Pa. There, participants stay in cabins, enjoy outdoor activities and actually get a camping experience in addition to wrestling instruction.

“It was an intense level of training, but recreation was also a big part of it,” Eason says. “The fun part is important, too, because it is supposed to be their summer vacation.”

Parents can narrow down their choices by talking to families who have sent their children to more than one camp, he says. Cost is a big factor, but the most important thing is to avoid sending your child to a camp where he will be competing way beyond his current skill level. It’s OK to learn from better wrestlers, but wrestlers also need to be able to execute the new techniques they are learning in a live match situation.

“You don’t want your kid there if the level of competition is too intense,” Eason says. “It may not help their confidence level, and they probably won’t enjoy themselves.”

Mills, who has been coaching wrestling for 30 years now, says there were only about 20 wrestling camps nationwide when he started teaching the sport in 1981. Today, there are more than 20 different camps in upstate New York alone. The increase is driven by the number of wrestlers who compete year-round and dedicate their time to a single sport. Top high school wrestlers from this area attend several camps every year.

“I encourage kids to do other sports, but a lot of kids are finding that to be competitive they need to stick with wrestling eight to 12 months out of the year,” he says.

In wrestling, there are camps just for take downs, reversals, escapes and riding. Mills’ program focuses on offensive and defensive maneuvers, but everything he teaches is from the perspective that the objective of every single move is to put your opponent on his back. He was quick to point out that his camp would not be the best choice for wrestlers who want to focus on one aspect of the sport at a time.

“I try to be honest with parents about that,” he says, “because there are so many camps to choose from, and one of them could be the perfect fit.”

Tom Bonus, founder of Le Moyne’s Finishing Touch Soccer Camp, affirms that the number of sports camps, both for commuters and boarders, has climbed in recent years as more young athletes are focusing on one sport. These days, there are camps specifically for goalkeepers, defenders and strikers.

“The days of two- or three-sport athletes are disappearing,” Bonus says. “Now you see a lot of high school coaches running their own camps for the younger kids. Their players are on travel teams year-round and they have these (day) camps right before varsity starts. A lot of them learn from college kids before they go back and teach the younger kids.”

Like Gene Mills, Bonus prides himself on providing as much personal attention to each camper as possible, and aims for camper-to-coach ratios of 10-to-1 or better.

Carrie Lysik, a former YMCA sports director who has coached at Bonus’ camp and several summer basketball camps, says parents and campers shouldn’t base their choice entirely on the school or university’s reputation for sports. Take the time to look at the profiles of every coach involved, she advises, and don’t rely solely on the credentials of the camp director.

For the younger children, Lysik stresses, parents must be absolutely sure that their child wants to go to the camp, and not view the program as another form of day care. “If the kid doesn’t want to be there, no one benefits.”

Aaron Gifford is a writer who lives in Cazenovia with his wife and two children.


Michael Davis Photo

Safety Matters

The state and county health departments have a long checklist of standards that must be met before a permit can be issued and a  camp can open. And even after the permit is issued, health departments often inspect the camps when they are in session.

To begin with, the director of any overnight camp in New York state must have a bachelor’s degree and be at least 25 years old; day camp directors must be at least 21. Camp directors are screened in the state Office of Children and Family Services Central Register Data Base for incidents of child abuse and maltreatment. The Health Department also screens their backgrounds for criminal convictions. If camp directors pose a risk to children, then a permit is not issued.

Next, 80 percent of the camp counselors at overnight camps must be 18 years or older; up to 20 percent may be 17. There must be one counselor for every 10 children aged 8 years or older and one counselor for every eight children younger than 8 years old.

“Ratios, as far as safety goes, are probably the most important part of it,” says Matthew Alexander, an Onondaga County Health Department employee who inspects area sports camps.

At day camps, counselors must be 16 or older. The required ratio is one counselor for every 12 children.

According to the state Health Department, all summer camps in New York State, regardless of their purpose, are required to have a health director and a written medical plan approved by the Health Department. That plan includes provisions for medical, nursing and first aid services. Injuries and illnesses must be reported to the Health Department, and everything that is reported will be thoroughly reviewed.

Camp operators must also develop a written plan that includes facility maintenance, provisions for training staff members, orientation guidelines for campers, supervision of campers, campsite hazards, emergency procedures and drills, and safety procedures.

—Aaron Gifford

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