Kids are focusing on one sport at a younger age
By Aaron Gifford
The banner on the Syracuse Stars web page has a photo gallery of distinguished alumni: Baldwinsville’s Tim Connolly, Rochester native Brian Gionta, Whitesboro-born Robert Esche and Rob Schremp of Fulton. All play professionally in the NHL now.
The Stars, a junior hockey club for players from ages 15 to 19, prepares players for collegiate-level hockey or a higher tier of amateur leagues that feed the professional ranks. To eventually make the Stars, players as young as age 7 compete on youth travel teams that practice up to four days a week, 10 months per year.
“There are some kids that get here without that type of commitment, but not usually,” says Stars owner and president Don Kirnan. To get to the pros, he adds, usually some 10,000 hours of training is required for any player, regardless of natural ability.
A 10,000-hour commitment leaves little, if any, time for other sports or hobbies. But even off the ice, children and teenagers are increasingly concentrating on a preferred sport. This generation of youth athletes is getting into competitive play at a younger age, training several days a week with a club organization outside of school and traveling farther away from home for tournaments, coaches say.
This trend is most apparent in soccer. In the past, soccer was largely viewed as the first sport children tried before eventually gravitating toward more conventionally American sports like football, basketball, baseball (or softball) or, in Central New York, lacrosse. But that’s no longer the case. Children as young as 6 participate in “soccer academies,” where they train with paid coaches multiple times a week and year-round, forsaking other sports by the time they reach middle school to focus on travel team commitments and preparation for collegiate play.
Five Central New York indoor soccer centers have opened in the past 15 years, with travel clubs or soccer academies buying up the majority of their prime-time slots. Parents can spend upward of $2,500 per year for coaches’ salaries, league fees and travel expenses. By the time some of these kids reach adolescence, they’re starting on their varsity squads over players three or four years their senior.
“You see it especially for the girls,” says Jim Mort, executive director of the Empire United soccer academy, a Rochester-based club that has programs for boys and girls ages 6 to 19 in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Cortland. Select players from each region attend tournaments across the country dedicated to college recruiting. “Not only do you see 13-year-olds on varsity, but they are technically so far ahead of many seniors.”
Research in Europe and the United States has determined that the critical years for soccer development, male or female, is from ages 9 to 12, Mort says. “If you don’t have the technical skills in your bag by age 13 or 14, chances are you’re never going to get them,” he says. “But at 6, 7 and 8, for God’s sake, go out and play tag and have a good time!”
Mort acknowledges the dangers of exposing kids to competitive play too soon: They can develop a bad attitude, lose interest in trying new things, or even get burned out and give up on sports entirely. Parents and coaches, he says, have a responsibility to keep a player’s commitment in check and determine how much is too much.
The two most decorated soccer players from Central New York run rival academies: Tommy Tanner, a former star of the Rochester Rhinos and Syracuse Salty Dogs, oversees coaching programs at Empire’s Syracuse chapter. Tony Epifani, a former High School All-American and U.S National Team member, operates the Syracuse Soccer Academy (SSA). Attitudes about soccer have changed tremendously since they played in the top-tier youth leagues here some 25 years ago.
“The biggest difference now is the expectation of getting a scholarship. I think parents are mistaken on how it works,” Epifani says. And the environment of competitive programs has changed as well. “The other difference is when kids play. We just played more—a lot of it was scrimmages and pickup games. We didn’t have the phones, the big TVs or the video games, so (soccer’s) what we did. Kids now have other things they do on their own time, so the soccer takes place at a structured time.”
“I’d say the players are a lot more skilled these days, but that doesn’t mean the team play is better,” Epifani adds. “Sometimes it’s just too robotic.”
Twelve-year-old Alexandra Catanzarite of DeWitt began soccer at 5 and plays on an SSA travel squad. She joined the academy early in her career because the recreation leagues weren’t challenging enough for her. The year-round commitment includes two practices and two games a week, and her team has traveled to tournaments in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia.
Her father, Fran Cantanzarite, is careful to encourage her but not push too hard. “She loves it, and right now soccer is the only sport she plays,” he says. “We have to keep checking with her. ‘Is it fun? Are you sure you want to stick with this?’ I absolutely want her to pick something else up, and she’s OK with that idea. Maybe softball or maybe she can golf with me.”
Former Syracuse University men’s soccer player and longtime coach Dean Foti played baseball and basketball in high school. His soccer training, which began at age 11 and largely consisted of recreation leagues in his native Oneonta, prepared him for Division I collegiate play and a starting roster spot on a Big East championship team in 1982. Now, as the technical director for the governing body of the New York State West Youth Soccer Association (NYSWYSA), Foti evaluates high school players who started playing before kindergarten. He acknowledges that the skill level for elite American players is currently the highest it has ever been due to the increased time commitments. And yet he still thinks kids should play more than one sport for as long as they can.
“Maybe you have to get serious at 14, but when you’re 6, 8 or 12 years old you can learn so much from other sports: coordination, strength, mobility. There’s so much to be gained from other sports,” Foti says. “There’s also a psychological aspect to it where you learn different roles. You can be a blue-collar player in one sport, a leader in another and a finesse player in another.”
Foti also conducts seminars of college soccer recruiting. Most Division I soccer programs have very high academic standards for awarding scholarships, and soccer academies across the country are well aware of this. Many incorporate structured study times and academic progress reports into their programs.
“Nothing happens for these kids,” Jim Mort of Empire United stresses, “unless they are good students first.”
Alex Bono of Baldwinsville falls into that category. The high school junior earned an A average and made the National Honor Society while leading his varsity team to the state championship finals and playing on an elite Empire select team that requires him to practice in Rochester two nights a week in preparation for upcoming college showcase tournaments in Arizona and Texas. He recently chose Syracuse University over offers from other Big East schools.
“Every night (during the school year) the lights inside the cars are on,” says Alex’s father, Mark Bono. “They’re studying, writing reports. That’s the only way to make this work. It’s a lot for a kid who gets out of school at 2:20 p.m. and gets on the road to Rochester at 5 p.m. twice a week.”
Alex says all of the players on the state select team have become close friends, and they encourage each other to excel in sports and academics.
“All of the players are there for their love of the game,” he says. “That keeps it fun.”
Basketball helped Alex acquire the jumping ability and hand-eye coordination that contributed to his success as a goalkeeper, but he gave up that sport after his freshman year to concentrate on soccer year-round. His younger brother, Christian, 15, plays goalkeeper on a younger Empire United Squad that practices twice a week in Central New York. Christian will play in tournaments across the state and in Pennsylvania because he hopes to follow in his brother’s footsteps on the select academy team.
“The recognition that he’s received and the attention he’s drawn from colleges in the past couple years—that’s important,” Christian says. “I want to do the same thing.”
As with girls’ soccer, traveling volleyball clubs have seen tremendous growth in recent years. Pat Hanlon, a coaching director for the Iroquois-Empire Volleyball Association and coach of the Oswego State women’s volleyball team, says there are nearly 90 clubs in upstate New York for girls ages 10 to 18. Most practice once a week and travel to tournaments twice a month during the school year. Serious players attend summer volleyball camps and clinics.
“More and more girls are committing to just one sport at a younger age,” Hanlon says. “I think this is because they are focused on playing after high school. Parents are willing to go the extra mile if they think their daughter has a possibility of playing collegiate ball.”
It’s not just coaches and parents who have noticed this trend, but also medical professionals. Oscar Soto, a Cazenovia-based physical therapist and personal trainer, says the number of injuries in young athletes is “absolutely” on the rise due to overtraining.
“Many times the child is re-injured because they go back (to playing) too soon during recovery,” Soto says. “There’s pressure from the parents or the coaches, or the player himself.”
Soto, who was also a trainer for the Salty Dogs, grew up in soccer-crazed Argentina but is still baffled by the commitment youngsters are putting into local sports programs. He appreciates the skills kids are acquiring at a young age but worries that parents have lost sight of the reasons their children play sports: enjoyment, socializing and staying physically fit.
He also thinks kids need to play multiple sports to develop balance, strength and hand-eye coordination. The lack of those elements can contribute to the risk of injury. Year-round training in moderation is a great way to prevent injuries, but too many coaches are running drills where youngsters hurt themselves by reaching too far or performing the incorrect motions for their age. He also thinks kids should spend more time playing their game on the proper field type instead of on a harder indoor surface.
“Scholarships have become the end goal, instead of life-long physical fitness,” Soto says. “I think parents are pushing their kids too hard. We have to remember: Kids are kids.” ■
Aaron Gifford is a writer who lives in Cazenovia with his wife and two children.