Work Samples

Youth Sports: The Single Sport Generation


August 5, 2015

Everything slows down in the summer -- everything except the youth sports world that engulfs so many North Jersey families.

Young athletes not playing summer games and tournaments are filling their days with camps, private lessons and "training" sessions, honing their skills at their selected sport. Children as young as 8 or 9 are specializing, choosing only one sport and playing it year round, a trend that has drastically increased in the last five to 10 years, according to those involved in local youth sports.

Physical therapist John Gallucci was recently talking to a group of parents, who told him their 8-year-old sons were on a travel baseball team that had them on the field for two-and-a-half to three hours, six days a week.

"I hear that more and more," said Gallucci, who owns JAG PT, which has an office in Hackensack among its New Jersey locations. He lectures coaches, schools, parents and organizations about overuse injuries and the risk of early specialization. Baseball is not the only culprit.

"I hear it in swimming," Gallucci said. "I hear it in gymnastics."

How did this happen and what's the driving force behind it? When did youth sports participation stop changing with the seasons and kids start choosing their singular path to success in third grade?

For this generation of children, it is all they know. The majority of parents seem to believe the formula is necessary, even as many of them complain about the costs -- in money and time.

Parents have many reasons for allowing their kids to take on intense, focused schedules including: their child wants to; every other youth athlete is doing it and their kids will fall behind if they don't; coaches say they must to improve and play; their child needs to build a reputation to make future teams.

This is a world where strangers approach unsolicited at games and tournaments as soon as a kid shows any signs of aptitude. Jon Vatcher of Ramsey was watching his then-9-year-old son Ryan play basketball a few years ago when a man came up to talk to him about the grade-schooler's athletic career.

"This one guy at a tournament said [Ryan] needs to pick basketball and just play basketball," said Vatcher, who dismissed the idea completely.

"He was 9," said Vatcher, who has two sons -- now 13 and 10 -- who each play three sports. Vatcher is adamant that they not only not specialize until they are older, but also take breaks during the year -- something doctors are stressing and data support.

A study done at Loyola University and Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago concluded that all the extra practice hours and repetitive motions from singular focus are more likely to bring a child an injury than athletic success.

Neeru Jayanthi, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine doctor, who was one of the authors of the study, sees young patients who have injuries he says could have been avoided. His biggest challenge in many cases is not treating the injury but changing the culture of coaches, parents and kids. Recently, he saw a young tennis player with her second very serious back injury. He tried to emphasize the need for rest, a change in training style and schedule.

"Talk about resistance," said Jayanthi. "It's not that easy to change that culture."  
It is a culture with many influential forces, but John McCarthy -- co-founder of the Yogi Berra Museum's Coaching Institute who runs seminars for coaches, parents and student athletes and teaches a coaching class at Montclair State University -- sees one above all else.

"Money," said McCarthy without hesitation.

According to him, money is a motivating factor for parents looking for scholarship help for college and for full-time professional coaches and year-round training facilities trying to make a living.

"Sports academies, private instructors, camps have really become a cottage industry because they can sell a parent on the idea that I can help get your kid a scholarship," he said. "Now you get a kid who shows any kind of aptitude, who is commended and they don't want to let the coach down and they recognize the parents can use financial assistance, so they're really caught in the middle."

More paid coaches

Evan Baumgarten, who has coached soccer for 27 years, has watched the specialization and year-round play ramp up "drastically" in the last five to 10 years.

"I think there is too much and a guy like me is probably part of the problem a little bit, because I'm involved," said Baumgarten, who coaches the Ramapo high school boys team and also volunteers to coach Wyckoff travel teams of 8- and 12-year-olds. "I have to be honest with myself, if you're involved coaching -- and I can only speak for myself -- I can see myself sometimes as part of the problem."

He also sees one major difference in the landscape.

"What you've seen change in the last 10 years is in every sport you have a lot of paid coaches that do it full-time for a living," Baumgarten said. "I think that's changed the dynamics of youth sports."

Winter no longer provides a break for outdoor sports thanks to the influx of indoor sports facilities that make the East Coast's change of seasons irrelevant.

"Everyone thinks it's these programs but it's really not," said Garret Teel, founder of Teels, an indoor baseball and softball training center in Wyckoff and Closter that also runs club teams. "It's definitely not us. It's the parents. The parents are the ones that push it."

Former major league pitcher Tommy John agrees.

"Parents have the misconception that their kid is going to be the next Justin Verlander or the next this or that," John said.

The former Yankee, who may be best known for the reconstructive elbow surgery that saved his career, is disturbed by the number of young kids pitching all year and needing his namesake operation because of overuse. He has even heard of parents who want their healthy sons to have the surgery because they think they gain velocity from it.

Through his pitching academy and personal charity -- which donates half of the money to an educational campaign by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine called STOP (Sports Trauma and Overuse Prevention) -- he tries to help parents understand.

"They think they have their child's interests at heart," he said. "OK, they do. I buy that. But there's certain things you can't do and they don't get it. They just don't get it."

Changing parents' minds  
The Sussex County resident said he talks to parents who believe they know better than doctors or professional athletes. They get sucked in by the promises of professional pitching coaches. The young athletes get caught in the adults' ambitions.

Despite all the time and money spent on travel teams and outside coaches and camps, only 2 percent of high school athletes get scholarships to play in college, according to the NCAA.

"You can tell somebody it's 1 out of 100, but if they're the 1 out of 100, it's 100 percent," McCarthy said. "Everybody thinks their kid is going to get it."

What may be news to parents is that success is not connected to excessive play of a singular sport. In a recent UCLA study, in which 296 NCAA Division I athletes were surveyed, only 30 percent specialized in a sport before they were 12 years old and 88 percent participated in more than one sport as a child.

Despite these numbers, parents, coaches and kids keep chasing success with single-mindedness. Those who fight specialization feel the pressure of coaches, not to mention the grueling schedules.

Branching out

Jennifer is a Bergen County 13-year-old who doesn't want to choose just one of her three sports. This year, she played town travel and club soccer, AAU basketball, town travel basketball and town travel softball. Her town softball program is one of those in the area that mandates travel players also play in the rec league, so add that to her three-sport spring schedule as well. She has practices and games for 11 months, playing three sports year round.

In August, the family flees to the beach.

"If we were here, she'd end up doing something," said her mother, who also has two other children.

Jennifer is not her real name. She and her mother agreed to be interviewed for this story only if their names weren't used in fear of Jennifer losing playing time.

Are parents afraid of coaches, her mother was asked.

"Absolutely," she said.

When asked why, she pauses for a while before saying she doesn't know, but she doesn't want to be the family that lets the team down, fails to meet the required commitment.

"It's a culture," she said. "They guilt you into thinking you're letting the team down."

Yielding to the coach

At games everywhere, parents complain about coaches and schedules but in the end bow to coaches' demands. If they stand up to the coach, they say, if they skip a practice or show up late, no matter the reason, they are risking their child's chances at success and spot on the team now and in the future.

Some coaches will follow through on their threats, said McCarthy, but the best players will almost always be in the lineup no matter the circumstances. He concedes that the vast majority of players -- those in the middle of the pack who are replaceable on the court, field or ice -- do get hurt by these coaches, so parents yield to the coaches because they see no other solution.

Many entrenched in the hyper-competitive, keep-up-with-the-Joneses youth sports world see no signs of it slowing; however, Gallucci actually has a little hope.

"Parents are getting smarter and smarter and realizing that the more well-rounded their child is, the more opportunity they're going to have a.) to stay healthy b.) to have more social interaction and c.) to learn a multitude of sports that ultimately is going to give them more well-roundness," he said.

Meanwhile at one Bergen County home where a middle school multi-disciplined athlete goes from game to game, team to team, specialization is not the issue but over scheduling is. They often hope for a little help from Mother Nature.

"We pray for a lot of rain in this house," said Jennifer's mother.