SPOTLIGHT ON YOUTH SPORTS : Time for trial, error fleeting as kids commit

Doug Crise - Arkansas Democrat Gazette - August 19, 2007

Listening to 9-year-old Lawson Korita reel off his sports schedule can make anyone feel as if they’ve just been through a workout.

“I play basketball, football, baseball, soccer, swimming,” Korita said before pausing to think. “That’s mostly all.”

Though still in elementary school, Korita already has acquainted himself with one very adult concept: If he hopes to excel in his favorite sport, basketball, he’ll soon need to start shaving those other activities off his schedule.

“I might just want to play basketball,” Korita said.

“There’s plenty of good athletes out there,” said Greg Hatcher, who for more than two decades has worked as a coach and facilitator for elite youth sports teams in the Little Rock area. “Getting them started early makes all the difference in the world.

Given that sports like soccer, tennis and gymnastics lag behind “ mainstream” pursuits like football and basketball in Arkansas, young athletes frequently have no choice but to narrow their focus if they hope to bridge the skill gap between themselves and athletes from elsewhere in the country.

But considering the explosion of personal coaching, AAU summer teams and off-season “passing camps,” even the “money sports” are requiring a commitment at an earlier age.

“We are moving to one-dimensional athletes,” Hatcher said. “I don’t know if I like that.”

But adding up the pros and cons of specialization doesn’t produce any easy answers.

TOO MUCH, TOO SOON Jack VanderSchilden has been involved in sports medicine for more than 30 years, and serves as an orthopedic sports medicine specialist at UAMS Medical Center. Along with that, he works as a team physician for both UALR and the University of Arkansas. So when quizzing him about the rise of specialization in youth sports, one might expect a clinical, measured answer. Not quite. “The kids are no longer kids,” VanderSchilden said. “It’s a year-round thing. It’s gotten out of hand as far as I’m concerned.” VanderSchilden cautions that while he’s seen a rise in one-sport athletes, there’s more to the idea of “specialization.” Keeping a child enrolled in a differing rotation of sports activities, Vander-Schilden said, is just as dangerous.

“It’s not so much the participation,” VanderSchilden said. “It’s not giving the kids a break. There should be a middle ground, and there isn’t one. Get them off the field and let them be kids for a bit.”

As an example, VanderSchilden points to the stress fractures he sees from too much running, or the elbow and shoulder problems that he sees in young tennis players or even baseball players.

“Now you see it in junior high kids,” said VanderSchilden, who said such injuries usually don’t crop up until adulthood.

There are more sides to the issue than that, says Russellville’s Kaylie Henne, 18. Henne has been playing or training for soccer, and only soccer, on a year-round basis since she was 12. The results have included a standout career at Russellville High School and a chance to play collegiate soccer at Lees-McRae College, a Division II school in North Carolina.

Henne said she sometimes has flirted with burnout during the 12-month grind, but she believes the gains far outweigh the sacrifices. The sacrifices, though, are sizable. Henne estimates that a typical week of her life over the past several years has included two to three midweek practices, leaving on Friday afternoon to travel to a showcase tournament, playing two games Saturday, two or three games on Sunday and then arriving home late Sunday night.

VanderSchilden said he’s treated young soccer players whose weekend workload goes as high as eight games.

“Who the hell plays eight games in a weekend ?” VanderSchilden said. “Come on. That’s absurd.”

Absurd but, for less mainstream sports, necessary if a young child wishes to excel at the high school level and possibly play in college.

“It’s taken off, probably unbelievably so,” said Steve Oliver, an assistant women’s soccer coach at the University of Arkansas. “You have people traveling four hours to practice because they want to be on the best team in the area.”

For Henne, that meant traveling to Little Rock for club soccer during her preteen years and then later drives to Bentonville for sometimes thrice-weekly practices for a club team coached by Oliver. All the travel, all the practice, all of it beginning before adolescence, isn’t for everyone, Henne said. She especially feels it isn’t for children still in grade school. “I would keep it fun for a while,” Henne said. “It has to be fun. You have to enjoy the game. I would say 12 or 13 would be the best age to start looking for a better thing.”

PUSHY PARENTS If there’s one conspicuous absence from Lawson Korita’s list of sports, it’s tennis. That’s because his father, Eric, is a former professional player who now works as the director of tennis at the Little Rock Country Club. But Eric Korita says his own experiences as a pro, and seeing other players who were shoved into the sport by their parents, has led him to shrug off his youngest son’s indifference to the sport.

Indeed, Eric Korita said most of Lawson’s sports teammates remain involved with just as many activities as his son. Hatcher adds that families of every athlete he works with are encouraged to maintain as much variety as possible in their children’s sports schedule.

That can govern focus, but it can’t govern attitude.

Fort Smith’s Doug Pogue has spent 22 years officiating youth sports, including baseball and basketball. Pogue said he’s listened to parents express regrets over not forcing their child into a single sport at an earlier age, and he’s heard more than a fair share of spoken abuse directed to young athletes from over-expectant parents.

“Parents don’t want to see their own kids fail,” Pogue said.

It’s the idea of failure in which those in favor of competitive sports at an early age differ from the rest of the pack. Hatcher said he runs his programs on the basis of effort and victories, and that young athletes are deprived of life lessons if losing and a lack of effort are accepted.

Parents should push, Hatcher said, but they should push for participation and not individual notoriety or athletic scholarships.

“The only way to be successful, really, in America, is to beat the other guy,” Hatcher said.

Eric Korita agrees that sometimes the best thing a parent can do is administer a push when a young athlete is digging in his heels, but he said the line between being tired and being burned out is thin. Lawson Korita agrees, saying that while he feels he has enough free time, there are days when he’d rather stay home than head to the basketball court or the soccer pitch. Eric Korita believes he’s doing his son a service by making him keep his commitments to each sport, but the demands on Lawson sometimes test his parental intuition. Many times, he looks at Lawson and remembers quitting tennis for a year starting at age 14. “I hated it,” Korita said. “And I was one of the best in the country. ‘Push’ can be a good word, ‘Push’ can be a bad word.”

JUST FOR FUN Like many teenagers, Conway’s Will Patterson grew up right when youth sports began the swing from recreational to competitive.

Also, like a lot of teenagers, Patterson, 17, said he feels he’s been caught up in the transition.

“You’ve got to work the whole time,” Patterson said. “I always needed a break, and I’d never get one. The way things are now, you don’t get one.”

Patterson grew up in love with sports, a love that was supported by a rapidly sprouting body that would eventually reach 6-5. His physical gifts enabled Patterson to spend his early childhood effortlessly bouncing from sport to sport, eventually competing in baseball, basketball and football.

Now a high school senior, Patterson is minus one sport after quitting baseball for the sake of finding free time. He still plays football and basketball and, given his height, could probably work himself onto a small college basketball roster if he chooses.

Rather, his mother, Kim, says her son likely will attend a large university, possibly Arkansas, and just be a student.

Will Patterson said he began to feel his leisure time being co-opted before high school and even junior high. Summer baseball and AAU basketball were necessary, he said, if he wanted a chance to make a splash in middle school, junior high and beyond. Those demands start well before high school, when football begins to enter the picture.

The problem isn’t the demand placed on athletes in high school but rather in the years leading up to it, said Patterson, who considers himself burned out on sports.

“I think I’m at that stage,” Patterson said. “It’s kind of getting to me. I want to stay back and have fun and do more than play sports all the time.”

Burnout hasn’t always been a common theme with teenagers, but just like the overuse injuries alluded to by VanderSchilden, the age seems to be getting younger and younger.

Patterson doesn’t begrudge coaches like Hatcher and parents like Eric Korita, saying that uncompromising competition can be a good fit with kids depending on their personalities.

But Patterson mourns the decline of the “just for fun” concept of youth sports. That’s why he spends his summers as a volunteer for “Field of Dreams,” a local organization that arranges T-ball games for kids with physical and developmental disabilities.

Patterson’s 12-year old brother, Ben, suffers from Neuro Degeneration with Brain Iron Accumulation (NBIA ), a rare and often terminal genetic disease that destroys the nervous system.

Will Patterson said his brother has lost most of the movement in his body and is unable to express himself beyond the occasional squeal or yelp. Yet he says Ben visibly lights up whenever the family pulls up to the University of Central Arkansas softball field, where the T-ball games take place.

Patterson said he’d like to take some of the hard-driving young athletes he’s met, and their parents, out to one of Ben’s games.

“It’s not as fun as it used to be,” Patterson said. “They only see their kid succeeding, but they don’t have to see the challenge of their kid going through something like this. [Sports ] is all just fun. You’ve got to think about bigger stuff in life than sports all the time.”