Too Much too Soon?

April-Cover Feature Story MN. Parent Magazine

Photographer: Cy Dodson (www.cydodson.com)

It was a perfect summer evening. The sun was just starting to set behind the trees framing the baseball diamond. All of the players were in their correct positions. All had their shirts tucked in. Hats straight. Red belts matching red socks. For a moment, if you squinted perhaps, you might think you were watching high school players — soon-to-be-men focused on the task at hand. But then the shortstop bends over and begins to draw a circle in the dirt. About the same time, the first baseman takes off his glove and begins tossing it into the air.

“No playing in the dirt! There’s someone at bat!” barks the coach, adding, “first baseman! That glove needs to be on your hand!” These were not upper level players. These were little boys — boys in first and second grade.

I smiled as the shortstop stood back up and got into his defensive stance, his eyes still focused on his unfinished artwork. Yes, the shortstop is my boy, and yes, he loves to play baseball. I didn’t cringe inwardly when my son told me a few years ago he wanted to play T-ball. I wasn’t sure of the time commitment, but I figured he was only a kindergartner, so it couldn’t be that extensive. I have noticed, though, after watching my son advance through T-ball and now coach-pitch baseball (a technique where players under nine years-old bat a baseball safely pitched to them by their own coach) — the time and price commitment only grows with the child and the choice of team play.

Molly Sproull’s son is involved in hockey in Lino Lakes. “It started, really, with his skating lessons. He skated for fun, just a Saturday morning type arrangement. He was probably three at the time.” Her boy is now eight, out of the Mite Program and into a more organized club. “Hockey is also triple the cost of soccer,” says Sproull, whose son also participates in summer soccer. “All of that equipment. We’ve taken advantage of skate leasing programs, and we’ve used Play It Again Sports to try to cut back a little bit. We’re cutting corners where we can.”

Minnesota offers an array of sports through the changing seasons. Between all of the community rec, school, and private club programs, the number is almost dizzying. While sports such as lacrosse and golf are increasing in popularity, the sports commanding the numbers are hockey and basketball in the winter, and baseball and soccer in the summer.

When a parent hears, “I want to play hockey” or “I want to try baseball” the first reaction is usually “Great! This could be a lot of fun,” followed with more pressing questions such as, “where do I sign my child up for this? How much will it cost? What is the time commitment? Will my son/daughter be good enough?”

According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (sgma.com), about 15 million children play baseball. This makes it the third-most popular sport, right after basketball and soccer. A smidge over 14 million kids play outdoor soccer; however, if you factor the indoor soccer participant numbers, it bumps ahead of baseball into second place. Basketball outpaces both of them, boasting 26.2 million youths six and older. In the Midwest, hockey also rules. After all, Minnesota has produced more U.S.-born professional hockey players than any other state.

which sport? when?

By late winter, baseball and soccer leagues and clubs are already organizing the teams and coaches, having meetings and getting uniforms ordered. Practice usually begins indoors in mid-March. Outdoor practice starts up when the fields are dry enough for play. Molly Sproull takes off her hockey mom cap then, and turns to soccer. “My son has played soccer since age four,” she says. “We started with indoor soccer, and he played March through the beginning of July. It’s relatively easy to pick up. The equipment is minimal at this level; there aren’t a lot of expensive things needed. That’s been a positive. We’re moving into traveling soccer this summer.”

Christie Cuttell, Cottage Grove, has two boys in baseball. “Summer baseball is easier on the whole family,” she explains, “there’s not as much going on, and it’s a lot easier getting to the venues. School is wrapping up; it’s just better financially.” She adds that she enjoys baseball more, since it’s outside. “With basketball and hockey, you are confined … holed up. I have friends who have kids in hockey, and they’re inside five months straight.”

Cathy Hults, Circle Pines, also enjoys her fourth grade son’s involvement in baseball. “When my son was little, we tried to get him into a few sports,” she explained. “He’s very active. He’s been in baseball forever.” She also added that the sport doesn’t require as much of a financial commitment, beyond registration fees and basic baseball gear.

Tony Grubbs, Ham Lake, has coached in the Centennial School Program for five years. He said both his kids showed interest in baseball at an early age. “I started [coaching] T-ball and worked my way up. I’ll be doing coach-pitch one more year. I have a good time, and I love doing it. Our draft begins earlier and earlier, however. I noticed our baseball league [also] offers more clinics in December and January.”

Grubbs says that while all parents want the best for their kids, he feels many parents judge success on simply winning the game. “I see success when the player gets better,” he stresses. “The player learned to throw the correct way — that is success. Yes, people want to see wins. But I love to see the kids do well and improve and understand the game.”

And there’s nothing wrong with keeping your child in a less competitive league. “The in-house league is nice for folks who don’t want [the time and cost commitment of a] traveling league,” says Grubbs. “You still get play experience. The traveling kids usually live and die their sport, however, and can be better players.” He said that traveling teams bump up the time commitment and financial levels. “With a traveling team, you might be practicing every night all week, with games on weekends,” he says.

Cathy Hults’ baseball-playing son also plays basketball in the winter. “This is his second year of basketball,” says Hults, who says this is considered a late start in basketball. “But he picked it up really fast. He’s a tall kid,” she added. She said she hasn’t noticed a big difference with the financial and time commitment with basketball, but that she and her husband are checking out the traveling basketball team for next winter. “Traveling basketball, I understand, is around $400.”

Coach Brent Cuttell, Cottage Grove, confirms. “Stay in-house for as long as you want, it’s much cheaper. If you go the traveling team route, it gets more expensive: tourneys, travel, and hotels. Financially, traveling teams are five times more expensive than in-house. [With] traveling, you probably pay $400 or more and in-house is only $80 to $100.”

All of the time commitment and financials on baseball, basketball, and soccer seem to pale in comparison to hockey.

Grubbs said he is learning about hockey firsthand through his younger son. “This is his first year,” says Grubbs. “It’s a lot more expensive. You can find used stuff pretty reasonable, but I about fell over when I saw the bill.” He added that the registration fees alone can be financially challenging.

Coach Cuttell, who attends several coaching clinics a year, including the Glazier Football Coaching Clinic in Minneapolis, said he has noticed a trend in Minnesota youth hockey. “Some communities you’ll have 800 kids playing, but in a matter of years you’ll only have 15 still playing. They burn out. They quit playing. In this state, there are summer hockey clinics, skate clinics, goalie clinics — they create a 12 month commitment … and soon you have the kid saying, ‘I don’t like it anymore.’”

Molly Sproull seconds the concerns regarding financial commitment, but chooses to look at some positives. “In hockey, at least in the age six and seven group, parent coaches are so enthusiastic. You don’t always get that in other sports. There are so many more time and money commitments, and the coaches are so willing and able to share their skills.” She adds that she has an older daughter, and worries about balancing her activities and schoolwork with her son’s hockey practices and games. “I worry also a little bit about him moving up into the upper grades, and going to practice a couple hours a night. He will have homework, too. Cramming it all in … it concerns me a bit.”

Barclay Kruse, chief communication officer at the National Sports Center in Blaine, said there are a lot of hockey programs available. “We run our own hockey programs, where parents can sign their kids up on teams,” he says. “Though in the world of youth hockey, the community-based club is king.” He added that most folks don’t know that some of the biggest hockey tourneys are in June and July. “We run an event for seven weekends … different age groups on different weekends. We keep ice in six of our seven sheets, all the way through the summer. There’s enough demand in the summer for that.”

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too young?

Finally, the most pressing issue of all: are we starting our kids too young? Like it or not, all of the parents and coaches interviewed for this article said they believe children are being introduced to sports at younger and younger ages, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” says Coach Cuttell, “when kids are starting at three and four and five years old. I think if we begin putting goals [in place] for what measures a success or not in a specific arena … it’s a lot of pressure.”

Yet, all the parents and coaches agreed on one thing. If kids don’t start young, they are “behind” by the time they hit fourth and fifth grade. “It’s only going to get worse,” says Grubbs. “I don’t think I’m fine with starting kids so young. My older son, in fourth grade, wanted to try hockey. [With his inexperience] he’d stick out like a sore thumb, and I don’t want him to go through that. It’s hard to say no. But if you’re in fifth or sixth grade, you’re behind already. It has become so specific. This is your sport, all year around. Coaches want kids to know what they’re doing, and who know how to play. My younger son is the oldest player on his team and he’s in second grade!”

Says Sproull, “I think it’s a little disappointing that if you don’t start them young — and they would like to do another sport later — they’re going to be at a disadvantage. It’s part of a life lesson, I suppose. It’s sad that that’s the reality now.”

Coach Cuttell sums it up with one of his favorite Cal Ripken Jr. stories. “When asked how many little league games Cal Ripken Jr. played every summer as a kid, do you know what he said? Eight. That’s all he played each year. Then I got to thinking about how much I played when I was a kid. Maybe 10. They have kids playing 40 to 50 games a summer now. Same age. What I think is wrong: when a kid plays too many games … the games don’t mean anything. It’s just another game or tourney. When you only have eight games a year, they mean a lot. Kids want to be kids. They want to go in the yard and kick the ball around. We’ve created such a game environment for young kids, that they don’t know how to play pick up games anymore. They can’t play without an official or umpire. Kids these days think they have to document the game. You just don’t see kids playing pick up anymore. ‘Oh, we don’t have nine players? I guess we can’t play.’ That’s sad.”

“Whatever the season,” Christie Cuttell adds, “sports teach about socialization, camaraderie, teamwork, taking direction from authoritative figures — and that’s a good thing. Just don’t let it become too much.”

[sidebar]

Resources

Lance Armstrong Foundation

livestrong.com

Definitive daily health, fitness, and lifestyle destination website

Sports Illustrated

sikids.com

The online counterpart to Sports Illustrated For Kids magazine. The goal of the site is to create a fun, safe environment for kids, filled with some of the best news, games, and interactive features on the internet.

American Library Association

Ala.org

Offers a list of excellent sports websites that are appropriate for children. Websites cover all sports, including Judo and running. They do the research for you/list the website with a “Pencil” rating system so parents know it’s appropriate for: PreK, Elementary, Middle School, and Parent/Teacher.

Kidsites

kidsites.com

Touts itself as the leading guide to the best in kids’ websites, offering have a sports section full of sports trivia and information.

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