Her son hadn’t even started kindergarten yet when Sarah Haskell saw an opportunity to get him some advanced education of another kind.
Zander was an energetic 5-year-old who enjoyed tagging along to the gym for his father’s pickup basketball games, showing a precocious talent for the sport while dribbling on the sidelines.
In years past, he would have been considered too young for any organized athletics. But Sarah didn’t think so, and Dudley Davis agreed, letting Zander enroll in his YES! Basketball Academy in Portland.
Three years later, Zander is a third-grader skilled enough to compete on a fifth-grade traveling team. His aptitude may make him an anomaly, but Zander is hardly alone in a youth sports landscape that is increasingly geared toward getting specialized training at younger and younger ages. It is becoming the norm as parents look to get their child an edge, and a growing number of sports academies have sprouted up to feed this growing demand.
Youth sports is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry in America, one unaffected by the recent recession, and there’s no sign it will turn around. Gone are the days of leisurely Little League games with teams made up of kids from the same neighborhood.
They’ve been replaced by private hitting coaches, year-round training and traveling teams, increasingly the only way young players can challenge themselves against elite competition and get seen by college and pro scouts.
Maine may have been a relative latecomer to the trend, but you no longer have to look hard to discover “academies” dedicated to sports ranging from golf to hockey here. It’s a competitive field, in more ways than one.
“I played Division III basketball and had a full scholarship as a point guard,” Sarah Haskell said wistfully of a career that didn’t begin until age 9 at the local YMCA and ended at Husson University in Bangor. “But I can only imagine what I could have done if I had had a program like this when I was starting. People are recognizing the fact that, to be better, you have to put time in. Programs like this are giving opportunities. And then other parents are seeing kids progressing and going, ‘Wow, how did he get so good?’ ”
Haskell made this observation while watching Zander finish a two-hour YES! Academy practice session at the University of Southern Maine, at a cost of $30.
That’s on the low end of the pay scale for such training. But there are observers of the sports culture in America who worry that we’re creating a financial divide between families that can afford sports instruction and those who can’t, that we’re increasing the risk of overuse injuries for young athletes. And they wonder if the whole trend is just a case of misplaced priorities.
“It’s analogous to the parent worrying about how their kid’s going to get into Harvard. That same sort of mindset has attached itself to the landscape of youth sport and people are trying to get that ‘advantage’ for that kid,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of sport in society at Northeastern University. “To me, it takes the joy out of youth sports and the focus off of collegiality and team spirit. Now, instead, it’s about the individual. That’s with so many other things in our society. We’ve moved away from anything that speaks to inclusion and the common ground.”
THE AGE OF SPECIALIZATION
There’s no question that youth sports have become big business. In 2011, American families spent more than $7 billion traveling with an estimated 53 million child athletes to various tournaments, according to the Cincinnati-based National Association of Sports Commissions. Youth sports travel is growing 3 to 5 percent per year, even expanding during the recession as more families essentially turned their annual vacations into trips to watch their children compete.
Those figures don’t include what parents are spending to join the travel teams, or on equipment and personal training.
It’s all evidence that the manner in which athletes rise to prominence has been forever altered. Gone are the days when Mickey Mantle could be discovered by a pro scout in rural Oklahoma hitting two home runs into the Baxter Springs River for a local semipro team. That scenario is no more likely now than a self-taught lawyer from Illinois making it all the way to the White House.
Athletes typically get the attention of college and pro scouts by playing on traveling teams, trekking to Massachusetts and beyond for AAU tournaments. Or heading to so-called “showcase” events on college campuses where many coaches can get an up-close look at them in person. To make sure they have the proper skills and can compete against peers from across the nation when the time comes, better training is required. And so the cycle begins.
“Sports have gotten so much more specialized in the last 15 years, where kids play baseball year-round, they play basketball year-round,” said Bill O’Brien, general manager at the Edge Academy in Portland, which caters to baseball and softball players and offers about 20 traveling teams in those sports. “They micro-focus on one sport and they get really, really good at it. And then all the bells and whistles that go into it, from the instruction they get here, to playing on an elite travel baseball team, to all the cool gear, to me getting a video of a player on our website, a player profile, to sending that out to the 350 colleges coaches we have in our database.
“It’s crazy how specialized it is. It really caught me by surprise 16 years ago when I started this.”
FOCUS ON HIGH-END SKILLS
It’s a change that was reflected in the scene at the Sullivan Recreation and Fitness Complex in Portland on a recent weeknight, when a couple dozen boys and girls divided into small groups and ran through a series of drills with YES! Academy coaches. Some advanced youngsters, like Zander Haskell, got one-on-one shooting instruction at a basket in one of the corners of the gym.
It all took place under the watchful eye of Davis, a New York transplant who founded the youth basketball program as a nonprofit in 1995 in an effort to introduce the sport to the influx of Asian and black youth in Portland. Later, he started the for-profit academy to provide more high-level training to the most promising players, some 100-150 each year. Three years ago, YES! made the foray into the AAU world, fielding teams that travel the country to test themselves against the best competitors at their age levels. Davis himself coaches a girls’ team that has won the past two national titles as fifth- and sixth-graders.
“I used to call this a D-III state. No one from any notable school would ever come here to recruit, because the kids weren’t athletes and they weren’t skilled enough to play at the next level,” Davis said.
He believes his skills academy, which emphasizes ball-handling and footwork as the foundation, has changed the landscape.
“People were slow to do it, they didn’t want to do it, but they didn’t understand this is the way the game is played outside the state of Maine,” he said. “The elite-level player, we have a more intense focus with them. We’re pushing them at a higher level. We want them to understand that their workout training at this point, it’s more of a business, meaning you should be taking 500 shots a day.
“You have to get in the weight room, you have to lift. You have to work on your speed and agility. You have to get in the right program and play in the right tournaments in order to be seen.”
Davis said Maine is now producing a handful of Division I and II players each year, pointing to success stories such as Kristen Anderson (Leavitt High) at New Hampshire and Allie Clement, a senior at McAuley already committed to play at Marist.
The Maine Hockey Academy is in its infancy, but is looking to have a similar impact. It is sponsoring five youth teams this winter, mainly playing in Massachusetts in an effort to find better competition.
Matt Buotte’s bantam team of 13- and 14-year-olds will play 48 games by season’s end, often taking the ice twice on a Saturday. But it’s the work on developing high-end skills that sets the academy apart, Buotte said. The children, as young as 9, have two practice sessions a week devoted to skills work. Buotte’s team of 16 has an instructional staff of four, including a goalie coach.
It’s a far cry from the scene Buotte, 24, encountered growing up in Westbrook. Kids played on local teams then, and Buotte said his wasn’t particularly good. Later, when he was selected to play on a Maine all-star team, he journeyed to Massachusetts and Rhode Island and was dismayed to see how much better the players were down there.
Buotte hopes the Maine Hockey Academy can be an equalizer for local children.
“When I grew up I was always coached by some kid’s dad, who tried his hardest. But it’s a totally different deal now,” Buotte said after a recent weeknight practice in Gorham. “Even in the summer camps, we have 7-year-old kids come, and they’re really good. They’re very technically sound. Hockey families make huge sacrifices for those kids, insane sacrifices. It’s a huge commitment. We have a kid from Sabattus who drove an hour down. He’s in eighth grade. He’s going to get home at 11.”
A RICH MAN’S GAME
Driving much of this growing attention to youth sports is the lure of a college scholarship. In 2006, the NCAA reported to Congress that $1.5 billion in athletic scholarship money is available each year at its institutions. But, even for the young athletes who are good enough to make their high school varsity squads, less than 2 percent of them will get one of those scholarships. Even then, those competing in sports other than big moneymakers like football and basketball are likely to receive only partial scholarships at the coach’s discretion.
And getting advanced training isn’t cheap. Maine Hockey Academy players pay $3,000 to be on the team, and that doesn’t include travel and equipment costs, which push a family’s investment to three or four times that figure. The Edge Academy charges as little as $5 to rent a batting cage, but also offers a “blueprint membership” that runs $1,000 for a year and includes a video analysis of a player’s strengths and shortcomings.
Some academies offer discounts for families in need, and Davis is particularly attuned to trying to serve underprivileged children. He looks for people in the community to sponsor certain basketball players. But there is concern from all corners that some promising athletes will get left behind.
“Hockey has become a rich man’s sport, and it’s actually kind of hurt the game,” said Graeme Townshend, a onetime NHL player and skills coach who is co-founder of the Maine Hockey Academy. “It does help to have a mix of kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds. I came from the ’hood (in Toronto), and I learned from the kids that grew up in the middle-class neighborhoods, and they learned from me.
“Frankly, the equipment, I can’t see how they can make it cheaper – high-tech skates and sticks. And, of course, ice. It’s probably 500 bucks an hour to run this rink (at Southern Maine in Gorham). And the travel, because you don’t have a rink on every corner.”
O’Brien, at the Edge Academy, said he is conscious of trying to keep costs down. But it’s also a business with three full-time employees. The facility made headlines recently when some parents of Scarborough High School baseball players complained that they felt coerced to send their sons there for offseason training.
“I know I wouldn’t have been able to, growing up, do something like this,” said O’Brien, a native of Massachusetts. “There’s no chance my dad would pay $90 an hour for an hour a week for 15 or 16 straight weeks. He’d say, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ But I know he would do it once or twice for me, and I know he would give me the option of figuring it out for myself if I really wanted to do it.
“This is disposable income to a certain extent. But it’s tough for me to find that fine line of what we can charge and still make it work.”
SELLING A DREAM
William Gayton, a psychology professor at the University of Southern Maine who specializes in sports psychology, has been watching the increased attention devoted to youth sports unfold for 30 years. He sees it as symptomatic of a culture that increasingly is elevating the status of children.
“We’ve adopted a professional model of sports. We’ve decided we need teams, we need leagues, we need playoffs. And all that does is expand the amount of time and travel required to get sports in,” he said. “One of the problems we’re dealing with here in terms of youth sports is that we’re not recognizing that parents are in fact fans. And if they have a child who’s doing well, they’re getting an awful lot of positive reward from that themselves. You’re basking in reflected glory, and children have become our main sources of reflected glory in many families here.
“I don’t think that in the long run is helpful for either the parent or the child.”
The need to keep up with Massachusetts underlies much of what is happening with youth sports in Maine. Inevitably, every parent or coach references that state when speaking of the possibilities here.
Chris Parsons came to Maine in 1994 to play soccer at Thomas College in Waterville. Later, as an assistant coach at Bowdoin, he noted that there weren’t a lot of children 8 to 15 playing soccer in Maine. Parsons started his own soccer academy in 2004, offering weeklong instructional camps for children as young as kindergarten.
“There’s more opportunities in Maine for kids playing soccer than there ever has been,” said Parsons, now the head coach at Thomas. “You have the clubs and then there’s more facilities, even indoor facilities that have turf. So now kids can play November through the spring. Kids are playing 10 months out of 12 months, and those are usually the kids that are going to be playing at the elite level.”
Tom Griffin, a veteran softball coach at Scarborough High School, has seen the performance level in his sport rising, but sympathizes with parents looking to help their child keep up.
“The sport has really progressed so much, especially pitching. They can’t just come in in March and pick up a ball and say, ‘I’m a pitcher.’ Kids are putting time in over the winter to make themselves a better hitter or better pitcher,” Griffin said. “But then there are all these skills evaluation camps. Some of that might be worth it for some of those kids, but some of it might be throwing another 150 bucks out the window because it doesn’t really get them anywhere. It’s hard to know where to spend your money.”
Many youth coaches are aware that what they’re really selling is a dream. Townshend, at the Maine Hockey Academy, does not shy away from this notion. He wants his young players to aim as high as the NHL, a destination only six native Mainers have reached, including most recently Brian Dumoulin of Biddeford, a defenseman for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“The popular thought is people from Maine aren’t talented enough to play at that level,” Townshend said. “That’s not true. It’s the mentality. If we change that mentality, you’d see more Brian Dumoulins in the NHL for sure. That’s what we’re telling our kids. Don’t believe what people tell you.”
As if to prove his point, Oliver Wahlstrom of North Yarmouth Academy accepted a scholarship last week to play hockey at Maine. He is in the seventh grade, and won’t make it to the campus in Orono until the fall of 2019. The news shocked some observers, but it shouldn’t have. Wahlstrom is just following a trend.
Zander Haskell may join him some day. In addition to basketball, Zander has shown an aptitude for soccer, playing in a league that held matches every other weekend in Massachusetts. That meant, in addition to the $1,000 fee to join the team, the Haskells had to spend money traveling – fuel, meals, lodging, etc.
Sarah Haskell said she was happy to do that in order to find a higher level of opposition for her son.
“To get better, you have to play better teams and the competition down in Massachusetts is above the charts compared to here,” Sarah said. “We don’t have as much of a talent pool to choose from. Plus, we don’t have the facilities. Scarborough has nothing. We have just our school facilities for basketball. We’re always fighting for gym time.”
THE PHYSICAL TOLL
Stan Skolfield is uniquely positioned in the middle of the youth sports scene. He is attempting to mold budding athletes while also hoping to reduce what he sees as an alarming number of serious sports-related injuries among American children. There were 1.35 million of them in 2012.
Skolfield, a former minor-league baseball trainer, has his office at the MHG facility in Saco. It houses a hockey rink, a cutting-edge Michael Phelps Skill Center for swimmers, Orthopaedic Associates and the Parisi Speed School.
Landon Bickford of Gorham is a prime example of the young athletes Skolfield is trying to reach. The 10-year-old plays football, basketball and baseball, but developed knee problems because of the way he was positioning them while running. Bending his knees inward caused the cartilage to rub against the bone, pushing it out of place.
Surgery was not required, but Landon sought out Orthopaedic Associates for some rehabilitation work, primarily fixing the way he runs. Once that problem was resolved, he stayed on as a customer of the Parisi school, where children as young as 6 participate in hourlong sessions designed to make them fundamentally better athletes.
“I feel stronger,” Landon said after a recent session. “I like this. You get to play games and have fun warm-ups. I’m going to try to play all three (sports) as long as I can, but I hope I can play football the rest of my life.”
Landon said his exercise regimen already includes a morning workout in his basement that includes weights and pushups. But on this evening, it was supplemented by something resembling a high-intensity physical education class. He was in a group of eight boys ages 6 to 11 running ladder drills, doing side planks, tossing medicine balls and more.
Nearby, in the small room buzzing with boisterous children, an entire girls’ soccer team was being put through a group workout. Two boys’ hockey teams had recently departed after doing the same.
It’s exactly what Skolfield – whose two sons accompanied Landon in his session – envisioned when he started working at the facility five years ago. The goal for the children – who typically pay $99 a month for unlimited trips to Parisi – is to improve strength, speed, agility, flexibility and nutrition, things that can apply to any sport.
“We didn’t get that when we were kids. No one ever taught us the correct way to run, the best way to jump and land, the best way to decelerate,” Skolfield said.
“There’s not a lot of things in this world that really make you feel good. But when you’re fit and you’re strong, you have so much self-confidence, and that’s lacking in a lot of kids of this generation.”
Skolfield has a stern message for parents who push their children to excel in a specific sport at a young age. He is alarmed by the amount of overtraining injuries he sees, especially among baseball pitchers.
“For every kid who became Tiger Woods and puts that 10,000 hours in, you’ve got a dozen who never amounted to anything and ended up hating their parents,” he said. “It comes from the coaches. He wants him to work on his skills. Then if parents see their neighbor’s kid doing it, ‘well, I want to keep up with him. I don’t want him to lose his spot.’ And it’s so easy to fall into that trap.”
MORE POSITIVES THAN NEGATIVES?
The Edge Academy was at the forefront of youth sports training in Maine when it opened in 1998. It has had three names and three locations, but is still thriving, with an estimated 15,000 athletes coming through its doors each school year. The facility had a waiting list for years.
“Ninety percent of kids who don’t come here don’t learn proper mechanics,” O’Brien said, matter-of-factly, of the importance of such training. “What separates professional instructors from just instructors is the ability to diagnose, and understanding those body parts and how to get into the proper position.”
O’Brien came north in 1993 to play baseball at USM. Twenty years later, he said he’s thrilled to be able to make a living working with children while wearing sweatpants and a baseball cap, helping them reach their goals, no matter how modest.
“It’s not just about getting a college scholarship or to the professional ranks,” he said. “We have kids who just want to make their middle school team. That’s the majority of kids; they want to make the team and be part of a team.”
O’Brien said young ballplayers in Maine have a more refined skill set than when he started training them 16 years ago. The ball is traveling faster from pitcher’s mound to home plate, and also when it comes off the bat.
He is proud of what the Edge Academy has helped accomplish, despite critics of the trend toward specialized training.
“Some parents push their kids too hard and some don’t push their kids enough. It’s always been that way and always will be,” O’Brien said. “This is the new reality. And there’s a lot more positives to it than negatives. I truly believe that.”
Mark Emmert can be reached at 791-6424 or at: