January 12

The growing cost of play for Maine youths

Youth sports academies send the price of sports soaring out of reach for some as experts question the value of training.

By Mark Emmert memmert@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Her son hadn’t even started kindergarten yet when Sarah Haskell saw an opportunity to get him some advanced education of another kind.

Today's poll: Sports academies

Have you sent your child to an academy or program for specialized youth sports training?



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Landon Bickford, 10, of Gorham, center, runs drills with other kids at the Parisi Speed School in Saco.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Maine Hockey Academy player development director Adam Nicholas demonstrates a move to members of the Bantam Black team during practice at the University of Maine ice arena in Gorham.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Thinking about pursuing individualized sports training for your child? Here are some things Marty Martinez, a sports psychologist at Iowa State University, urges you to keep in mind:


DO NOT specialize in one activity at the expense of a well-rounded social life. Children should play a variety of sports, try musical instruments, maintain academic pursuits such as science fairs, and spend plenty of time around friends. Choosing a single sport to pursue shouldn’t really occur until at least the sophomore year of high school.

DO NOT neglect the team aspect of most sports. Unlike, say, playing a musical instrument, most children gravitate toward sports because of their social nature. “So they’re taken out of a team context and given this singular, individual training. Are they still allowed to be just kids on the streets who love to play ball?”

DO be aware of the message you’re sending a child by choosing to spend money for a specific sport. “The child starts to see this is where the parent wants me to be. Even if they lose interest in a sport, or prefer another, they may be reluctant to stop pursuing the one that is being paid for because they don’t want to disappoint their parents.”

DO NOT let sports training become a substitute for the time you spend with your child. “The training in a certain sport should be ... matched by the emotional support you give a child overall. That’s a balance issue.”

DO watch your child during sports practices and games to be sure he or she is still enjoying the activity. “The coach knows the sport, but you know the child. You don’t want the child to get burned out.”

DO NOT hover. Let your child participate in sports without parental pressure.

– Mark Emmert


Standout athletes may be garnering an increasing amount of attention at younger ages, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a place for the late bloomer, as two youth coaches contend.

“I think the later you develop, the better, judging from my experience,” said Graeme Townshend of Maine Hockey Academy. “If I see a kid that’s a superstar at a young age, I worry for that kid. Will he maintain the work ethic? I don’t try to shower too many compliments on a kid like that. I don’t want him to peak at 12.”

Townshend, a former NHL player and skills coach, works with children as young as 8, often flying around the country to do so. But, paradoxically, he’s not sure that skill at that age is a barometer of future success.

“I can’t think of anybody that was a dominant player as a child that made it,” he said. “It’s more about the work ethic and the time you put in.”

Likewise, Nick Caiazzo, whose Edge Academy offers instruction in baseball and softball for those ages 5 and up, said he’s seen dozens of players who didn’t hit their stride until they were teenagers.

“Some people get good at this game at different times,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen at 12 years old. I’ve seen it at 16 years old. The key is keeping with it, working hard at it. My favorite players are the ones I’ve been coaching since they were 8, and all of the sudden, you see them and say, ‘What happened here?’ That’s the fun part of this job.”

– Mark Emmert


If you think your child needs to be able to at least walk before embarking on an athletic career, Doreen Bolhuis says think again.

The Grand Rapids, Mich., woman developed a series of GymTrix videos designed to help parents exercise with children as young as 6 months old.

“In early childhood, babyhood, toddlerhood, we are really developing the habits that we’ll carry with us for a lifetime,” said Bolhuis, a physical education major who founded a gymnastics center 30 years ago and has expanded the brand to include the videos, which sell for $14.99 at www.gymtrix.net. “If kids are good at sports, because they’ve learned those skills, they’re going to stay active. Babies and toddlers are eager to learn. It’s just a perfect time to work with them, to teach them those things. It’s just like good eating, it’s just like good academics, we have a responsibility as parents.”

Bolhuis said the videos – there are four in all, ranging for children up to age 7 – are an attempt to create children that are more active and to stem the obesity rate. The one for babies, she said, gives parents 50 activities that they can do in 15-minute segments using household items such as spoons or paper.

– Mark Emmert

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.”


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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Nick Caiazzo talks about bat control with Cormic Lambert, 15, of Poland at the Edge Academy.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer


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Today's poll: Sports academies

Have you sent your child to an academy or program for specialized youth sports training?



View Results



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