Fast track toward pro sports starts younger

As sports becomesa measure of success in America, young athletes are training ever harder.

Soccer player Arturo Canino has been training year-round, sometimes 'til 9 p.m. at night, since his preschool years. He is now 9 years old.

Pete Vonich, father of a 7-year-old pitcher, posts his praise for a new radar gun online after he searches the Internet for the latest technology to help his son boost his throwing speed.

An Alabama surgeon says he's now doing special elbow surgery on 11- and 12-year-old players that just five years ago he only performed on major-league pitchers.

Youth sports have long since crept from sandlot pickup games to highly organized, adult-driven events. But today, competition has taken on a new degree of devotion – and reached down to much younger players. It has also expanded to some 52 million participants, according to the National Council on Youth Sports, based in Stuart, Fla.

Forget fun. These days, kids "train" as if they were already in the pros. The drive to excel isn't new, but the intensity of conditioning is: Grade schoolers track their own "stats" over the Internet as intensely as their dads once traded pro cards, and put radar gear in their bats and mitts. National media now routinely cover these budding pros before they're in their teens: "Sports Illustrated" recently had a cover on high school football while "Friday Night Lights," NBC's new sports drama series based on the nonfiction book by H.G. Bissinger, depicts high schoolers doing TV interviews.

Money and stardom are largely responsible for this new arms (and legs) race. Just as the old Communist states used to groom young athletes for national pride, rich and poor families alike are in a dead heat for the ultimate free-market prize: wealth and status.

This is the first generation of parents to come of age watching ever younger athletes go pro: soccer whiz Freddy Adu at 14 and golfer Michelle Wie at 16, for example. And few people are oblivious to the astronomical salaries and endorsement deals earned by everyone from Terrell Owens to Trevor Hoffman to Tiger Woods.

"A huge carrot has been created," says Michael Lewis, author of "Blind Side," an account of how a black 16-year-old Tennessean – who had never before played football – was groomed for a possible NFL career owing only to his 6 ft., 5 in., 330-pound physique. "People are reminded of it every day, and historically it's pretty recent." This dovetails with what Mr. Lewis calls a growing fear about the future. "There is now this terror that if you don't succeed young there is no second act," he adds.

"It's a disturbing trend," says Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, sports injuries for kids ages 5 to 15 are rising annually, some 3.5 million this past year. Loren Seagrave, a former Olympic coach who authored the 2005 study "State of Youth Sports in America," was aghast when he came across the Alabama surgeon treating children for serious sports injuries.

Ironically, it is also leading to a less active generation of teens. Seven out of 10 youngsters burn out and drop out of sports – and any subsequent activity altogether by age 13, says Mr. Roby. "Those who stay in the system become so narrow in their focus, and so self-identified as athletes, that when they get to college and beyond we start seeing lack of coping skills," he says. That's especially true, he adds, if their dreams don't pan out. The numbers are grim: Fewer than 1 percent of young athletes will make it as pros.

Even well-intentioned parents contribute toward the pressure on today's children. Many two-income families all but take over their children's schedules. "The ultimate result is that if an activity isn't organized and run by the parents these days, it doesn't happen," says Mr. Seagrave, director of Velocity Sports in Ashburn, Va. Once families, especially fathers, begin to invest in activities, they naturally assess their value. "People start to ask, 'Will this give my kid what he needs?' " says Charles Euchner, author of the baseball book, "Little League, Big Dreams." "Dad will say to himself, do I really want Mr. Murphy down the street teaching my son when there's a pro across town with his own batting cage?"

Kids can push themselves as hard as their parents, sometimes to their own detriment. On any given school night, hours past dinnertime, the massive Van Nuys/Sherman Oaks War Memorial park in California teems with young soccer, football, baseball, and tennis groups. As she finishes for the night, 13-year-old Elizabeth Navalta picks up her soccer ball. She likes her team because it's tough. "Not like at school where it's all soft and not about winning. I like to win," she says.

This is a generation raised on 25 years of ESPN, says Dr. John McCarthy, director of the Institute for Athletic Coach Education at Boston University. "It's really hard to separate this professional model that's held in front of us all the time from what young people need at various stages of development," he adds.

Those who run the elite athletic teams say there's a place for high-powered sports for kids who can handle it. Parents are the biggest problem, says Rich Goldberg, founder and president of the American Roundball Corporation (ARC). He wishes parents would just drop off the kids and leave the rest to the professionals. "All those dreams of money and pro careers are coming from the parents."

But many parents say even the well-run systems are breaking down. Nikki Shipley of Encino, Calif., tells of a boy in her son's public school who came from Minnesota, failed to get into his first choice college, left town and registered as a junior in a nearby district to try again. Allowing older kids to "play down" is known as a "grade exception," says Mr. Goldberg. It began as a method of allowing smaller national leagues, primarily from the South, to hold their own against large, urban teams. "But it's gotten completely out of control," says Ms. Shipley, whose 16-year-old first chose a basketball over other toys in his crib at 4 months old.

The focus on winning and garnering the attention of the all-important college or pro scouts is crushing out teamwork and good sportsmanship, says Shipley: "How can you compete when some other kids are allowed to do all kinds of hot dog behavior on the court, or get away with bringing in 20-year-olds from Croatia?"

Many programs are springing up to reverse this trend, with more emphasis on the process rather than the prize. Numerous national groups are beginning to set standards for nonschool affiliated teams and leagues, with the aim of training coaches to be more developmentally appropriate.

But some observers question whether a culture so geared toward big-money, winner-take-all games can be altered. "I think it will take generations for this to change," says sports psychologist Richard Lustberg, who calls the problem a window into the very essence of American culture. "We are a society in decline about our sports and moral values. Either something big will have to happen to change it, or it will simply continue to go downhill."

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