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Are Sports Camps Right for Every Young Player?

Every summer, thousands of children participate in sports camps, ranging from day camps, to three- to six-day overnight camps, to intensive three-week "academies". These camps are a wonderful experience for many children: they encourage physical fitness and improve athletic skills, enhance coordination and self-esteem, and give children valuable lessons in teamwork, sportsmanship, self-discipline, and hard work. And, for kids in love with a particular sport, it gives them a chance to play to their hearts’ content. For some kids, heaven is a week of nonstop tennis or soccer.

But sports camps are not right for every child; they focus on a single activity and can be quite intense. Children frequently train seven to eight hours a day at the overnight camps; and, when they're not on the field, they watch sports videos, have "chalk talks," or "train psychologically," learning techniques such as visualization. Day camps often follow a similar routine. For some children, the intensity, both physically and psychologically, is too much. And, even for children who enjoy sports camps, special health issues should be considered. When looking for a sports camp, consider the benefits, drawbacks, and questions to consider as you select what's right for your camper:

The Benefits of Sports Camps

The benefits of sports camps are many. According to Ralph Ferrigno, director of New England Lightning Soccer Camps and head coach of men's soccer at Tufts University, sports camps let children focus on a sport they love, help them become proficient at it, and give them an opportunity to gain new perspectives on the sport from new coaches. Children also receive intensive conditioning and come home in terrific shape. Many children develop into superb athletes. And, for children who love a sport, these camps give them an opportunity to share their love of the sport with other children and adults who feel the same way. For these kids, sports camps are pure fun.

In addition to fun and physical development, Ferrigno emphasizes that sports camps help children develop as people. He says that such camps build mental and physical stamina, discipline, confidence, and leadership, and they emphasize the importance of seeing a difficult task through to the end. Children frequently develop strong friendships from working together and achieving a common goal, and they often have an enormous sense of accomplishment when the camp ends. It's common to hear children say, with great pride, "That was really tough, but I'm glad I did it." Ferrigno says that one of his special

pleasures is watching children develop as players and as people; and he has seen many youngsters become fine high school and collegiate athletes.

Foresight Solves Most Problems

To get the most out of sports camps, parents and children should take note: The focus on one activity can create certain problems, many of which may be alleviated with some foresight.

Overuse Injuries: One of the biggest concerns at a sports camp is repetitive overuse injuries. Because the children play the same sport, using the same parts of the body over and over, they may develop overuse injuries, some of which can be serious. Examples are tennis elbow, jumper’s knee, and swimmer's shoulder.

Dr. Gad Guttman, director of pediatric orthopedics at Einstein Medical Center in

Philadelphia, says that overuse injuries are a problem for children – ironically, more so than for adults – because their bodies are still growing. Dr. Guttman emphasizes that children's skeletal and muscular systems are not fully developed and that growing muscles, ligaments, and tendons are prone to injury. Bones, which are not fully calcified, and growth plates, where bone growth occurs, are also susceptible to injury. (Injury to growth plates can result in serious disability if not properly treated). Coaches at sports camps need to be aware of these problems and to develop programs that take them into account.

Poor Physical Condition: A second problem is that children who are not in good general condition may find the sudden demands of a full-time sports camp overwhelming. Poor physical condition is also more likely to result in injury; not every child is prepared for the rigors of training seven hours a day or more. Pediatricians emphasize that children who attend sports camps should be in good physical condition and well acclimated to the sport before they go.

Exposure to Sun and Heat.: Since most sports camps take place in the summer, heat, dehydration, and sun exposure can affect a child's health. Children's sweat glands are not adequately developed, so they cannot release heat efficiently from overworked muscles. Hydration is, therefore, extremely important. Unfortunately, children frequently do not heed the warning signals of overheating and dehydration, and tend to drink only when thirsty. Remind your kids to hydrate before they start to play and to constantly take breaks to drink liquids, and, to also wear sunscreen to prevent sunburn.

Overzealous Coaches: Most adults who run sports camps love kids and sports and create comfortable, constructive environments where kids thrive. However, some coaches are occasionally overzealous and create a stressful environment where children do not feel comfortable telling adults they need to stop. Dr. Guttman stresses that many of the injuries he sees occur because coaches put too much pressure on children to perform at high levels, win at all costs, and to keep playing, even when hurt. Be sure to interview coaches to see if they will respect a child's wish to rest if he or she is having trouble with pain, exhaustion, or dehydration. Avoid camps where coaches emphasize winning and "playing through the pain." If your child finds him or herself at a camp that is ignoring physical problems, he or she should be encouraged to call home and discuss the problem with you. A call from a parent to the camp can make a world of difference.


Making a Decision

Given the pros and cons of sports camps, making a decision can be difficult. Here are some factors to consider:

First, go slowly – introduce your child to sports camps in small doses. Many park recreation departments run low-key, affordable, and, sometimes, free sports camps for children for one to two hours a day. This is a great way to get started. You can see how your child likes focusing exclusively on one activity and how well he or she adapts to the physical demands. More importantly, your child has a chance to decide if sports camps are enjoyable and helpful in gaining skills he or she wants.

For longer day programs and overnight camps, assess whether a sports camp is right for your child. The knowledge that you and your child have from participating in shorter programs will be invaluable.

Will your child benefit from a sports camp or will the rigors be inappropriate? Not every child is up to or even wants to play a single sport all day.

Is your child in good physical condition and well acclimated to the sport? Her first experience with a sport should not be at a sports camp. Also, ask yourself if your child is sufficiently committed to the sport and if she understands what a sports camp entails. If you have doubts, step back to a less demanding program. Because of the rigors, Ralph Ferrigno stresses that the right attitude is essential for a successful sports camp experience. Children have to want to be there.

If you do decide on a sports camp, consider the following: what is an appropriate length? Camps run from one-hour sessions to half-day to full-day day camps to three-week overnight academies. Your decision should consider the child's age, his ambitions, his commitment to the sport, his overall physical condition, and his ability to stick with something demanding.

How intense is the training? Some camps are more low-key than others and offer kids free time or a chance to swim in the afternoon. Some also continue training after dinner, while others do not. Ask to see a daily schedule. Pay close attention to bedtime and wake-up time to be sure your child will be getting adequate sleep. You can also get a feel for the rigors of a camp by visiting when it is in session and talking to the camp director about his or her philosophy. Ferrigno stresses that a good camp paces children through each day and

through the entire session. If children overdo in the first days, they may not make it through the session. Ferrigno also emphasizes that coaches need to be flexible in their demands, making adaptations to the weather and the physical and emotional needs of the children. He says coaches should provide a variety of activities and that it's okay to do something "weird and wacky" occasionally.

Health and safety considerations: is medical help available from trained personnel? Is there a trainer on-site at all times who can deal with minor injuries? Is ice always available to soothe minor injuries before swelling sets in? Is drinking water stressed and readily available? Coaches should emphasize that children should be fully hydrated before they play. Are camp personnel aware of the special physical and emotional problems children may encounter in an intense athletics program? Does the camp get children out of the heat and sun in the middle of the day? Is all the time spent working on the specific sport or is time allowed for stretching and warming up, general conditioning, and even strength training?

Dr. Guttman stresses that the more varied the activities, the less likely a child will be injured because she won't be using the same muscles constantly. Orthopedists also stress that moderate and properly supervised strength training can help a child reduce stress injuries by strengthening the surrounding muscles.

Does the camp insist that children wear proper protective gear? Are the facilities and campgrounds safe and appropriate?

Is a healthy attitude toward the sport maintained? Camps should emphasize a relaxed atmosphere of competition, physical development, personal growth, and fun. If camp is not enjoyable, it's time to reconsider. As Ferrigno says, "We want them to have a good time and come back."

Sports camps are a terrific experience for many children. However, the best way to approach them is gradually. Start slowly, moving to more rigorous camps as appropriate. If you're not sure, go for the shorter, more low-key camp Your child can always move up the following summer. And, most of all, be sure your child is having fun in a relaxed, safe, and happy environment.