The sport Kali O'Keeffe loved at age 12 had turned into a chore, devouring her free time, leaving her out of touch with friends.
She was the starting second baseman for Chanhassen High School's softball team by eighth grade and a major college recruit by 15. But O'Keeffe reached a breaking point before her junior year, on the way back from Tennessee, where her club team had played in a national tournament.
Three hectic years traveling to tournaments across the country and spending countless nights inside a batting cage had taken a toll. She sat down next to her father on a curb outside their roadside hotel. Crying, she told him the pressure of playing year-round softball was just too much.
"When I told my parents, I felt so bad," she said. "They had spent so much money on softball, and I just didn't want to do it anymore."
O'Keeffe is among a generation of Minnesota athletes who have pushed themselves to extremes, developing highly polished skills through year-round dedication to their sport, while their families make major investments of money and time. Her father, Bryan, said the family spent a minimum of $7,500 per year on softball, adding, "That could be on the conservative side."
Youth sports are an estimated $15 billion industry, and the increasing specialization of these budding athletes is irrevocably changing Minnesota's high school landscape in softball, baseball, soccer, hockey, basketball, volleyball and lacrosse -- basically, every team sport except football.
The offseason is disappearing, fueled by an explosion of pay-to-play club sports that have scores of young athletes training year-round. While a select few, such as O'Keeffe, become good enough to attract college scholarships, others devote countless extra hours in the quest to make varsity teams.
In the never-ending blur of year-round practices and games, the importance of the high school season itself is shrinking, to the chagrin of many coaches.
"The genie's out of the bottle now," Totino-Grace activities director Mike Smith said. "I don't know how you're going to reverse it. These athletes just don't have very long to be a kid."
The Hill-Murray boys' hockey team, for example, practices with its coach five days per week -- in July. The morning after the state volleyball tournament ends next month, hundreds of girls will flock right back to the gym for club volleyball tryouts the next morning. The same happens with basketball.
Teen athletes and their families spend thousands to play for club teams, attend skill-instruction camps and hire personal trainers and college recruiting advisers. A local baseball recruiting service offers a $2,400 guarantee that the teen will play college baseball -- or their money back.
"You see families that can't afford to buy groceries, but they'll somehow find a way to get a thousand-dollar pair of skates and get to New York," Hill-Murray boys' hockey coach Bill Lechner said. "It scares me; our priorities are out of whack."
A Star Tribune survey of metro-area coaches, which drew about 140 responses, found that most varsity athletes in volleyball, soccer, basketball, hockey, softball and baseball spend as much time on their sport during the offseason as they do during the high school season. Coaches in volleyball and boys' and girls' soccer reported the highest rates of offseason play by their athletes, sometimes reaching 90 percent.
Chanhassen softball coach Joe Coenen supported O'Keeffe's decision to drop club softball and continue playing varsity ball in the spring. O'Keeffe returned to help the high school win the 2016 Class 4A state championship.
Now she's a freshman at the University of Minnesota, studying nursing, and happily retired from sports. Meanwhile, Coenen said he has a sophomore going through the same stress O'Keeffe did.
"Her whole summer is softball," Coenen said. "For some people, it makes them despise the sport. But for every kid out there whose family would love to cut back, there's a kid who wants to do more."
How it's changed
Lechner remembers a much more leisurely pace to sports when he graduated from Cretin High School in 1971. He and his friends played in a Roseville summer hockey league, nothing that frequently interfered with baseball and summer revelry.
Now Lechner runs a summer camp that's "optional" but always well-attended for his Hill-Murray boys' hockey team. Hockey coaches at Wayzata, Bloomington Jefferson and other prominent metro-area programs run these summer camps, too, with parents footing the bill.
"I live on a lake. I coach baseball. I want to golf," Lechner said. "It's not mandatory to run a summer camp, but if I don't, they'd hit me over the head."
The Minnesota State High School League didn't allow coaches to work with players during the summer until 1998. The league had faced pressure from parents who felt their sons and daughters couldn't maximize their potential under the old system.
"Our kids were running off and spending thousands of dollars for training in the offseason," Bloomington Jefferson boys' hockey coach Jeff Lindquist said. "We just felt it was a time to let them train in our community."
The measure, allowing coaching instruction from June 1 to July 31, passed 79-9.
Faribault Bethlehem Academy volleyball coach Franz Boelter was among the nine who voted no, citing the added time commitment being asked of athletes. Now he has worked summer practice sessions into his calendar, and the Cardinals have won seven state championships since 2002.
"I worry that we are asking so much of our kids who are never going to play more than varsity," Boelter said. "They get tired of us."
Football is a different animal. For safety reasons, the high school league limits coaches to 11 full-contact summer football practices.
Kevin Merkle, a former league associate director, said football coaches appreciate that rule because they "can have some time off" knowing "the coach down the road in the next town isn't doing anything more either."
Competing training options
Taylor Manno was the starting pitcher for Chanhassen in the 2016 Class 4A softball championship game. But there was a four-hour rain delay, and when play resumed, Manno was gone. She had a flight to catch to New Jersey, where her club softball team was beginning a tournament the next day.
Manno's teammates, including many like herself who played year-round, didn't blink. They recognized Manno's need to showcase her talents that weekend for East Coast coaches. Sure enough, Manno received a scholarship to play at New Jersey-based Rutgers.
"I don't really regret it because the tournament I went to was the reason Rutgers recruited me," Manno said. "The only part I regret is not being able to celebrate [the state championship] with my teammates."
Athletic directors said stories such as Manno's are becoming more commonplace, citing examples of top basketball players missing high school playoff games to attend national soccer tournaments, and top high school baseball players missing games to go play hockey.
When they aren't playing games, these athletes most likely are working out, often paying trainers to help them.
Former Minneapolis North and University of Connecticut standout Khalid El-Amin runs Ultimate Hoops out of Life Time Fitness in St. Louis Park. Clients pay him between $40 and $100 for hour-long basketball instruction sessions.
Trevor Morning, head performance specialist at Englebert Training Systems (ETS) in Lakeville, said about 500 high school athletes work with trainers through the facility, including several teams from Lakeville North High School. A year-round package at ETS costs about $199 per month.
"To be honest, all athletes should be training year-round," Morning said. "That helps with injury prevention, maintaining strength and maintaining mobility."
For families seeking extra help attracting college recruiters, there's help available -- at a price. The Baseball Advising Team is one example, assuring clients they'll play college baseball for $2,400. It works with the Hit Dawg Academy in Chaska, creating a training regimen to follow while the company networks with college coaches on players' behalf.
"I believe that anybody who wants to play college baseball can," said Matt Paulsen, the company's founder. "It doesn't mean you're going to be playing for Florida State."
While some athletes and their families can approach these pursuits with open checkbooks, others can't. In 2016, children from families making $25,000 or less were only half as likely to take part in a team sport as families making at least $100,000, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
In modern youth sports, overall participation numbers for team sports are declining. In 2016, about 36.9 percent of children ages 6 to 12 participated in a team sport on a regular basis, down from 44.5 percent in 2008, according to the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program.
"When you play a bigger school, you're not necessarily playing the best athletes in the school," said Mike Grant, Eden Prairie's football coach and activities director. "You're just playing the people that have spent the most money and more time in the gym."
The multisport challenge
Luke Rooker is trying to buck the trend of specializing in one sport. The Totino-Grace freshman plays football and hockey.
"I tell people, ‘Hockey is 13 months a year,' " his father, Tom Rooker, said.
When football practice started in August, Luke also played in the Easton Cup, a hockey tournament featuring the top hockey clubs in the Upper Midwest.
One day that week, Rooker arrived at the high school at 7:30 a.m. for football meetings. Football practice lasted until about 11:30. Rooker grabbed lunch, then headed for the Super Rink in Blaine for two hockey games. By the time he got home, it was 9:30 p.m.
"I was a little bit worn out," Rooker said, smiling. "I just wanted to sleep."
The next day, Rooker was back inside the Super Rink for two more hockey games, as temperatures outside climbed above 80 degrees.
"It's the nicest day all week, and we're sitting in an ice rink," said Tom Rooker, perched over a railing, watching his 6-2, 215-pound son play.
Tom Rooker appreciates that Luke's coach with the Minnesota Icemen club team schedules only three tournaments, all in Minnesota. The team practices two to three times per week.
Even without travel, it's not cheap. Luke also attends a skating camp led by former NHL defenseman Dave Langevin and former Gophers and North Stars winger Scott Bjugstad's shooting camp.
Asked how much the family spends just on hockey, Tom Rooker said, "I'd hate to look at the number. And we're on the low end."
Orono boys' basketball coach Barry Wohler can relate to what Rooker aspires to be. But Wohler had it easier.
Wohler led Bird Island-Lake Lillian to back-to-back football and basketball state championships in high school. He played baseball and basketball for the Gophers in the early 1980s and played baseball professionally, climbing as high as Class AAA.
"If the rules were what they are today, I wouldn't have played baseball," Wohler said. "I loved basketball. I would have gone to all of those AAU tournaments and wouldn't have had time for anything else."
On last year's Maple Grove girls' soccer team, 19 of the 21 varsity players were strictly soccer players, having shed obligations for any other sport.
In a University of Wisconsin study released this summer, 30 percent of the 12-year-old athletes surveyed already were highly specialized in one sport, meaning they trained at least eight months per year for that sport and had quit one sport to focus on another. By age 15, the number of highly specialized athletes was 47 percent.
If scholarships are the goal, there are no guarantees. According to the NCAA, only 2 percent of all high school athletes receive some form of college scholarship. Four years ago, UCLA researchers surveyed 296 Division I athletes and found that 70 percent of them waited to specialize in one sport until at least age 12.
"There's this myth out there that the reason kids specialize is to get a college scholarship," said Timothy McGuine, who led the Wisconsin study. "Talking to parents and kids, we started seeing that specialization was really about just getting on their high school team."
Micki Husnik echoed that this August, watching daughter Lauren compete for North Branch in a preseason volleyball tournament in Burnsville. Lauren Husnik isn't on a mission to play college volleyball; she just loves being part of a North Branch team that made the state tournament two years ago.
"To be a good varsity player, you have to commit yourself year-round," Micki Husnik said. "Like we always tell her, there's always somebody getting better, faster, stronger -- ready to take your spot."
Injury risk increases
McGuine's study gathered data from 29 Wisconsin high school athletic departments, studying 1,544 injuries. The conclusions showed that athletes who specialized in one sport were about 50 percent more likely than nonspecialized athletes to suffer lower-body injuries, such as ankle sprains, knee tendinitis and stress fractures.
Dr. Heather Bergeson, who specializes in overuse injuries for Tria Orthopaedic Center in the Twin Cities, said she is seeing more foot stress fractures among youth soccer players and more elbow ligament replacement surgeries among youth baseball players.
To help protect young arms, the high school league adopted new pitch count rules this year, capping the number of pitches any player can throw in one day. Pitchers who throw more than 50 pitches must receive at least two days of rest before pitching again.
Bergeson also has seen an increase in lower-back stress fractures, including some in patients as young as 8. She said this used to be primarily a gymnastics injury, but she's seeing it from volleyball, basketball and hockey.
"It's a real epidemic of overuse injuries," Bergeson said.
Kali O'Keeffe liked everything about club softball when she started playing for the Minnesota Renegades after sixth grade.
"The coaches were phenomenal," she said. "We'd hit all the time, and they took video of your swing. That's where I saw the most improvement."
Over the years, the Renegades played tournaments from Tennessee to California. But heading into her junior year, O'Keeffe had reached her limit.
The club team's summer regimen included a four-hour morning practice. There was an afternoon break, but the team might have a 5 p.m. game in Rosemount, for example, so there would be another car pool, with players arriving two hours before first pitch. Sometimes at weekend tournaments, the team would be up until 11:30 p.m., analyzing video.
"At the end of the summer, it was like I didn't have a summer, all I had was softball," O'Keeffe said. "It got to the point where I was losing sleep over it because I wanted to have memories with my friends."
During the winter, O'Keeffe juggled softball and hockey, but softball was the primary focus. She drew interest from Indiana, Loyola (Chicago), Northern Iowa and St. Thomas before shutting down her recruiting after the curbside conversation with her dad.
"She made her decision, and we supported it," Bryan O'Keeffe said. "She didn't want her legacy to be known strictly as a softball player. There's so much more to her as a person."
Last March, the Arizona Interscholastic Association passed a rule allowing its high school coaches to work with players not just during the season and summer, but year-round.
"I can't wrap my head around how that's good for a kid year-round," said Smith at Totino-Grace.
Long a hockey mecca, Minnesota has become a growing hotbed for college volleyball, basketball and softball recruits, with increasing visibility for athletes in baseball, soccer and lacrosse. Success breeds success, but if Arizona's decision is any indication, the Minnesota State High School League could face increasing pressure to loosen coaching restrictions.
Asked to predict what Minnesota high school sports will look like in 20 years, Wohler said he wonders if all sports will be run through clubs, instead of the high schools. That's the European way.
Meantime, increasingly younger American children are taking their training year-round. Some make that decision even before middle school.
"That's just sad," Kali O'Keeffe said. "I feel bad for kids who don't know what they're getting into."
Source: Star Tribune
For those of us coaching (and sports parenting) on sidelines of youth and high school games this fall, the controversy swirling around the NFL may feel distant from our day-to-day sports experience. We at Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) encourage you to think about how the present situation can be used as a "teachable moment." In your specific role, why and how might you talk to youth about what they're seeing?
If you're an athletic director
If you're a coach
If you're a sports parent
Based on our experiences talking with athletic directors, coaches, parents, and athletes about these current events, we know these conversations can be powerful learning experiences for all involved. Together, let's make the most of them.
Tournaments for 2018, even for early 2018, are not being posted on FastSports in 2017. It's part of the change in the site that will see many of the features eliminated completely on January 1, 2018.
The site may not be gone completely. It may just have a transformation. Tournament Listings (ironically the most popular part of the site) and the Clearinghouse functions, including athletes looking for teams, teams looking for athletes, and teams looking for coaches, will all be discontinued. The page of links will also be discontinued.
Areas I'm contemplating keeping or expanding: Clinics, but only non-commercial clinics. That means the clinic would have to be either free or associated with a educational institution. This was the first reason FastSports came into existance. You can see by the article/opinion below, why I think clinics are important.
Another expansion area will be opinions. They'll mostly be mine or if someone wants to send some in that are fairly well written, I may choose to add those too. Unlike the forum, where there was an opportunity to provide heated feedback, that won't be the case going forward. This will be more like the newspaper. You can write to the editor and your viewpoint or counterpoint may be printed. I'm sure there will be people that disagree with me and think I'm out of touch with the realities of today's youth sports. I'm okay with that.
I'm trying to figure out a way to expand the number of photographs and the number of athletes that have their photograph taken. I don't usually know where I'm going to end up on any given weekend and I usually take a lot of photos of girls that I'm coaching or have coached. I need to get out and take more photos of other athletes and other teams. I'll be working on that.
Expansion to other sports.. FastSports has been 100% fastpitch softball related since its' inception. With photography, it may expand to other sports.
You have cameras in your phones. You tend to use them to take the photos of the athletes when they're not on the field. You have a lot of photos of girls standing with friends, biting on the latest medal that they've won. Those are great. But you rarely get close up photos of them playing the game. I'm not an "action photographer". I don't even consider myself a "sports photographer" most of the time. My goal in photography is to see your daughter's smiles, determination, strength, beauty, stubborness, grit, while she's on the field. That doesn't mean it will be the diving catch at short. It means there may be some photos of her face when she's up to bat. It may be focus when playing shortstop. It could be the determination to beat the throw while running to 1st. I like faces in my photos. You have to ask yourself if you can get those photos with your smartphone camera. If not, are you willing to pay to have those photos to look back on. I take almost 100% of the photos displayed on FastSports. If you'd like these types of photos of your team there are options for bulk pricing and single photo pricing. My only requirement is to have access to the dugouts on both sides of the field. You can contact me through the comments section on FastSports if you have questions.
Thanks for everything!
I recently saw an ad for dome softball and all of the reasons athletes should play dome ball.
It's interesting that some of the same people that sponsor dome ball also sponsor college showcases to bring in college showcases and will tell you how important those are for the athlete's future in college sports. If you have a daughter that is interested in playing college ball, I'm going to try and make a case against dome ball and for going to clinics at colleges in the area. The first reason the advertiser had for playing dome ball is that they get at least one hour to warm-up and practice before games. That's nice. I've been to the domes. It's not like you get to practice on anything like a full field. The warm-up time is definitely needed, because some of the domes are running 48-54 degrees in mid-winter. Without warming up, there is a greater opportunity for injury.
In that one hour of warm-up, how many times does each athlete get to handle the ball and swing the bat. How much instruction is being provided? How many college coaches are watching? The second reason for playing dome ball was directed at pitchers. They state they use dome ball to stay sharp and get a chance to work on their craft against great hitters. I've always believed that pitchers are made in the off-season. We need to work on breaking bad habits, enforcing good mechanics, and learning new techniques. When we move to a competitive game situation, pitchers are told what to throw with the objective of winning the game. They will have a tendency to call pitches that work, not ones that the pitcher is learning. And the pitcher, if working to correct mechanics, generally falls back on known poor mechanics unless there has been enough repetition and practice to have overcome them. The pitcher may get 20-30 minutes of practice pitching during the warm-up and practice session. And she will get half the time on the field if the teams are equally matched and she's the only pitcher for two games (highly unlikely). And because we have to wait for batters, umpires, the play of the game, etc., she may only pitch 70 pitches in a day during the games and maybe 100 pitches during the warm-up and practice. She didn't get any instruction. How many college coaches saw her?
Strong coaches is the third reason. I'll hand this one to you. There are some good coaches in youth softball. There are some good fundamental coaches. There are good game coaches. There are a few that have both skills. And in that hour of warm-up and practice, I've seen very few coaches actually coaching skills. During a game there's some game coaching and maybe a bit of instruction, but it's not like the hands-on coaching your daughter would receive in a clinic. It's very difficult to teach the game and play the game simultaneously, unless it's designed as a teaching scrimmage and play can stop for the purpose of instruction. That doesn't happen in dome ball. None of the dome ball coaches are college coaches.
A friendly atmosphere is touted as another reason to play dome softball. I suppose it's as friendly as any competitive event in youth sports. We still have a few parents bickering about playing time, playing time in key positions, the level of coaching, etc. It's not uncommon to see some face-to-face confrontation between parents, parents and coaches, coaches and umpires, and even parents and umpires. Notice the athletes are seldom involved in that part of the "friendly atmosphere". I'm thankful for that.
If we looked at the friendly atmosphere of a some softball game and a clinic, I think the positive feedback and instruction in the clinic is going to be far friendlier than that experienced in most game situations. College coaches don't often do much more than teach and praise in their clinics. Then we have scheduling and money. Dome softball is on a strict schedule. You pay your money and if you can't make it one weekend, you're out the money for that weekend. If you choose not to go to a clinic one weekend, you save your money and go to a longer clinic the next weekend. You make the determination of the time and distance you want to travel for each clinic.
Let's say you play seven days in a dome ball session. The price is $4200 for the team. That's $600 per team per day. Divide the $600 by 12 athletes. You just paid $50.00 for a one hour warm-up and two games where you got up to bat a total of six or seven times if you were lucky. If you weren't the pitcher, catcher or 1st base, you may have touched the ball six or seven because not every hit goes to every player and the ball just doesn't get thrown from player to player that often, except to 1st. Not one college coach saw your daughter at bat. Not one saw her make that diving catch and throw for the double play.
We could also go into all the research about playing a single sport all year. It's stated over and over that athletes benefit from playing more than one sport. If you aren't committed to every weekend of dome softball, you have time to play another winter sport and possibly go to some softball clinics too.
I had an opportunity to stand with several Division III coaches last at a showcase last winter. The conversation was about athletes that play only softball and those that are dual- or triple-sport athletes. The overall consensus was that coaches would rather see a multi-sport athlete that isn't quite as good at a position than a single sport athlete that might be a little bit better. They believe that a multi-sport athlete is more easily coached and will really have more ability when coached in a single sport at the college level than those that were only taught softball in youth ball. With dome softball, you're there almost every weekend for a game. With softball clinics, you can go fewer times and be seen by college coaches from schools you may be interested in.
We have come to the mistaken belief that games are practice. They aren't They're still games. And that clinics are just fundraisers. They aren't. If you are open to your daughter going to a school where they hold clinics, the absolute best way for her to be seen is on that campus in that clinic. It does not count as a recruiting visit for the coach. And as the NCAA is starting to restrict recruiting opportunities further, you need to do everything in your power to have your daughter be seen by college coaches.
Last thing. If you're playing on a team that flies to Florida, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, etc., to play in showcase tournaments, ask yourself how many athletes from the upper midwest / plains area are on the teams of the coaches that are in attendance. What is the real opportunity for your daughter to play on those teams? Sure, Minnesota in generating some Division I athletes. And there are a few more Division II athletes. But the majority of athletes from this area play Division III (because there are more Division III teams). And I'd guess most of them play on teams within 300-miles (five hours) from home. Ask yourself why you're paying for your daughter to be seen for 10-minutes by a few coaches in Reno, when she can be seen all day by a coach in a school she's more likely to attend.
I'd absolutely love to see every college and university with a softball team have clinics.
Judy Carter Davis and her husband, Dwight, recently got back from a trip to Scotland
-- the "Home of Golf" -- with its tourist must-sees like Edinburgh and the Old Course in St. Andrews.
Welcome to the expensive world of elite youth sports. Annual spending for club travel-team tuition, personal trainers, top-of-the-line equipment, showcase tournaments and outlays for gas, airfares, hotels and food on the road runs into the thousands of dollars.
Between skyrocketing costs, sport specialization and coaches needing training, youth sports is in the midst of a crisis, according to new data published Wednesday by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and the Aspen Institute.
"Sports in America have separated into sport-haves and have-nots," said Tom Farrey, executive director of Aspen's Sports & Society program. The group released its research at its annual Project Play Summit on Wednesday in Washington.
"All that matters is if kids come from a family that has resources. If you don't have money, it's
hard to play."
"You can't stick a kid in right field and he touches the ball once or twice a game," Farrey said.
"That's not the same level of excitement as you can get on a video game."
Source: The Oregonian / Washington Post
Everyone -- or almost everyone -- likes a winner.
Three out of four American families with school-aged children will have at least one child who plays an organized sport
-- about 45 million children in all, according to the IHSAA. However, youth sports has evolved into an $8 billion industry that promotes early specialization, private one-on-one coaching and a significant financial and emotional investment by parents.
Schools can participate