Who wants it more?
That refrain of coach-speak is meant as motivation on the playing field, but applies to youth sports participants across Iowa.
Before the games even begin, how much time and effort are parents and their kids willing to devote to athletic success?
“During the summer, our top swimmers will probably spend 30 hours a week training,” said Dave Joensen, head coach at the competitive swim club Central Iowa Aquatics.
“It’s not always a straight line for improvement. You might not see results for awhile, and it can be more of a zigzag. You have to be willing to stay on the path and stay committed.”
The Register’s third entry in a six-part summer series examines the commitments Iowa families make for youth sports.
As an increasing number of Americans specialize to find success in one sport, winning can require sacrifice, adult-like focus and intense physical demands.
“Youth sports are a great thing,” said Jim Miller, president of the Muscatine-based Youth Sports Foundation. “It’s when we put pressure on them to be the best is when it can really break down.”
Finding the time
Seventeen-year-old Moriah Ross is an all-state swimmer with a busy schedule.
She has been with 250-member Central Iowa Aquatics for 10 years and seen the benefits of hard work, like her older sister Katharine’s all-American honors this season for the University of Missouri.
That doesn’t make an elite commitment any easier for a Des Moines teenager in the summer.
“It’s a love-hate relationship, but I do love it a lot,” Ross said with a laugh.
“I’ve been balancing things for the last few weeks, so I get up for swim practice at 5:30 a.m., then I go to driver’s ed, then I come home and rest for a little bit. Then I go to teach swim lessons, then back to swim practice afterwards. It’s a lot of time.”
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A year-round dedication to a competitive skill is not desirable for every Iowa family or young athlete. Especially when it requires hundreds of hours working in the quiet water.
“You have to be willing to not have immediate gratification,” Joensen said. “You have to understand that the work you’re doing now is going to pay off in the future. It’s not going to happen tomorrow or next week. It might be a year from now or even five years in the future.”
Top programs in other popular youth sports — soccer, baseball and softball, basketball — can require a staggering amount of travel and time for the athletes and their parents.
But local recreation programs aren’t as easy as showing up and going home.
Tom Burger is a father of two sons in West Branch and has officiating experience at the college and high school levels. He estimates his 12-year-old is spending 15 to 20 hours a week this summer playing organized youth sports, with his 8-year-old checking in under 10 hours.
“I want to make sure that they want to go,” Burger said. “That’s one thing I try hard to keep an eye on, is whether they’re still excited.”
Cutting back on his officiating duties to spend more time on his own kids’ sports, Burger knows first-hand how draining youth athletics can be.
“I probably see more frustration at the lower-level sports than at a college-level sport,” Burger said. “We’ve got dads at their 11-year-old’s game standing behind home plate to tell the ump whether he’s squeezing the strike zone. It’s tough to watch.”
Miller has more than 6,000 kids participating in his programs at different times of the year in eastern Iowa and western Illinois. Even with growing numbers, he wants families to take time to step away from the games.
A 2011 survey through the University of Minnesota’s Youth Sports Research Consortium showed that parents perceived that “youth sport minimally interferes with family functioning.”
Those nearly 2,000 Midwest parents surveyed still responded that meals and family time were interfered with more than vacations, homework, sleep or religious services, especially for athletes between the ages of 12 and 14.
“When kids are getting burnt out is when parents are taking them to sports practice after sports practice,” Miller said. “You’ve got to sit down with your kids and say, ‘What’s going to be best for you? What do you want to do?’ You’ve got to make it work for them.”
For a growing number of young athletes across Iowa and across the nation, there aren’t enough hours in the day to become competitive in multiple activities.
So they commit to one, accrue as much training as possible through practices and camps, and hope it pays off on the playing field.
“When you’re younger, whatever season it is, that’s what your favorite sport is,” said Brody Egger, 17, of Urbandale. “When you start to get older you realize what you’re good at and that’s what you usually specialize in. Once you get even older, you have to choose and start quitting sports.”
Egger was a starting pitcher for Urbandale’s Little League World Series team in 2009.
But he gave up football and baseball to focus on basketball. The 6-foot-2 senior-to-be started at point guard for the state-qualifying J-Hawks over the winter.
“If I would have been the absolute best baseball and football player at my high school, it would have been tougher to quit,” Egger said. “At Urbandale, we’ve got good players at every sport. And baseball is a huge commitment.”
Ross made a decision to stay in the pool early on. Both her parents were swimmers at Iowa.
“My parents just had me try it out when I was younger,” Ross said. “If I had wanted to do something different, they would have let me do that, too. I really enjoyed the swim meets right away.”
Specialization has quickly become a buzzword both prevalent and taboo.
“It seems like at the youth level, kids are really having to pick their sport and specialize in that,” Miller said. “And I don’t want to say that’s wrong.
“But now we’ve got kids that have to start playing baseball in November and work all winter long because they have to make the high school team, and they’re only 8 years old. We’re putting the pressure on.”
Risks associated with focusing on just one activity can extend beyond the time and financial resources families have committed.
“You’re going to have freak cases, like (NBA player from Ames) Harrison Barnes, where they can just play one sport,” said Troy Kleese, a certified athletic trainer and the Iowa Sports Medicine Director for Physiotherapy Associates.
“But those examples are so few and far between. We see the research and results on kids that specialize in one sport 12 months a year. They can miss their other opportunities.”
Even coaches that ask for a high level of devotion want to see kids vary their routines.
“We’re seeing kids specialize at an earlier and earlier age,” Joensen said. “They lack some of the experience of other sports. We want them to be involved in lots of different things, not just sports.”
All the positives to be reaped from youth sports down the line might depend on it.
“At times, the physical expectation on behalf of parents and coaches at the youth level are really unrealistic,” said Dr. Craig Mahoney, chairman of the department of orthopaedics at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines. “That translates into pressure on youth participants because they want to make everybody happy. And that can be a problem.”
A highly publicized study from Loyola University in Chicago tracked young athletes for three years and found that those receiving specialized training in one activity before or during adolescence were much more likely to be injured and feel increased stress in sports.
Through a series of sports physicals and exams, the 2012 report found “60.4 percent of the injured athletes specialized in sports, while only 31.3 percent of the uninjured athletes specialized.”
Any similar problems in Iowa could be chalked up to ignorance. Kleese sees that in sports medicine. He said parental awareness for injury prevention hasn’t kept up with the rate at which kids are taking the field.
“Kids are resilient and pliable,” Kleese said. “But when pain and injuries start happening, parents don’t think about how they got there.”
With the resources parents commit to youth sports — Part 2 in this series noted that costs nationally top $5 billion annually — they want their kids on the field.
Too much practice and too many games are a common thread in youth sports injuries.
“We see a lot of shin splints, from using different shoes on different surfaces,” Kleese said. “Also, a lot of shoulder pain or elbow pain in throwers.”
A piece of the solution is simple, yet counterintuitive, to many kids in their pursuit of success.
“Active kids can’t get enough rest,” Kleese said. “Take a day off. Take a break. Parents need to make sure kids take full advantage of rest and recovery days.”
Slowing down may not feel like an option to youth sports participants, either because of team commitments or tight schedules.
Ross says all the time in the pool has her fighting off a minor ear infection, but that’s a small issue on her challenging journey.
“The effort you put into the pool is what you’re going to get out of it, and I think that’s really rewarding,” Ross said.
Egger has seen his hard work pay off at multiple levels.
He is spending more than 15 hours per week in the gym this June to be competitive when basketball season starts in November.
“It’s something I do think about a lot, whether it’s all worth it,” Egger said. “And I always end up saying, ‘Yeah, it is.’ Mainly because I just like the sport so much.”
It’s all part of a heavy load Iowa’s kids carry to perform on the field.
To that end, Miller has advice for Mom and Dad.
“Even the pros make mistakes,” Miller said. “Tell your kids, ‘It’s OK to fail. It’s OK to make a mistake.’
“The parents that can handle mistakes their kids make on the field, those end up being the kids that handle it the best. They know they’re still supported.”
Health and athletic success can be joint goals for the long-term — even if your 10-year-old has an important and expensive tournament next weekend.
“At some point, everybody’s career ends,” Joensen said. “And they’re going to have to live in this world, and they have to prepare for that.
“Swimming is a lifelong activity and something you can do until you’re 70 or 80. But very few people make a living in sports, and those that do after awhile have to find something else to do.”
ABOUT THE SERIES
A look at our Culture of Youth Sports in Iowa calendar:
• June 1: Numbers
• June 15: Money
• Today: Commitment
• July 13: Parents
• July 27: Competition
• Aug. 10: Football
The commitment of kids was the thrust of Part 3 in this youth-sports series. Part 4 looks at the parental figures off the field. What are the biggest challenges parents face in today’s competitive age? How active must parents be for their child to be successful? Have you seen instances of parents going too far — be it in their child’s ear or an umpire’s? Contact reporter Chris Cuellar (firstname.lastname@example.org) and sports editor Chad Leistikow (email@example.com) with your thoughts and feedback.