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Kids and Sports — Specializing at what cost?

Anthony Kim practices at Albuquerque Academy.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Madison Henry started learning early about what it takes to be a high-school cheerleader.


The sophomore, who is in her second year on the varsity team for Sue Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, took gymnastics starting at 6, then joined a year-round competitive cheer team in sixth grade.


Being in a competitive cheer club “absolutely…showed me how to be the best and how hard I have to push myself,” Henry says.


Unlike a couple of decades ago, school-aged kids are participating in their favorite sports — from cheerleading to basketball to soccer to swimming — year-round.


And while parents, coaches and trainers have their own opinions about whether it leads to injuries and burnout, it doesn’t appear that more playing time in one sport means an advantage when it comes to careers beyond high school sports.


For the kids, it seems, they love what they are doing.


Doug Dorame, a longtime coach with Albuquerque Public Schools, says he sees kids suffering burn-out from starting too young and playing nonstop.


“What concerns me is that kids are starting sports at 9, 10, 11, 12 years old and specializing in one sport,” Dorame says. “That’s a little concerning. We don’t let kids play several sports anymore.”


“I think what it ultimately comes down to is parents allowing kids to specialize. We’re seeing a lot of overuse injuries,” he says.


And even though youths have more opportunities to learn the games in clubs before they enter high school, Dorame says that hasn’t boosted the number who receive athletic scholarships in Division I colleges.


“If you lined up 100 kids on the field, one will get a scholarship,” he says. “It’s been pretty consistent. There’s a small handful that sign.”


This is surprising, he says, because youths are starting young and training for particular sports year-round. He says the girls he’s coached who have received athletic scholarships all participated in more than one sport.


“Back in the day, sports changed like the seasons,” Dorame says. “Now, 10-yearolds are playing soccer year-round.”


Dorame says youths in club sports, however, have an advantage over those who have never played the sport in a team setting when tryouts begin for middle and high school teams.


“If you’ve never played, it’s really tough to make that middle school or high school team,” he says.


For some students, by the time they reach high school, they might be tired of the sport but feel like they are unable to quit because they “know their parents have invested time and money,” Dorame says.


He recommends that parents encourage youths to try different sports, rather than choosing one particular sport for the child.


“Let kids do as much as they possibly can,” he suggests. “Let them have experiences.”


Try it out


Tom Cyprus is an assistant varsity swim coach at Albuquerque Academy and the head coach of Charger Aquatics, a year-round competitive swim club for kids 5 to 18 years old. He says that youths should be exposed to a number of different sports when they’re young.


“I think that as a young kid, they should have a variety of sports that they do,” he says. “We don’t know if a kid is the greatest basketball player New Mexico has ever seen (if a youth is limited to focusing on one sport). So it’s good to experience other sports … or band or acting… .”


But as they get older, in swimming for example, youths have to decide if they want to focus on swimming.


Swimming requires daily training because swimmers compete against others who train 11 or 12 times a week.


“When they find their niche, narrow it down and go sports specific,” Cyprus recommends.


The Chargers club, which has been around since 2005, has 325 swimmers who practice at two different swimming pools in Albuquerque and one in Los Alamos.


Over the 16 years Cyprus has coached, each year he’s seen a handful of swimmers go on to swim at the Division 3 college level, colleges that usually don’t offer athletic scholarships, he says. Some kids have dreams of reaching for the Olympic team, while other enjoy competing with the club and on their high school team.


It’s worth it


Cheerleader Madison Henry and her friend, Hollie Ulibarri, both 15, say that despite all the hard work of practicing five days a week, tumbling once a week, games, volunteering and fundraising, they really like it. And, they’re hoping their team will earn the title of state champions again this year.


They say having the competitive club experience helped them to make the high school cheer team.


“It’s hard to have all these activities, but it’s fun,” Ulibarri says.


A league of their own


For parents and their students who aren’t sure where to begin when it comes to joining a team sport, the YMCA of Central New Mexico offers a variety of noncompetitive and competitive team sports for youths.


Some teams, called Itty Bitty, are designed for 3- and 4-year olds.


Thea Evans, marketing coordinator for the YMCA, says sports are held year-round by the season. For example, in the winter, youths can learn to play volleyball or basketball. In the summer, there’s soccer and T-ball in addition to a few others.


The noncompetitive teams are ideal for youths who want to learn more about a sport, Evans says.


If a child tries soccer one season but decides to try something else, he or she will have a few to choose from, she explains.


“Our winter sports are the most popular especially with basketball,” Evans says. “We’re always growing. It’s continuously grown over the years.”


She attributes the growth to the comfortable learning environment and the coaches.


“They really focus on them making friends instead of making that shot every time … The pressure is not there that you may find intimidating for your child,” Evans says.