Youth community sports: To parents, youth sports an 'athletic arms race'

By Martha Irvine

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 21 2012 10:00 a.m. MST

Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner Little Scholars, an international youth football and cheerleading program, says that's a perspective he hears less and less.

"The first several years I was here, our biggest concern was training coaches — the overzealous Vince Lombardi coach," says Butler, who's been in his position for more than 20 years. "That started to change in the late 1990s, when we started to be concerned with the overzealous parent."

In more recent years, he's watched as parents have clamored to find ways to improve their children's athletic prowess. He says his advice to them — "don't hire a speed coach, hire a tutor" — is often met with disgust.

"They respond like I've lost a few marbles along the way," he says. "It's not what they want to hear."

Bill Jaworski, a dad who's also a youth baseball coach in New Jersey, says he is often "shocked and chagrined" at how easily some parents lose perspective about their kids' sports.

"These are people you see at the pub, or on the train, or out on the street. They're just normal folks — and then you get them to the game and they turn into these rabid freakazoids," says Jaworski, who's also a philosophy professor at Fordham University.

Certainly, the pushy sports parent isn't a new phenomenon, he and others note. But they can't help but notice the increased intensity and heightened competitiveness, not just in sports but in life in general.

It's just different than when he was a kid, Jaworksi says. He played baseball at the local park with friends or in the backyard. Today, he's seeing kids as young as age 7 learning the skills at elite training facilities, some that focus on specific sports and others on overall fitness.

Billy Hirschfield, now 16, was 11 when his dad first took him to an establishment called NX+Level, in Waukesha, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee.

The atmosphere at NX+Level, can be intense.

Pro athletes train there. Signs on the gym walls say things like, "You can only be a winner if you are willing to walk over the edge."

But it was exactly the kind of atmosphere Billy craved back then, says his dad Ronnie Hirschfield. "He was a chunky kid, and he didn't like that," dad says.

Today, his son is a high school junior and varsity football player being recruited by major college football teams.

Now a 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive tackle and end, he's so big and muscular — and so dedicated to his training — that his friends call him "the freak."

"I never in a million years thought it would be like that," says his dad, who figures he spends $8,000 to $10,000 a year on sports, including training and travel to tournaments.

It's all been worth it, he says.

"Why wouldn't you spend that on your son to make him a better person?" his dad asks. "And if he ends up walking away with a scholarship, it was the best investment I could have ever made."

Brad Arnett, the owner of NX+Level, knows there are those who question whether kids should train in his facility. But he makes it clear that they have to want to be there, as Billy did.

"We want your kids to want to do this," Arnett says. "We don't bring them in and work them until they puke. There is a means to an end."

He says training in a club like his helps kids develop more strength and agility — and also avoid injury because they're in better shape.

Others think the training should be done in a different type of setting — and with less emphasis on competitiveness.

"I think things are going down a dangerous path," says David Finch, a certified strength and conditioning specialist who recently left his job as a school psychologist in Chicago to open his gym in Middleton, Wis., outside Madison.