On most weekends in Maryland — maybe even every weekend — there is a club lacrosse practice, a youth basketball tournament or a tennis clinic happening somewhere. The athletes who play, in some cases, can be as young as 6.
Sports provide everything from a fun activity to a pathway to college for children. But some parents and leaders in the youth sports industry believe the time commitment and extreme competitiveness of club sports can be overwhelming, and can engulf kids in too much pressure from a young age.
But many, like the Garden family of Davidsonville, whose three children play lacrosse, just make it work.
Rich and Shannon Garden’s oldest daughter, Kendall, received a scholarship to play Division I lacrosse at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She graduated from Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn with a number of awards, including two-time Academic All-American and two-time First Team All-County.
Kendall played six years of club lacrosse, four of them with Integrity Lacrosse, a team based in Davidsonville.
Club teams like Integrity Lacrosse, and similar ones in lacrosse and other sports, are teams that are not school-based and cost money to join. These teams can take players from any region, usually practice throughout the year and often compete in out-of-state tournaments to give young athletes more exposure to higher levels of the sport.
When the Gardens first signed Kendall up to play lacrosse in 6th grade, Shannon Garden said Kendall wanted to play because her friends were playing.
“We didn’t take it too seriously. It was just for fun,” Garden said, adding that once Kendall started middle school and joined her first club team, “it got serious real fast.”
The number of girls between 6 and 17 participating in team sports — school and club — is on the rise, increasing by 14.4 percent over a three-year period, according to a 2012 Sports and Fitness Industry Association study.
The number increased from roughly 10.5 million in 2008 to more than 12 million in 2011.
The rapid growth nationally and at the state level in youth club sports has allowed boys and girls to develop technical skills at a much younger age than before, which many see as a huge plus.
But the pressure put on young athletes is unsettling for some.
“(Parents) think their kids have to get those skills earlier,” said Robert W. H. Price, founder of Elite Minds, LLC, a sports psychology consulting service in North Potomac.
“That’s not necessarily true,” Price said. “But that’s how it feels and seems.”
Throughout his years consulting athletes, Price has noticed that those who begin competing at a younger age have a higher likelihood of burning out or giving up due to the increased pressure to perform on the field or court.
“They can lose the fun aspect of playing the sport, and that seems to happen when you start playing in clubs pretty quickly,” Price said. “For a parent to continue to keep it fun, that’s the challenge. If the kids can keep the sport, or whatever they are doing fun, they’ll stick with it.”
Sally S. Johnson, executive director of the National Council of Youth Sports, said she too sees fun as what drives most kids to pursue sports.
“The fact remains, when you talk to boys and girls, they want to play for fun and make new friends,” Johnson said.
Through advocacy and education, the Council represents 200 organizations in the amateur youth sports industry — including Little League Baseball, Pop Warner Little Scholars, U.S. Youth Soccer Association, US Lacrosse and others — which combined serve approximately 44 million athletes nationwide.
Johnson said she has noticed “the pendulum starting to shift” from thinking about sports as activities to treating them as jobs — particularly among high school athletes.
“There’s so much pressure to be a great player,” Garden said. “And I don’t like that kind of pressure on kids. I’ve learned that from my first (child).”
Garden said that as a parent, she knows she contributes to some of that pressure. She said she is trying to find a balance for her two younger children.
“I try to let them know that it’s OK if they’re not the best kid on the team,” Garden said. “I do feel really bad about the pressure sometimes.”
The Gardens’ other children, Ben, 17, and Jenna, 12, also are heavily involved in lacrosse. Ben is a junior at Archbishop Spalding who could potentially play in college, while Jenna is entering her 5th season with Integrity Lacrosse.
As Garden said, there are more options for young girls who want to play club lacrosse — and other sports — than ever before.
“There are dozens of clubs within driving distance, and it wasn’t like that even when my daughter who’s 18 was her age,” Garden said, referring to her daughter Jenna, a 7th grader.
Not only are there more teams, but also more opportunities to play outside of the traditional season. The Gardens’ children play lacrosse during the spring and summer, and participate in fall tournaments and weeknight skills sessions during the winter.
According to a 2008 market research study by the National Council of Youth Sports, 75 percent of club sports programs are being offered year-round.
The Gardens originally committed to organized lacrosse because they wanted Kendall to learn the sport and play with competitive, committed kids under good coaches.
But Garden said that in order to have all of that, it has cost them a hefty sum.
She and her husband have already spent approximately $25,000 on club sports cumulatively for their three children.
John Haigh, the boys varsity soccer coach at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, has noticed a growing trend of playing for club teams among certain athletes on his team.
He said one of the downsides to the club sports culture is that those who can afford it can play club soccer with ease, while “those who cannot afford it can only play on scholarships if they demonstrate a high level of skill.”
“Playing facilities, well-conditioned fields, equipment, travel expenses – all of those things cost money,” said Johnson, from the National Council of Youth Sports,.
Johnson is pleased that despite high costs, there has been an increase in the number of young athletes signing up to club teams. Part of the reason for that, she said, is that more and more children are left without options at the school level these days due to budget cuts.
“The funding has been totally cut back or eliminated from school budgets,” Johnson said. “That makes afterschool and out of school organized sports critical options for kids to play and have fun.”
More than half of the 19 counties in Maryland have either never offered sports to middle schoolers or made cuts in their education budgets that have seen the disappearance of middle school athletics.
As a result, many Marylanders are forced to turn to out of school athletic leagues and club programs if they want to play sports at a young age.
Those families, like the Gardens, often spend their summer vacations taking their children to multiple practices a week and traveling from state to state to play in tournaments in front of college scouts. They spend Saturdays at clinics put on by colleges. They spend vacation weeks at recruiting camps. In many cases, the goal is to be seen by college scouts.
Although athletics have commonly been considered a gateway to college, Shannon Garden has noticed some parents even going as far as pushing their children to get recruited to specific high schools, or even make their varsity teams in Anne Arundel.
“At the end of the day, none of these kids are going to be pros, especially the girls,” Garden said, about club lacrosse athletes.