By Amara Grautski
Ben Gottlieb pivoted to the right of the small orange cone in front of him, dribbling a few steps before pushing the basketball off his tiny fingertips and launching it toward the hoop that towered a few feet above him. The ball hit the right side of the backboard and fell through the net, but before Ben could admire his successful shot, he was – at the command of his personal coach – jogging back toward the starting point to run the layup drill again.
“All right, let’s go,” said Tim Burns, a trainer for Pro Hoops, based out of New York City and Long Island. “Come on, Ben. You’ve got to make seven.” Clad in black track pants and an Amar’e Stoudemire jersey that fell to his knees, Ben, only 11 years old, continued to make baskets toward the end of his hour-long private lesson at the DREAM Charter School gymnasium in Manhattan. His father, David Gottlieb, 47, watched from a bench on the sideline as his son’s fourth session with Burns was about to end.
About a month and a half ago, Gottlieb joined the growing number of parents who have invested in youth personal coaches or trainers for their children. According to Brian Grasso, the founder of the International Youth Conditioning Association, there has been a dramatic increase in this trend since he entered the training industry 15 years ago. “When I first started, working with kids or the younger population wasn’t really an option,” Grasso said. “The market demographics didn’t exist.” Now, a child who aspires to become the next Cliff Lee, Francisco Liriano or Mariano Rivera can work with a youth pitching coach or enroll in a baseball academy, in addition to playing a Little League schedule. When a child isn’t playing Pop Warner football, he can attend a summer clinic. And many gyms have added youth components where children can work up a sweat, just like mom and dad.
But youth sports experts warn there are risks to children overindulging in specialization. Grasso and Tim Donovan, director of the State University of New York Youth Sports Institute, said it can expose a child to potential overuse injuries, reduce socialization and lead to a child feeling burned out toward the specific sport.
Parents’ reasons for the personal sessions, which usually cost $50 to $100, range from earning potential college scholarships to preventing obesity, but Gottlieb insists he’s not a Type-A father. “It’s not about him getting a scholarship in college,” Gottlieb said of Ben. “It’s about him learning a skill and enjoying it.”
Although Ben plays for a recreational basketball league and was on the Manhattan-based Mo’ Motion travel team last summer, he has only been involved with the sport for a couple of years and wasn’t getting the personal attention Gottlieb felt he needed. The recreational league is filled with children of all abilities, and the travel team was a little beyond Ben’s skill level. Gottlieb wants his son to feel comfortable on the court, and – with Ben standing only 4’ 6” tall – with being small for his age. “I think with boys especially, how you are on the field [or court] helps your social life,” Gottlieb said. “So you just want to be proficient in whatever.”
So, Burns, 27, who played college basketball at George Mason University, works with Ben for an hour most Saturday mornings on his shooting mechanics, footwork and confidence. Although Pro Hoops is known for having worked with NBA players like Orlando Magic guard Jameer Nelson and Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah, as well as college players and aspiring Division 1 athletes, the company has started reaching younger clients through word-of-mouth marketing. Burns said about 30 percent of his clients are children. “I definitely had young kids when I first started,” Burns said of joining the Pro Hoops team three years ago, “but lately it does seem like people are making a little more of a commitment.” The Gottliebs, for example.
For a few minutes, Gottlieb turned his attention away from his son’s session to the opposite side of the gym, where Pro Hoops coach Ross Burns, Tim’s 35-year-old brother and former head assistant coach at Fordham University, was working one-on-one with a boy who was all arms and legs. The lean 16-year-old was much taller than Ben, and moved up and down the court, dribbling behind his back, like an advanced player. Gottlieb, while trying to the boy’s age, said, “However young you think he is – he’s younger.” That seems to be the national trend.
In Houston, the Bernhard family enrolled daughters Aly and Jenna, aged only 6 and 8 years old, respectively, in private soccer lessons six months ago. Living in the city’s suburbs, Erika Bernhard, 39, said having an active lifestyle by playing outdoor sports is part of the culture for area children and describes both her girls as very athletic. Speaking in a phone interview she said, “They definitely will have a good chance of playing in college, whatever sport they try.” Bernhard is aware that Texas is highly recruited for college athletics, and so is her daughters’ personal coach, Jair Trivino.
Trivino, 30, who works with children as young as 6 years old, developed a successful marketing strategy on his website, www.jairzinhosoccer.com. The site proclaims, “Soccer is growing at a rapid rate in the U.S. Because of this we are already seeing an increase in scholarships available to qualified players. Start preparing your child now!”
Youth sports experts agree athletic scholarships are a contributing factor to the growth of the personal coach industry, but Grasso warns that overindulging in youth specialization for collegiate success can create a false sense of long-term improvement. “Young people have a very plastic nervous system and are incredibly adaptable with change,” Grasso said. “So if you take a relatively untrained 9 year old, in a matter of weeks, you will show improvement. That 9 year old doesn’t have to be better in six weeks, [but he or she] has to be better and more injury-resistant in 10 years.”
Despite what he says on his website, Trivino, who has played soccer since he was 5 years old, said most families that approach him just express an interest in seeing their children improve, but not necessarily for the college level. And Bernhard is just pleased her daughters are finally receiving the individual attention they craved during recreational soccer, since Aly and Jenna have different strengths. According to Bernhard, Aly is aggressive, hustles a lot, but needs to work on her ball control. Jenna is precise with her movements, but she needs to fine-tune her game strategy. When the family realized Aly and Jenna were also having trouble mastering corner kicks, Trivino made sure to help develop that skill during the girls’ ensuing separate hour-long sessions. “Overall, most parents are willing and wanting to improve their child’s game,” said Trivino, who charges $200 for the first five sessions. “It’s just, are they wiling to pay for the extra lessons?”
Some parents are still investing in individualized youth fitness, but unlike the Bernhard family, they want to focus on general athletic development instead of on a particular sport.
On the sixth floor of an Upper East Side building in New York in April, a group of young girls did just that. While standing on a 35-yard indoor track, practicing their running stances, Caroline, 9, and her sister Alex, 7, listened as their athletic trainer from the Velocity Sports Performance Center delivered instructions.
“I’m going to teach you guys how to run a little more correct,” said Andrew Baker, 21, who began working at the gym last summer and is still mastering the art of explaining physical fitness to children. After demonstrating how the girls should swing their arms and stand on the balls of their feet at the starting line, they were off doing 20-yard sprints.
“Pump your arms! Pump your arms! Pump your arms!” Baker yelled.
Although their mother Nicole Contos had already enrolled Caroline and Alex in tennis, basketball and running lessons, she said sending her daughters to Velocity Sports twice a week for an hour after school will help them stay in shape. Contos said Caroline and Alex weren’t active enough in other sports programs and in their physical education classes. “There are so many kids, but they’re not really sweating,” Contos said “I really want them to sweat.”
With the prevalence of childhood and adolescent obesity having tripled since 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, concerned parents like Contos have also contributed to the growth of the youth training industry. Dave Tebidor, 50, who is the director of the Velocity Sports gym, knows the market has expanded because of how inactive children are today. “Kids are sitting down,” Tebidor said. “They’re not on the playgrounds. They’re not in the backyards playing. Technology has kind of taken control of their lives.”
Tebidor currently has about 20 to 30 children who range from 7 to 10 years old participating in youth classes. For about $50 a session, children can mimic adult programs with modified workloads and develop their core, agility and flexibility. Tebidor said his program isn’t babysitting, but trainers do try to work on building confidence in addition to strength. And most importantly, Tebidor said, the program is fun.
Although Grasso is against specialized coaching for children, he believes there are exceptions. “If this particular coach is making it fun and the kids are having a good time … then that’s good,” Grasso said. “Good for the kids, good for the coach, good for the parents.”