Navigating Naperville Youth Sports—How Much is Too Much

September 2015 View more

NMAG0915_YouthSports_iStock_000042900172_Full_800pxIn a success-driven city like Naperville, youth sports can feel like an arms race, where parents worry they’re holding their kids back if they’re not on a travel sports team by the end of elementary school.

Parents do realize, though, that to make the high school varsity roster in competitive team sports such as basketball, volleyball and soccer, young athletes likely will need at least a couple years of the kind of year-round skills development sports clubs can provide.

Clubs are generally private, nonprofit entities run by parents and/or athletic trainers and are just as susceptible to competition as any other business. There are multiple organizations in each sport vying for young kids to fill their pipeline every season.

But for every story about clubs with overly competitive coaches, parents and trainers, there are plenty of organizations that will keep your child’s—and family’s—best interests in mind and won’t break the bank.

NMAG0915_YouthSports_iStock_000014293643_Medium_800pxStarting Early

The first taste of competitive team sports for most Naperville children comes through the Naperville Park District (NPD), which offers leagues in sports such as lacrosse, softball, baseball and, of course, youth soccer. “Naperville Youth Soccer (NYS) draws about 3,000 kids each year from pre-K to eighth grade, plus another 1,500 to 2,000 in its upper-level Premier league,” said Brock Atwell, program director at the Naperville Park District.

“The pre-K program is seen by many parents as a chance for their kids to meet their future classmates before they spend every day together in kindergarten,” Atwell said. However, NYS isn’t the only one offering team sports experiences to that age group—clubs are jumping on the bandwagon.

For example, a couple of Naperville soccer programs take players as young as 4-years-old for training programs. Also, the Naperville Diamonds girls softball program has a CHIPS program for 7- and 8-year-olds and Sports Performance Volleyball in Aurora offers a Youth Academy program that starts when kids are in kindergarten.

If your child is in a program at such an early age, make sure skill development—not winning—is the priority.

“Parents need to ask club officials ‘How is my child going to develop as an individual player?’” said Illinois High School Soccer Coaches Association Hall of Fame Coach Joe Moreau, who is the head girls soccer coach at Neuqua Valley High School.

“Don’t be so concerned about wins or losses. You want to make sure the players on the team develop as individual players. Wins and losses are more important when you get older, not when you’re 7 to 11 years old,” said Moreau, also a longtime club coach.

“A lot of programs and a lot of parents are making it too competitive too early,” said Dean Antony, former president of the Naperville-based Illinois Rockets basketball club. “That’s losing focus on the end game. There’s just too much emphasis on winning and not enough emphasis on practice and making sure kids are working to get better.”

Coach with junior tennis player on tennis classIf a program is focused mostly on how well its very young players placed in tournaments, it might not be teaching your child to be a better player.

“All it means is that they’re playing a lot games, spending a lot of money,” Antony said. “The ROI is not what you think it is.”

Antony and Moreau agreed that young Naperville athletes shouldn’t need to travel nationally to compete at a high level.

“When you’re traveling around the country and still a single-digit age kid, that’s a problem,” Moreau said. “There are enough good teams and tournaments in this area.

More Than One Sport

One fallacy is that to be successful, kids must zero in on one sport at an early age. Many athletes prove that wrong every year in Naperville, as they toggle between two or more sports through junior high. For example, Moreau’s daughter, Sophia, played basketball, soccer and softball before high school, started on Neuqua’s soccer team all four years and is a scholarship player at Bowling Green State University this fall.

Moreau said his best sports-related decision as a parent was to “let her play whatever and do whatever she wanted—dance at a young age, or soccer, or softball, or basketball,” he said. “I let her try different things and find her own niche.”

foul ballNaperville Central junior Caitlin Reice, who has been in club soccer programs since fourth grade, had a similarly positive multi-sport experience. She competed in volleyball and basketball in junior high and indoor track in high school. She’s also played on her high school’s varsity soccer team even though her Naperville Soccer Association club team is one of the best in its age group nationwide.

“She loves putting on the Central uniform and playing for her school,” said her mother, Cathy. “The camaraderie with her teammates has been great for her.”

Many clubs can accommodate multi-sport athletes and will also encourage them to play on their high school teams.

“It’s not all volleyball all the time—the term student-athlete is very important to us,” said Dan Ames, director of the Naperville Volleyball Club. “We work with some multi-sport athletes. They’re well-rounded, not just all volleyball. We stick to that niche.”

Young Football PlayerThe Naperville Diamonds softball club has a similar mindset, with a variety of levels for each age group and an understanding that kids are involved in other sports and activities.

“We figure out what their skill level is, their interest, and how much commitment they want to make to the program before we can tell where they’ll want to go,” said Ron Kunkel, president of the Diamonds.

Before Suiting Up

Before jumping into a club sports program, it’s important for families to research each club online before signing up and ask other parents and student-athletes about their experiences. “It’s especially important to check on the program’s coaches, who can have a lasting positive—or negative—influence on a young athlete,” Antony said.

The bottom line is whether a child’s sports schedule includes club, park district or school sports—or a little bit of all three—make sure it’s something he or she enjoys.

“Even as a first-time parent going through it, you’re going to see when your child is developing better than your peers and showing more passion,” Atwell said. “Go with that and let the child decide.”