Summer is here and sports camps across the country are teeming with aspiring young athletes who are honing their hook shots, brushing up on their backhand, and perfecting the art of the perfect curveball.
Athletes go to have fun. They go to stay fit. But most of all, athletes go to elevate their performance on the competitive stage.
“Now in team sports you have got all these clubs and organizations, clinics and camps,” said Don Schumacher, executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions. “There are several training camps in the U.S. where entire teams can go for a week and play six or eight games and live in a college dorm together.”
Sports camps come in all shapes and sizes. Some are sleepaway and others are day camps. Some focus exclusively on elite athletes or certain age groups – like middle- or high-schoolers.
While many sports camps specialize in a single sport, like lacrosse, tennis or baseball, a growing number offer a sampler-style program in which kids are introduced to a variety of sports over the course of a week, or summer. (Learn more: Cost of youth sports: Dollars and sense)
“There is a big push right now for more sports sampling, rather than specialization,” said Travis Dorsch, a sports and exercise psychologist, in an interview. “That means really letting kids try everything at young ages so they can find out what they love and are good at. Pre-pubescent children can’t know that yet.”
While specialized sports camps for teens, who have narrowed their athletic interests, may make sense, he said, younger kids may be better suited in a camp that promotes cross-training.
“This idea in the youth sports community that you need to choose a sport at age 8 and play that forever, year-round is leading families and children down a path that is not developmentally healthy,” said Dorsch, noting pre-pubescent children are better served keeping their athletic interests broad from a physical, emotional, and social standpoint.
Renee Chapman, a sports manager for US Sports Camps, based in San Rafael, California, which operates more than 700 athletic youth camps nationwide, including the co-branded Nike specialized sports camps, agrees the level of intensity at sports camps should fit the age.
“Our camps for 8 year-olds are shorter and focused more on falling in love with the game, while our camps for older kids are intended to take their game to the next level, whether that is helping them to make their high school varsity team or making it to the college level,” she said in an interview. “We really focus on the most important part of sports, which is keeping it fun.”
As the athletes mature, she said, the caliber of coaching at specialized US Sports Camps climbs as well.
“What sets us apart is we primarily use college coaches from all over the world so at a certain level our kids are getting coached by the best of the best,” said Chapman, noting college scouts have been known to come watch the games and Olympic athletes are occasionally brought in to answer questions and inspire the campers.
Sports camp costs vary
The cost of sports camps varies dramatically. Day camps run by YMCAs and recreational departments often cost less than $200 per week, while residence camps can set families back $10,000 or more for the full summer.
A girls tennis camp program offered through IMG Academy, based in Bradenton, Florida, for example, where specialists help high-performing athletes ages 8 to 18 perfect their swing,” costs roughly $1,750 for a one-week session, $5,400 for three-weeks, and more than $9,500 for the five-week session, according to the company’s website.
The IMG performance programs focus on physical and mental conditioning, nutrition, leadership, vision training, body management and life skills.
Camp Winaukee, a residential camp for boys age 7 to 15 in Moultonboro, New Hampshire, also offers a specialized sports training program, along with traditional camp activities, for $12,150 for the full summer session, which includes intense sports training, along with canoeing, kayaking and traditional outdoor adventures.
International Gymnastics Camp, in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, costs slightly more than $1,300 for a one-week session.
And US Sports Camps “Camp All-Star”, a coed sleepaway sports camp in Kents Hill, Maine, where campers are encouraged to focus on two traditional sports, as well as participate in traditional camp activities such as water skiing, fishing, archery and swimming, costs roughly $3,000 for two-week sessions, and $5,400 for a six-week session, with options in between.
By comparison, its three-day Nike Women’s Gymnastics high performance day camp for competitive, level 4 or higher gymnasts in Berkley, California, costs $550.
What to look for in a sports camp
Apart from price, parents who are looking to send their kids to a sports camp should consider not just their child’s age, ability and interests, but the caliber of the program, said John Engh, executive director of the National Alliance of Youth Sports in West Palm Beach, Florida, which advocates for positive, safe and fun athletics.
“The first thing I would look for as a parent is not necessarily whether the camp is coached by someone who was competitive in high school or a Division I baseball player in college, but at their credentials,” he said. “Do they understand childhood development, nutrition? Just because someone was good in college does not mean they are a good coach or know what is best for young athletes developmentally.”
Those tied to a college campus, he said, often benefit from having university trained coaches who can help design a balanced, age-appropriate program that includes sports conditioning, nutrition, and developmentally safe strength training.
“Parents need to have their eyes open,” said Engh, noting safety and security trump all else.
The American Camp Association also recommends parents include their child in the decision-making process, explore the camp options, and view camp websites, videos and schedules together.
And it suggests families visit multiple camps, and inquire about the director’s philosophy before they enroll.
Sports camps can be an excellent way for kids of all skill levels to develop their game during the dog days of summer and bond with new friends, said Chapman.
“It’s all about the opportunity to play the sport they love and stay active during the summer months,” said Chapman. “There is a huge variety of locations, price ranges and sports available. Even a beginner who never picked up a tennis racket before can go enjoy themselves.”
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This article was first published in August, 2016. It has been updated.