Give Me 10 ... Thousand: Parents Shell Out Small Fortunes for Kids' Personal Trainers
Earning a spot on the Little League roster is no longer enough. Parents are now investing in personal trainers to make sure their kid becomes the star player, sacrificing savings and sometimes their child's health in the process.
Youth sports training has grown into a $4.5 billion industry, according to IBISWorld, an industry and market research group. And, for trainers who are increasingly marketing themselves to kids and their folks, it can be a bonanza, with some charging $300 an hour for their services.
The number of kids who use health clubs has more than doubled since 1990, and more than half of fitness professionals now offer one-on-one personal training for kids 18 and younger, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. But, as more kids get additional training, their teammates who don't pay for outside help can see their performance lag and end up riding the bench.
"If they want to be competitive, they don't have a choice," says Michele Stephenson, a Brooklyn, N.Y. mom whose sons, ages 9 and 16, attend BlueStreak, a specialized sports training program at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. "If they want to eventually play college, which they're hoping for, then they need to do some individualized training."
Stephenson's older son, Idris, made the varsity basketball team at the Dalton School in Manhattan as a freshman. But he was benched for most of his sophomore year as bigger and stronger kids beat him out.
Stephenson tells ParentDish her husband found BlueStreak, which charges about $60 for a two-hour session. He thought the small-group program would help Idris prepare to compete for the starting point guard position his junior year, so they signed him up last March.
"It was a turning point for him," she says. "He really wanted to get to the next level."
Stephenson says her son didn't need much coaxing. He was excited by the prospect of bumping into professional athletes who were also training at Chelsea Piers. And, she says, her 9-year-old son, who started training there in June, also loves it.
But the costs can add up, both financially and physically.
Over the years, some parents fork over the equivalent of a four-year college tuition for trainers, mental coaches and traveling teams in the hopes their kid will win a scholarship.
"What's $50 a session if it saves you $100,000 when he goes to college?" says David Scott, an exercise physiologist and coordinator of the KID-FIT program at Goryeb Children's Hospital in Morristown, N.J. "Parents tell me, 'She better get a scholarship because I paid $50,000 for a travel team.' It's insane."
The chances, however, of actually winning a scholarship are slim, at best. Less than half a percent of boys high school soccer players win a scholarship every year, according to a study by the National High School Federation and the NCAA. Your best chance for a scholarship is in girls' golf, where 1.6 percent of athletes get at least a partial scholarship.
And, while parents are draining their bank accounts, kids are getting hurt.
Of the 3.5 million children under age 15 who are treated for sports injuries every year, half suffer from overuse injuries, according to Safe Kids USA, a child safety organization.
"Every single year it seems that we see more and more kids in our physical therapy centers," says Will Haskell, director of strength and conditioning for Athletico Oak Brook, a physical therapy and fitness center in Chicago.
Haskell says he sees 12-year-olds come into the center recovering from injuries such as Tommy John, an elbow ligament replacement surgery named after the former Yankee pitcher -- injuries typically seen in older professional athletes.
Many of the trainers ParentDish spoke with pointed to parents and team coaches as the problem, not the kids.
"When there's a scholarship on the line, you push your kids. But if you have a sprained ankle, you have a sprained ankle and you have to take the time off," says Maik Wiedenbach, owner of Adler Training in New York City, who offers private sports training to kids and teens for $100 to $120 a session.
But a good personal trainer can improve a child's health. Trainers can tailor a program to fit specific needs, monitoring diet and how many days a week and how hard a kid works out. They can also catch bad habits before they lead to injuries.
Nikolay Solow, 20, a sophomore rugby player at Arizona State University, began training with Wiedenbach when he was playing football in junior high school. Despite protests from school coaches, Solow and many of his teammates skipped team weightlifting sessions to work with personal trainers. They found the coaches weren't able to customize training for each player's needs.
In fact, it was when he was training with high school coaches that Solow tore his meniscus, a cartilage knee injury.
"I don't think it would have happened with Maik," he tells ParentDish.
However, trainers and physiologists say the sports training industry is full of unqualified people who take two-day online certification courses or have no real knowledge of an adolescent's unique physiology.
Athletico's Haskell says trainers feel pressure to give parents their money's worth.
"They run these kids into the ground," he tells ParentDish. "We had a kid who fractured his back in a program."
For some kids, it's not an injury or poor performance that sends them packing. It's burnout. They have no time to rest if they're training seven days a week. By age 13, 70 percent of kids drop out of youth sports, according to Stop Sports Injuries, an American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine campaign. They cite the top three reasons for drop out as: adults, coaches and parents.
Scott, of Goryeb Childen's hospital, says he has seen sports burnout rise during his 17 years coaching youth soccer.
"They show up to practice and they don't want to be there," he says. "What parents need to understand is that even elite athletes have rest days."
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