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Money Ball

by Matt Cosentino
Pick a Friday during the summer—any Friday will do—and odds are that Greg Gutos is on the road again. It could just be a two-hour trip up the New Jersey Turnpike to a town like Hackensack, or a longer drive to New York, Maryland or Myrtle Beach for the weekend. Many times he flies instead, to places like Florida, Arizona, California and Puerto Rico.

The extensive travel isn’t because of Gutos’ job, but is instead part of the business known as youth sports, where kids like Gutos’ 15-year-old son Luke can play 160 baseball games a year all over the country, while also seeing different personal instructors for hitting, pitching and strength and conditioning.

And it’s not just baseball, either. Sports like softball, basketball, football, soccer, tennis and more offer the opportunities for individual lessons and year-round competition that young athletes just didn’t have 20 years ago.

With those opportunities comes added pressure on parents to make sure their children are keeping up with other players their age. The incredible financial commitment, not to mention the time and travel obligations, can be too much of a burden for some parents. For others, like Gutos, it’s no burden at all.

“There probably aren’t too many people in the country who are more into sports and doing this kind of thing than us,” says Gutos, a Moorestown resident.

Voorhees resident Joe Adams similarly shared experiences in travel soccer with his son Joey, who finished his soccer career at Muhlenberg College in the fall of 2014. But the elder Adams clearly recognizes that it’s not for everybody.

“There’s no right or wrong answer—it just depends on your kids,” Adams says. “For me and Joey, I wouldn’t change a second of it, and I think he’d say the same thing. It was certainly a long road, but man was it a lot of fun along the way. I miss it terribly, just watching him compete. He achieved a lot of personal and team success, so you can’t ask for more. As a father, I couldn’t be more proud of the sacrifices I went through and seeing it come to fruition in both his success and the team’s success.”

Training—and traveling—like the pros
One thing is for sure about sports today—young athletes might not train exactly like their heroes on ESPN, but they’re closer than they’ve ever been. Whereas 20 years ago they got most of their instruction from a Little League manager or a high school coach, today travel teams and personal lessons are all the rage. Many serious athletes today are willing to put in the time with an individual instructor in their specific sport, as well as a personal trainer for strength, speed and agility. And their parents are willing to pay for it.

“You have to get personal instruction,” says ESPN analyst Tim Legler, who played in the NBA for 10 years. “You have to go to the gym by yourself, you have to lift weights, you have to be in great condition. ... If you’re willing to do that, you’re going to get the results. I’ve told my kids since they were 5 years old, the game will give back. But you do not have the right to have expectations for success if you’re not willing to put the work in.”

That commitment extends to playing on high-level travel teams throughout the year. Legler, who never had the benefit of playing AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball when he was growing up in Virginia, has been coaching his son’s AAU team with the South Jersey Jazz for about seven years now. For players with aspirations of making it to a Division I program, AAU has become almost a necessity.

“I personally know examples of kids who didn’t do it, so I wouldn’t say it’s 100 percent mandatory,” Legler says. “But I do think you’re looked at as being out of the loop, particularly by Division I [coaches], if you don’t play. ... The major benefit for players is that they can go to a tournament for a weekend and every school is going to be represented by someone. If you play well in the right couple of weekends, you can really set yourself up.”

For Division I basketball coaches, the months of April and July are crucial live recruiting periods. They can visit several tournaments and see hundreds of athletes up close in the various AAU circuits sponsored by the major sneaker companies.

“There’s definitely more resources available to kids as far as the exposure and everything,” says Steve Thomas, a Washington Township native and former Rowan University basketball player who is now an assistant coach at the University of Richmond.

“Your performance can really dictate your future. You can have two really good weekends and be offered a scholarship if you’re on the fringe. The elite athletes will always rise above in any sport. But if you’re a guy who’s putting in the work and you have a trainer and you’re doing all the extra things, it can take you from possibly paying for school to going for free.”

AAU basketball has its detractors. Some decry its association with sneaker companies, and Legler himself warns that some players develop selfish tendencies to draw attention to themselves. Overall, however, he believes the positives outweigh the negatives.

“Look, I’m a big proponent of AAU basketball,” he says. “I know there are people who criticize it—Kobe Bryant has been very vocal about criticizing AAU basketball—and there is no question there are some detrimental aspects to it. But overall, the opportunity it provides to be seen and get exposure is huge, and to play against great players from other parts of the country is important too. Sometimes, you have this little cocoon in South Jersey and you think this is what high school basketball looks like all over the country, but it doesn’t. To get out and play great players from the cities and to get exposure from colleges, those are [significant] benefits.”

Like AAU basketball and travel baseball, travel soccer also has pros and cons. Trish Williams of Voorhees has four sons, ranging from 18 to 10, who all play for teams in the South Jersey Barons organization. She has a fifth boy who plays soccer living with the family at the moment, and the biggest hurdle is trying to organize all of their schedules.

For example, on the same upcoming weekend, one of Williams’ sons has a tournament in Texas, another has a tournament in Arizona and a third has a tournament in New Jersey. “We’re still trying to figure out how to do that,” she says. “We’ll have to have someone take my one son to the tournament here. The other boy who’s living with us plays on the same team with my 17-year-old, so they’ll go with my husband to Arizona. I’ll go to Dallas with my oldest son and I’ll bring my little one with me. It’s complicated—travel sports are complicated.”

Williams adds that she absolutely believes her sons have made progress as players in travel soccer. She wouldn’t change her experiences, but can see why the decision is a difficult one for parents.

“I have a mixed opinion,” she says. “The upside is you are able to showcase yourself and have the opportunity to be seen by coaches and colleges who never would have seen you when we were growing up. The downsides are the expectations and the necessity to zero in on one sport at such a young age. I think that’s problematic and I have issues with that.”

Sport Specialization
Williams’ concern with young athletes focusing on one sport is a common pressure that parents face. When is the right time for kids to give up other sports or activities they enjoy in order to focus on the sport they play best?

According to a study recently done by the NCAA, many of its student athletes began specializing in their sports before age 12, a very early age according to experts. Many of the athletes surveyed also wished they had spent more time playing other sports and said they faced high parental/family expectations of playing college and/or professional sports.

Adams allowed his son to try many different sports when he was young, and coached him in most of them. A college baseball player himself, Adams always thought Joey would eventually settle on baseball. Instead, it turned out to be soccer.

“He was forced to choose, because especially in soccer, there is pressure to keep up with guys who play year-round,” Adams says. “It’s not only regular soccer, but indoor soccer; and not only indoor soccer, but futsal. On top of all that, you had physical training and agility training. Every single person who was playing soccer did all of those things, so he was forced to give up baseball in order to compete.”

A lot of young athletes feel the same way, and the two- or three-sport star of the past is becoming more and more rare. Even those associated with professional sports aren’t so sure that specialization at a young age is the right idea.

“I don’t personally think it’s a good thing,” says Joe Jordan, director of player development for the Philadelphia Phillies. “I spent 15 years scouting before I started doing the player development stuff. This [trend] started years ago. It seems like the last 10 years it’s really become the thing to do.

“I played three sports in high school. I loved playing all three and it gave me a break from each one. In our sport, I do believe that a lot of the arm injuries and elbow injuries [come about because] players never quit throwing if they only play baseball, if they don’t go play basketball for three months. I loved playing basketball, but it also allowed me to get my legs and body in shape for baseball. I do think it’s a problem, but it’s kind of the way it’s gone and it’s been going that way for a while. I don’t know when it turns around, if it ever does.”

Thomas believes high school is a good time for athletes to focus on their No. 1 sport if they want to, but he sees it happening even earlier nowadays.

“You start out playing soccer and baseball and basketball—you play five sports until you figure out what you’re good at,” Thomas says. “But the way it is now, it speeds up that process. Instead of waiting until you get to high school to say you’re just going to focus on basketball, kids are doing it in fifth and sixth grade, and maybe not allowing themselves the chance to experiment in another sport.”

Focusing on one sport throughout the year can be harmful for young athletes, however.

“It’s an issue that we’ve seen for quite some time in sports medicine and orthopedics, and it’s really reached an almost epidemic level at this point,” says Dr. John P. Salvo Jr., an orthopedic surgeon at the Rothman Institute. “Especially when you’re talking about developing kids and adolescents and they are doing one sport year-round, they are basically training the same way and using the same muscle groups over and over and over the whole year. When you use the same muscle groups over and over, you’re going to wear them down.

“Really any sport that you play year-round, you’re at risk for this. But I think where we’ve seen a lot of alarming injuries is in baseball and soccer. These kids end up wearing down and getting injuries that we used to see in collegiate or professional athletes. Now we’re seeing them in high school or even younger.”

Salvo, who specializes in knee ligament (ACL) reconstruction, shoulder instability and rotator cuff repairs, says that young females are more prone to ACL tears than males, particularly soccer players. And young baseball players have been experiencing arm injuries at an alarming rate due to constant throwing throughout the year. Some high school kids even end up having Tommy John surgery, a procedure common in the major leagues in which the ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body.

“We’re seeing kids with elbow injuries and shoulder injuries and it’s all because of overuse at a much younger age,” Salvo says. “Guys who end up playing Division I and entering the professional ranks, by the time they’re done college they have miles on their arm that we used to see in midcareer professional pitchers. That was an eye opener for sports medicine physicians, and it goes back to the trend over the last 10 to 15 years of super specialization at a very young age.”

Salvo encourages parents to visit to learn more about injury issues with young athletes. The organization, which includes renowned sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews, is committed to preventing overuse injuries and getting the message out to parents and coaches around the country.

For Salvo, it comes back to treating children like children, instead of professional athletes.

“Whatever sport it is—soccer, ice hockey, football, baseball—you need a couple of months per year to go do something else. Go be a kid,” he says. “The problem is that the mentality, especially with a lot of parents, is if their kid doesn’t do the year-round training, they will fall behind and somebody else who is doing it will take his position. That mantra is out there.

“I have an 11-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, and they both do multiple things throughout the year. If they fall behind in one, they fall behind in one. So what? I want them to be healthy kids and become healthy adults. But a lot of parents don’t want their kids to fall behind, so they get into the year-round training and it’s not good for the body.”

Is it all worth it?
Gutos understands the overuse injuries in baseball and decided three years ago to shut down his son as far as pitching; instead he focused on shortstop, his other position. But Luke has not slowed down in other areas, as he does strength training three days a week, has a personal instructor at the Hit Doctor and can often be found in the batting cage in the backyard of the family home.

“At this age, if you aren’t training 12 to 15 hours a week, you don’t have a chance of playing college-level baseball, or any sport,” Gutos says.

Williams, a former college athlete herself, knows the commitment needed to play sports at that level. But she finds that a lot of parents go to extremes in the hopes of landing a college scholarship for their kids.

“I think a lot of parents are looking for college opportunities for their children,” she says. “We just wanted our kids to get the best training in the sport they were in.

“But there’s definitely pressure on parents. Luckily, we’re in a financial position where we can do it, but I look at some of the money we put out for these teams and all the travel. We go as far as Dallas and Disney and we’ve been to San Diego. I enjoy it, because it’s time away with my kids. But I look at it from the perspective of other people, and it’s expensive. I don’t know how some people do it.”

Adams’ son played college soccer at the Division III level, where athletic scholarships are not available. But he did receive grants from Muhlenberg that covered a sizable portion of his tuition. Still, Adams warns parents that even if their children receive financial assistance in college, it might not be worth it.

“If you were able to go back and look at the money spent between traveling, hotels, food when you’re out and all the other different things because you’re chasing a college scholarship,” he says, “it would be very interesting to see how much money you actually saved, if anything at all.”

Gutos admits that youth sports can get extremely expensive, but says he finds a way to make it happen for Luke. He expects it to pay off down the line, and says Luke is already receiving serious interest from high-level college baseball programs.

And who knows where a college career can lead? Carli Lloyd and Mike Trout went on to sports stardom after getting their start in South Jersey, after all. That’s why Gutos encourages his son to dream big.

“Luke’s dream is to play baseball professionally,” Gutos says. “He’s going to have a fallback, obviously. But hey, somebody’s got to get there.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 12 (March, 2016).
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