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Club programs are growing across the nation, but is it at the expense of school sports?
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That Tahoe/Truckee kids have a good amount of sporting options would be an understatement. There are the traditional ball sports that most Americans grow up with. And then there are the sports unique to a mountain town, such as mountain bike leagues and skiing — alpine, big mountain, and Nordic, with multiple competitive disciplines each — which all also vie for time with the endless list of recreational outdoor activities.

And if that weren’t enough, within the arena of traditional sports there is the increasing role of club sports as an option outside of official school leagues. These associations are organized independently of schools, and are commonly seen in soccer, volleyball, basketball, and baseball. They are available to kids barely out of preschool, and can steer a kid’s athletic direction for life.

Clubs draw in parents and kids with the promise of high competition levels, top-tier coaching, and exposure to the eyes of college recruiters, but they also require heavy travel and time commitments, and substantial cost to participate. With the increasing appeal of club teams, is club sports’ influence changing the youth sports landscape as we know it?

So Many Teams, So Little Time

What is certain is that club sports are growing, but is that growth coming at the expense of school teams?

“Our program has grown exponentially in the last 12 to 18 months especially,” said Mark Salmon, vice president of the South Tahoe Football Club, a club soccer team. “We have gone from three teams to 28 teams in a span of six years.” He adds that they now have at least one team for every year from U-10s to U-19s, and some of those age groups necessitate both an A and B team.

J.R. Murphy, the baseball coach at Truckee High, estimates that 75 percent of his baseball players are involved in club baseball in Reno. According to Casey Eberhardt, the Truckee High varsity boys soccer coach, the number is around 85 to 90 percent. Murphy says his players’ participation in club teams has no impact on the roster as club baseball is a summer sport. However, in building a school summer league, he has had enrollment issues due to the number of players participating in club baseball.

“It’s very competitive in Reno, which is great, it drives their interest in baseball. I would also love for players to stay in Truckee and play in the summer, but I support the Reno leagues. It’s something of a two-way street,” said Murphy.

Some school teams have seen a drop, however. Referring to soccer and skiing (while skiing is not a traditional sport per se, there are both school skiing/snowboard teams, recreational teams, and serious club teams like Far West), Tom Reymer, the athletic director at Incline High School, wrote that “the short answer is yes, club sports contribute to a decline in school sport activity,” in an email to Moonshine.

Club sports are also huge money. A September Time magazine cover story put the total youth sports economy at $15 billion, although it didn’t have the number for club sports specifically. As such, the question of cost inevitably is part of the discussion of clubs’ increased role.

While school sports are still virtually free, club sports come with a hefty price tag, often more than $1,000 dollars for a season, not including travel, lodging, and other associated costs. If a family has multiple kids who want to play multiple sports year after year, it will be far out of reach for many if they don’t receive some type of assistance.

According to a 2016 article in USA Today, “It’s not unheard of for a high-level high school athlete to spend as much as $20,000 a year on team fees, equipment, travel, private coaching and personal training.”

South Tahoe Football Club has a relatively low price tag of around $350 for a season, but Salmon acknowledges the cost barrier for many families. He notes they regularly hold fundraisers in addition to their scholarships program, adding that nobody is left out due to money concerns.

Nevertheless, the issue of cost must be navigated if kids want to expand to the club level. “Cost is a huge issue; club soccer just costs a lot more,” explained Eberhardt.

The Juggle, the Payoff

“The time commitment is staggering,” says Christina Turk, a parent of two sport-enthusiastic kids, in discussing the dedication it takes to keep up with the demands. Her daughter Eva, 15, is part of the South Tahoe Football Club and plays virtually year-round.

Turk, who utilizes a carpool system with other parents, talks about multi-day tournaments that normally include two games per day, and sometimes three. In the winter, they play on an indoor field. She drives to Reno for practice two to three days a week, to Sacramento for scrimmages, and all over Northern California for games. Eva even went to Europe in 2016 for tournaments in Denmark and Sweden.

Despite the time and travel commitment, Turk believes it is right for her daughter, who transitioned from AYSO soccer to club when she was 7. Eva has had the same club coach from then until now, and plays in the National Premiere League, an elite level of club sports. “Coaching is a huge part of getting to a higher level. There has to be the perfect storm of team chemistry and coaching,” said Turk.

Additionally, she believes that playing college soccer is a likely reality for her daughter, and knows there will be much more exposure at the club level.

High school coaches report that club isn’t essential for recruitment, but it doesn’t hurt. “High schools do get recruited, but not like clubs. Clubs are clearly more recruiter-heavy,” said Kyle Kelly, the girls soccer coach at Truckee High School, who says she is contacted mostly by community colleges.

Too Much, Too Soon?

Amanda Woodruff, of Truckee, has two kids ages 12 and 14, and manages a similarly hectic schedule of practices and games as Turk. Her daughter Kaelin, a standout ski racer and athlete (she has played club soccer since age 7), is now a freshman at Sugar Bowl Academy.

Prior to scaling back a few sports as she transitioned to high school, her sports year consisted of racing in the Far West ski league, playing club soccer, running cross-country in the fall, and track in the spring. This is in contrast to many kids who focus on one sport from an early age, an aspect of youth sports that has received a lot of scrutiny in recent years.

Woodruff believes in allowing her daughter to enjoy a variety of sports. “It’s about finding the balance. Some are pushing for kids to choose, but I’m not a part of that mindset,” she said.

Eberhardt, the current head boys soccer coach at Truckee High who also coached club teams for three years, sees club as one way to improve skills on the field, but doesn’t think it’s  essential.  

“Club teams are generally a huge asset to player development, mostly from the philosophy of getting more touches on the ball and the resulting increased technical skill,” he said. “[But] the drawback is they are not cross-training if they play soccer year-round.” He encourages kids to do other sports in the off-season, such as cross-country, which he singles out for improving speed.

Discussion of over-specialization in one sport often comes back to injury. One study published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine in February 2016 found that high school kids who played one sport for more than eight months in a year were more than three times as likely to suffer certain knee injuries.

Reymer at Incline High has seen this play out. “The students choosing to play soccer year-round have shown injuries in my three years at Incline as few play any other sports and join leagues in Reno to continue with one sport,” he said.

But given how many kids can naturally be drawn toward the fast-paced lifestyle of sports, and that athletic options are at an all-time high, knowing the proper amount of playtime for youth remains complicated.

While Christina Turk encourages her kids to fill a lot of their schedules with sports, she also knows there is a limit somewhere, no doubt a theme for much of the Tahoe/Truckee community.

“There were times when I had to tell my daughter to make choices, in terms of choosing what sports to play, but I never had to encourage her to play. I only had to pull her back,” she said.

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February 14, 2019