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Parent's Guide to Sports Camps

  • Author:
    By Michael Clarke
  • Date:
    Jun 15, 2011

When Bob McEwen was a kid, sports summer camps were little more than a way to kill some time at the local YMCA.

"I remember the camp counselor throwing out a basketball and saying 'Go play!'" he said. "I don't think I learned a thing that whole summer."

Things have changed. Today, summer sport camps are sophisticated enterprises designed to instruct campers in sport-specific techniques and, in some cases, possibly catch the eye of a university recruiter.

But between the glossy brochures and fancy Web sites touting well-known coaches, parents choosing a summer sports camp for their kids can often be overwhelmed with information that asks more questions than it answers.

What's a good camper/instructor ratio? How do you know if your kid is truly ready for a "showcase" camp? And precisely how much is that celebrity coach really going to be involved in the camp atmosphere?

Below are three tips to choosing the right sports camp for your child this summer.

Begin With the End in Mind

Understanding the goal of the camp experience is the first step to choosing an appropriate camp. According to Andrew Beinbrink of TheSportsTV.com, this begins with a realistic assessment of your child's ability and a frank conversation about what they hope to get out of the camp.

"Some camps are focused on getting an athlete exposure, while others specialize in giving them instruction to take them to the next level in a given sport," he said. "It's your job to make sure the camp fits the kid."

If exposure is your goal then camps at large universities make ideal choices with their emphasis on showcase combines and tournaments with a competitive focus. But beware camps that tout celebrity athlete guest speakers as effective teachers. As John Cupps -- a veteran of the camp process -- points out, "There is a huge difference between a good player and a good coach."

How do you know if your child is ready for a showcase camp? Talk to his or her current coach. They can often give you a better sense of whether your kid is prepared to take it to the next level. "It'll become pretty clear by the time a kid is a junior if they have an opportunity to play at the collegiate level," says Beinbrink.

On the other hand, instructional camps can usually be found at both the high school and university level. The key is making sure the camp's daily schedule includes plenty of instruction time -- at least four hours each day -- and doesn't have players sitting or standing around for long periods of time. (Carefully examine camp flyers for a daily camp schedule.)

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Do your homework

So you've figured out what kind of camp your child should attend and narrowed it down to a few possibilities. Time to do some research.

Start by gathering information from the camp organizers. Confirm that the coaches and instructors advertised will actually be teaching at the camp. Just because (insert famous coach here) lends his or her name to a camp doesn't mean that coach will be an integral part of the day-to-day operations.

Next find out the camper/instructor ratio. For showcase camps this isn't so much an issue, as they focus primarily on club team competition. But for an instructional camp a ratio of 5-8 campers per instructor is a must. "Start getting into more than 10-to-1 and that's way too many players," says Beinbrink.

Another great source of information is testimonials from former campers. "Any reputable service would offer the ability to contact a parent or player that's been through the program," Beinbrink points out. Though camps don't usually give out contact info for dissatisfied customers, it's possible to get insider tidbits (Is the camp organized? What are the instructors like?) you won't find on any brochure.

Note: Talk to your local high school or college coach. They usually know people in the camp industry and can point you in the direction of which camps have good, and bad, reputations.

Managing expectations

Not every kid ends up a Michael Jordan. Understanding that a sports camp is just a part of the athletic learning process, even at a showcase event, is crucial to ensuring your child's camp experience is a success.

"Kids and parents make the mistake of assuming they'll get a scholarship from a camp or make some amazing breakthrough skill-wise," says Beinbrink. "Results don't always match effort. Focus on getting better."

This doesn't mean camps can't make a difference. "For the athlete who is 15-18 years old there is a significant amount of growth possible with the proper instruction." But so much goes into being an athlete beyond the actual competition -- nutrition, academics, overall health -- it's important to refrain from putting too much stock in one singular camp experience.

Organization of the camp is another area to gauge expectations. Though most camps have strict schedules, unforeseen events happen and can throw even the most rigid itineraries out of alignment. "Don't expect the event to run flawlessly. It's not easy to coordinate a large amount of athletes."

Don't Worry, Be Happy

It's been years since McEwen picked up a basketball. Though things have changed since his lackluster camp experience, McEwen believes the emphasis for sports camps should still be the same. "My son was at a camp and kept checking to see if college recruiters were watching. I told him to stop it, have fun and not worry about DePaul and N.C. State."

Sounds like McEwen did learn something from that YMCA camp after all.

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