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Children start their athletic ‘careers' earlier than ever
Twins Ian, left, and Connor Bedell, members of the Quad-City Heat 9-under baseball team, sit on the bench prior to the start of a recent game.(John Schultz/QUAD-CITY TIMES)

For the very young athlete of the 20th century, it was all very simple.

If you wanted to play sports, you just went outside and you played. You shot hoops at the basket behind the house. You threw the football around the vacant lot next door. If you wanted to wrestle, you got down in the cool, soft grass of the backyard with your buddies and you wrestled.

If baseball was your game, you pedaled your bicycle down the street to the neighborhood park and began playing with whomever happened to be there. If there were a dozen or more kids there, you could have a real game. If there were only six or eight, you played a makeshift game on a half field with any ball hit to the right of second base being an out. Sometimes the ball had a half-roll of duct tape on it to hold it together. The bases might have been trashcan lids or cardboard boxes.

No uniforms, no scoreboard, no coaches, no umpires.

No parents.

In the 21st century, kids are still getting out and playing sports at a very early age. But now they’re also working at sports earlier than ever before, sometimes formulating lifelong goals and specializing in one activity before they’ve even attended a day of school.

Spontaneity and informality have given way to structure and supervision.

“Kids these days need a scoreboard and uniforms and a referee to get anything going,’’ said Bruce Sandry, who runs the Quad-City Junior Golf Tour. “They don’t just play pickup games of any kind anymore.

“Our parents didn’t take us anywhere for these things. You either strapped your baseball glove to your bike and took off for somewhere or you did it in your own backyard. Kids don’t even think about it unless they get into a car now. They don’t just do things in their own neighborhood any more.”

Kevin DeNike, who gives golf instruction to players as young as age 5, has fond memories of his own childhood, and he admits it’s not the same childhood his protégés have.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to play all the sports,” he said. “I didn’t want to just do one sport all the time. Now it’s all so specialized. I have a nephew playing Pony League and he’s working on baseball the year round. He’s working out in the winter and going to a hitting coach.

“I played golf in the summer but I didn’t play all winter long. I went and played other sports. Now kids are going to the dome and hitting golf balls all winter.”

Tools for specialization

Aspiring young athletes of the 21st century now have an unending array of tools to help them achieve their athletic objectives, especially if they have parents who are willing to make sacrifices in terms of time and money.

They now have swing coaches, speed coaches, strength coaches and nutritionists.

Some even have sports psychologists. Dr. Jay Granat, a nationally known sports psychologist, estimates that close to half his clients are under the age of 18 and some are as young as 11.

Kids are being packed off to camps and clinics several times a year. Many of them are playing for travel teams that are pushing traditional Little Leagues and youth leagues into the background, if not to the brink of extinction. Impromptu sandlot games are as obsolete as rotary telephones.

Many parents are shelling out thousands of dollars a year to enroll their kids in camps or speed acceleration clinics or to allow them to play for travel teams. A handful of local youth athletic programs in a wide variety of sports admits to having six-figure budgets.

In some cases, parents are putting their own lives on hold for the sake of their children’s athletic development.

n The family of Madison Keys of Rock Island has essentially pulled up stakes with Christine Keys spending most of her time with Madison at the Evert Tennis Academy in Florida while Rick Keys remains in the Quad-Cities attending to his law practice.

n The Seitz family moved from Davenport to Florida for awhile to enhance the pairs figure skating careers of son Andy and daughter Lindsey. While living in Florida, the kids attended school for four hours in the morning and spent four hours on the ice in the afternoon.

“Just the time alone spent on skating made for a little more pressure … just the fact that we were there for skating,” Lindsey said.

n The parents of Davenport’s Randi Jensen drove her to Chicago several nights a week last year so she could play for the Team Illinois 16-under hockey team. She spent this past school year at the North American Hockey Academy in Stowe, Vt.

n Former Quad-City Mallards icon Garry Gulash and his wife, Cheryl, drive their 9-year-old son, Gavin, to Minnesota three weekends a month in the summer and took him to Chicago two nights a week in the spring so he could play for hockey teams in those locales. Gavin played for a U.S. team in an international tournament in Winnipeg earlier this month. It’s the second year in a row he has done so.

“If he didn’t love it, we wouldn’t do it,” Cheryl Gulash said. “If he didn’t have such a passion for it, with gas prices the way they are, I think I could think of other ways to spend my weekend.”

Early, early starts

Gavin Gulash got his first pair of skates when he was 11 months old, although he couldn’t skate well until he was 3.

It’s an indication of just how young kids are starting their sports careers.

Madison Keys was swatting tennis balls at the age of 4.

Most local gymnastics academies say it’s normal for aspiring Shawn Johnsons and Carly Pattersons to begin taking classes at the age of 3, although some facilities will accept pupils before they turn 2.

John Doak of the Alleman Jr. Pioneers Wrestling Club said many wrestlers now get started at the age of 5, although several top collegiate wrestlers claim to have started when they were 4. Every local high school of any size has a youth wrestling program to feed it.

While Davenport’s First Tee golf program typically does not take golfers younger than the age of 7, players as young as 5 are taking lessons from private instructors such as DeNike.

Ian and Connor Bedell of Davenport were hitting live pitching (albeit with a plastic ball from a short distance) from their father, Daniel, before they reached the age of 3. Now 8, they already have played hundreds of organized baseball games for travel teams and in various youth leagues.

They play more than 50 games each summer, and in the winter months, they spend two nights a week at the K Zone in Bettendorf, keeping their batting eyes and pitching arms fine-tuned. Both have had their fastballs clocked at more than 50 mph.

The twins have dabbled in other sports. They took karate classes when they were 4, and they’ve played YMCA basketball and soccer. They were introduced to football in the Rising Knights program last fall.

“But we play baseball the year round,” Daniel Bedell said.

Competitive necessity

Whether or not the modern trend toward very early starts and specialization is good or bad is highly debatable. What seems beyond dispute is that it has become necessary in order to compete at a high level in the current athletic arena.

For example, DeNike said anyone who wants to make a high school golf team now needs to begin their links career in elementary school.

“You really have to start that young if you want your kid to at least be competitive,” he said. “If they wait until they’re 11, 12 or 13 and you want to make your high school golf team, you’re probably out of luck.”

Jim Anderson, president of the Pleasant Valley Stingrays swim club, said young athletes who want to be successful swimmers in high school need to start focusing on the sport long before they reach that level. He said most of the 11- and 12-year-olds in his program work on swimming four or five days a week 10 months out of the year. A few play soccer but otherwise they already are one-sport athletes at that age.

Anthony Losasso entered Bettendorf High School fully intending to participate in at least three sports but by his senior season, the relentless push toward specialization narrowed him to just one.

“If you’ve singled out one sport, it’s great. It keeps you busy, keeps you out of trouble,” Losasso said. “But if you’re a multisport athlete, it just takes a toll on you, and you end up getting frustrated with the whole situation.”

Garry Gulash pointed out that young hockey players in big cities begin going to power skating facilities the year round when they’re 5 or 6. A kid in the Quad-Cities who wants to compete at the same level is almost forced to do the same thing.

“It has become a year-round thing for almost every sport,” he said.

Gulash, like DeNike and Sandry and many others, laments that it can’t be the way it once was, with kids competing — at least as pre-teens — in a more spontaneous, less structured form.

“When we learned (hockey) as kids, we were out skating on a pond or skating on a tennis court that was frozen over in the winter time,’’ he said, recalling his boyhood in Canada. “It was just you and your buddies out there. When the puck went in the net, you took it out and kept playing.”

Don Doxsie can be contacted at (563) 383-2280 or

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