David Ridpath, associate professor of sport management at Ohio University, has seen how the American youth sports model has evolved in recent years.
The world of youth sports has acquired somewhat of a negative image recently, in part because of its increasing amount of profitability. According to a 2017 TIME article, private firm WinterGreen Research reported youth sports had become a $15.3 billion market at the time.
Ridpath is the author of Alternative Models of Sports Development in America. His primary research area is intercollegiate athletics, as he was the assistant wrestling coach at Ohio University. He says collegiate sports affects youth sports, as the programs serve as pipelines for children who want to play collegiate sports.
“College athletics influences youth sports in the way the youth sports complex has grown in America mainly from the perspective of you have so many parents and others thinking that for their kids to get access to college, they need to be successful in youth sports,” Ridpath says.
Ridpath says elite travel programs around the country aren’t necessarily for elite players, but rather for people who can pay. Still, Ridpath believes the opportunity for youth to play sports in the southeast Ohio region is there.
“I certainly think that based on where we are, obviously the poorest county in Ohio and Appalachia, there are some very accessible things, whether it’s through recreation, through private organizations like Sandlot baseball and softball,” Ridpath says.
The financial aspect of youth sports aside, the purpose of youth sports should be to help encourage a healthy lifestyle at a young age, along with helping children develop friendships and relationships that could last a lifetime.
For two youth programs in Athens County, children creating relationships while playing the sports they love is the goal.
Volleyball and Mentorship
Kevin Gwinn remembers watching Jaylen Rogers for the first time when she was 14, the first year she played volleyball. He was refereeing a summer tournament, and he saw that Rogers was athletic, but he knew she didn’t have much knowledge of the game.
Gwinn is the club director for Aleta Volleyball, a travel program based in Athens County. He became the club director in 2015, but he’s been involved with the program since 2007.
When he went to introduce himself to Rogers’ mother, Shannon, he told her that he wanted Jaylen to play for Aleta. He wanted to coach Rogers because he knew she had talent.
“I mean it’s a great story for her. It’s not been an easy path for her,” Gwinn says. “I mean the kid’s got a special place in my heart because she’s had a rough road.”
The relationship Gwinn has with Jaylen shows the beauty of travel sports. If a coach or parent isn’t too pressing on a kid, then the relationship will most likely be positive. Ridpath says it’s important that children have other things going on besides playing one specific sport in their lives. He says if kids focus on one sport too much, then they can suffer from burnout.
Jaylen, 17, is now a senior at Federal Hocking High School in Stewart. She has committed to play at Ohio University next year. She has appreciated Gwinn’s support and help in making her a better volleyball player. She says Gwinn has been like a second father for her.
The parental support Shannon has brought is important. Before Jaylen got her driver’s license, Shannon drove her to practices in Athens. Jaylen and her family live in Athens County, so the drive wasn’t long compared to other players’ – Shannon says some other people were driving about an hour to practice.
Shannon has seen Jaylen progress over the years, and says she showed significant improvement from her freshman to sophomore years.
“Her confidence got a lot better,” Shannon says. “She still has to work on confidence. It’s like she knows she’s good but doesn’t really know how good.”
With volleyball providing an outlet for local girls like Jaylen, Gwinn believes in the value of having travel volleyball in the area.
Still, Gwinn says the price to play can be too steep for some families. He says people donate to the program occasionally, so the program can give some kids scholarships. But Gwinn doesn’t mind so much about the money. He says there are thousands of dollars he has in unpaid dues every year, but he believes having volleyball in the area helps give kids an outlet.
“That’s the price of doing business. I mean, you gotta have it here. I feel like you gotta have this going. It gives kids an opportunity, something to do,” Gwinn says.
The price to play varies by age, with the 12U teams costing $400 for each player. For the different age groups, a player can’t be over the age in the group. For example, in 12U, a player can be 10 or 11, but they can’t be older than 12.
For 13U, the price is $500 because that age group plays an additional tournament. And for ages 14-18, the price is $640 to play on a regional team, which is the lowest tier for the club.
The higher tiers are called American and national. American is the middle level, and national is the highest level of play, where future collegiate players compete. Gwinn says the prices are also higher for the American and national teams because the tournaments cost more. For players on the program’s national team, the cost was $1,000.
Jaylen hopes to play on the 18U national team for the upcoming season, which lasts from January to May. She says her goal for this upcoming season is to play as best as she can and be a leader for her teammates. She also wants to work on her blocking and reading the ball better.
“My first year [of tryouts] was pretty tough. I was really nervous, and I played really well,” Jaylen says. “Sometimes I don’t do too well at tryouts. But because [Gwinn] knows how I play like, sometimes I have bad days. So, tryouts aren’t too bad.”
Travel Hoops in Athens
When Mickey Cozart and his wife, Heather, started the Athens County Shock, a travel basketball program in the county, they simply wanted kids to have an opportunity to play basketball. And they didn’t want people to have to travel far in doing so.
When Mickey’s son, Dalton, was playing travel basketball with Elite Sports Center in Parkersburg, West Virginia, Cozart said they would travel an hour to practice.
“Then we practice for two hours, and then we’d drive an hour home,” Cozart says. “You’ve got four, five hours wrapped up into an evening. If you’re doing that three, four times a week plus tournaments, it just gets to be a lot.”
So, in 2012, Cozart and Heather started the Athens County Shock to give local boys and girls a convenient way to play.
“We just felt that some local kids may not be playing because one, maybe they don’t have the means to get over there, or maybe they don’t have the transportation, maybe they don’t have the money. But that’s why we started it,” Cozart says.
He says the program has seen kids from about as many as 23 different school districts. Those 23 school districts aren’t all in Athens County, either. Kids from Jackson, Gallipolis and West Virginia have played in the program.
Cozart believes youth travel sports can be good. Kids who may not like each other because of high school rivalries might become friends when they join forces on a travel team.
Though youth travel sports can be beneficial, Cozart also acknowledges that they can be ugly as well.
“Go watch travel ball—fourth grade girls—and you’ll be amazed by what you see, the pressure that they put on these little kids,” Cozart says. “You know, when really they should just be out there having fun learning, learning as much as they can and being around new people.”
Tari McCulloch, who works at Athens Surgery Center, is the mother of Mary Kate McCulloch, who has played with the Athens County Shock. Mary Kate, 18, is a senior at Nelsonville-York High School. She began playing with the program during seventh grade, and her junior year last season was her last year playing. Cozart coached Mary Kate’s team from when she was in seventh grade to her junior year.
Mary Kate had a positive experience playing travel basketball. She played with the same group of girls since fifth grade, when she started playing in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). When Mary Kate started playing with the Athens County Shock in seventh grade, she was still with the same group of girls. She and her teammates grew close as they played together at tournaments
Tari says Mary Kate and her teammates were devastated during their last tournament because they knew it was the last time they’d play together.
“They still stay all night with each other even though they’re from different areas, and they still get together,” Tari says. “They went to each other’s homecomings this fall, and they’re just very, very close.”
Mary Kate says she liked that her teammates were supportive of one another, particularly on the floor. She says though most AAU teams were selfish, no one on her team was looking for personal gain.
“We were really just there to hang out with each other and play together,” Mary Kate says. “We were all just there for each other. It was so nice.”
Cozart says Mary Kate and her teammates will probably be friends for the rest of their lives because they played ball together. And for him, that friendship is worth more than winning trophies.
“That’s the beauty of travel sports,” Cozart says. “You make friends that you would have never been friends with.”
By Cameron Fields