The transformation of youth sports in America

Graphic by Caroline Tan

On any given weekend, Aidan Trainor ’20 can be found in his car for up to ten hours, traveling up and down the east coast. His past destinations have included Buffalo, Montreal, and Quebec City. Sometimes, he flies to places like St. Paul, Chicago, the west coast and midwest, and Sweden. Trainor is not a tourist; he is simply a hockey player. And he is another kid growing up in a new era of youth sports.

Over the past few decades, youth sports in America have transformed from mostly local, community leagues to private club programs or academies that have upped the intensity and level of competition for many sports. According to an article from Time.com, the privatization of youth sports has turned it into a 15 billion-dollar industry. This nationwide transformation has resulted in financial burdens for many families across the country and has raised the bar for the time and commitment needed from kids and their families in pursuing athletics.

Trainor’s club hockey team, the Mercer Chiefs, is a program that takes in players throughout Mercer County. For most of his life, he has played the sport at the AAA level, which is the highest tier of youth hockey in terms of ability. In turn, getting on the ice is on his agenda everyday and the sport has taken over a large part of his life.

“Between hockey and schoolwork, there comes a lot of stress,” said Trainor. “All of the traveling, worrying about getting places on time, getting stuck in traffic — it’s all very time-consuming.”

Trainor, through his commitment to the sport, is pushing to elevate his game. He is seriously considering the prospects of playing Junior hockey, which is the tier of leagues in Canada and the U.S. that is below professionals. Additionally, Trainor is looking into playing college hockey, and believes that his club hockey experience will help get him to where he wants to go.

“[Club hockey] gives you a lot of exposure to coaches at the college and junior level[s],” Trainor said. “It’s all about becoming a better player and improving … your overall game.”

Trainor is one of many student athletes at PHS who plays on club teams or at academies outside of school. A recent survey conducted for 145 student athletes across all four grades found that 63 percent of athletes play for club teams or academies. Club athletes spent an average of 10.6 hours with their teams per week.

Club sports play a major role in the lives of many members of the PHS community.  And that does not just include students. Trainor’s mother, Michelle, is a special education teacher at PHS. She has four sons, Aidan ’20, Anthony ’16, Robbie ’19 and Callum ’21 who all have been playing club hockey since they were five years old.

“It’s insane …  but I will say that we have been surrounded by great families who have taken our kids to and from games and helped us alleviate the burdens of travel,” she said.

Michelle Trainor’s experience with her children’s sports has grown more time-consuming over the years. Seeing the development of her sons as players, the family decided to put serious commitment into hockey.

“It certainly has grown more intense. But I think that has been because we have chosen to make it more intense. Club sports allow you a wide variety of intensities, so you can play travel — or you can play travel on teams that go up and down the east coast every weekend.”  

Despite the traveling and busy schedules of her four children all playing on different teams simultaneously, Michelle Trainor understands the benefits that sports can create for her boys.

 “I think there are a lot of life skills you can learn in hockey and with sports in general.  By playing, you are learning to navigate a locker room just like learning to navigate relationships in life. It teaches you a great deal about commitment, about dedication, and [about] putting other people before yourself.”

Another member of the PHS community who has been involved in this current age of youth athletics is Daniel Monahan ’19, a wrestler who was recently named a co-captain of the PHS team for the upcoming winter season. Monahan has wrestled since he was in first grade and began wrestling for the Princeton Wrestling Club four years later. The program is based at Princeton University, and its participants receive coaching from members of the university wrestling staff.

“When I started wrestling for my club, I realized that I needed to dedicate my time to the sport in order to jump to the next level,” said Monahan. “I began wrestling year-round, and I saw a big difference in my development as a wrestler and as an athlete.”

Monahan joined PWC by following in the footsteps of his older brother Andrew.  Monahan’s brother wrestled for the club until high school, when he decided not to attend PHS and instead go to Blair Academy, a private school located in Blairstown, New Jersey that has won the national prep school wrestling championships for the past three years. Currently, Andrew Monahan is a sophomore at Columbia University, and was recruited there for wrestling.

Monahan attributes most of his improvements and strides in the sport to the focus and dedication he has demonstrated through his club team.

“Clubs offer a great opportunity to elevate your game in your sport,”  said Monahan “Making the sport a part of your daily and weekly regimen can make you take that next step and  be prepared for your high school season.”

The club experiences of Monahan and Aidan Trainor are examples and indicators that youth sports nowadays are not what they once were. A national change in the culture of athletics has consequently impacted the daily lives of the majority of PHS athletes, for better or worse. With all of the uncertainty regarding whether this change is positive or negative, one thing is for sure: every sports family in America is being affected.

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