Expanding the Playing Field

Nine-year-old Anthony Giannini suffered from asthma and took medicine for years. He used to be sick about once a month, but after a year of participating in training sessions and a basketball camp at Right Fit, a Burr Ridge, IL, athletic training facility geared to children ages 6 to 15 years old, his health has improved dramatically, not to mention he's no longer taking asthma medication.

“I think that going to Right Fit and pushing himself has taught him that he is very capable in sports,” wrote his mother, Betsy, in a letter to Right Fit owner Dave Geslak. “He quit baseball a couple of years ago, and he is even going to try that again this year.”

Geslak's clients jump over hurdles, work on improving their running form, perform plyometric exercises and focus on building a strong core. While similar programs call this “sport-specific” training, Geslak shies away from the term, and instead tells parents he's training their child as an athlete.

No matter what you call it, training pre-college aged children and athletes for sports is a growing and profitable market. In fact, with 25 percent of the population under the age of 18, it's an estimated $4.1 billion opportunity, said David Walmsley, co-founder and chief executive officer of Velocity Sports Performance, a national franchise of sports training centers offering programs for athletes of all ages and abilities.

“[This market] has grown substantially over the past few years with the awareness of the benefits of sophisticated sports training through the press and what people have read in consumer magazines,” Walmsley said. “We can demonstrate the impact of this type of training on athletes in reducing injuries and enhancing performance on the field.”

En Fuego

Like many others, Walmsley expects the market to continue to grow due to several factors. Namely, many schools have a single strength and conditioning coach serving hundreds of student athletes. Despite some states passing physical education (PE) requirements in their public schools, many cite the lack of PE as a key factor in the boom, too.

Sports are surging in popularity each year, which doesn't hurt either. Beyond the 7 million high school students participating in organized sports programs, millions more compete and participate in physical education classes, church and community intramural programs, and other recreational athletic activities. With all of these children playing sports and many aspiring to become the next Michael Jordan, George Brett or Michelle Kwan, the market is ripe.

“People are learning that sports are a business,” said Justin Price, IDEA's spokesperson for personal training and a biomechanics specialist. “Kids enjoy sports, but parents see the bottom line that kids can put themselves through school and help [parents] when it comes to the retirement home.”

While children used to play a different sport for each season, now sport specialization is the name of the game.

Students are starting to choose one sport to play year-round and are seeking coaches and the best training protocols, said Todd Durkin, kinesiotherapist, owner of Fitness Quest 10 and IDEA 2004 Personal Trainer of the Year. These athletes are doing everything they can to get a competitive advantage to maximize their potential, he said.

Many parents, especially those with a high socioeconomic level, are willing to shell out big bucks for their children. Take, for example, Elite Fitness Institute in Vernon Hills, IL. Located in the third wealthiest county in the country, Lake County, IL, sports training is flooding the personal trainer market, said Jeffrey Schultz, president and director of fitness training at the 16,500-square-foot training facility. Sports performance training consists of half of Schultz's business. Serving an area where money is not an object definitely helps, he said.

“The parents will spend more money on their child than themselves, especially if it helps increase their chances of starting on their high school team and/or [earning a] scholarship to college.”

However, these programs bring all kinds of children to fitness, not just athletically gifted boys and girls, further expanding the market. Geslak's facility works with children of different shapes, sizes and athletic abilities such as Anthony Giannini, but the facility's main clientele has become children with special needs, such as those with obesity, learning disabilities and autism.

“I believe the biggest impact Right Fit is making to the fitness industry is truly teaching these children the proper way to exercise and slowing them down,” Geslak said.

Paradigm Fitness in Newark, DE, has also had success in conditioning the deconditioned market. The facility offers specialized one-on-one training, small group training, Pilates and sports nutrition consulting to both athletes and non-athletes.

“We end up with a lot of siblings who don't play a sport but enjoy doing general strength-training sessions,” said Glynn Willard, co-owner of Paradigm Fitness.

Facilities are popping up across the country to convert this increasing demand to revenue. Parisi Speed School, a group of athletic training facilities based in New Jersey, recently went national with the launch of eight franchises in 2005. Depending on the location, competition is becoming fierce, many in the industry say.

“There is a lot of competition out there now for these programs,” said Phil Pfeifer, director of fitness and performance for AthletiCo Rehabilitation, Fitness & Performance, a provider of fitness and rehabilitation services in the Chicago area with more than 40 clinics, 10 manager care facilities, five health clubs and a golf performance center. “If there is demand, the fitness industry has always done a great job answering.”

Try Outs

With tough competition but an expanding and profitable market, where do clubs fit in? Should they just leave sports-specific training to small studios and specialized training centers?

Clubs should definitely capitalize on the trend, Price said. Most facilities and trainers have differing opinions about one-on-one, small group, clinics or team training. Some trainers enjoy the personal relationship created one-on-one while others prefer the team-building environment of small groups. While giving individualized attention at sports-specific clinics may be challenging, many in the industry say they can yield big returns, especially since many young baseball, basketball or other youth teams sign up together.

The cost for these programs can vary widely. Price charges his one-on-one clients $155 an hour while sessions run between $50 to $75 at the Performance Zone in Granbury, TX. Performance Zone Owner and Director Mark Roozen explained that for small group training he adds an additional $20 to $25 fee per child.

“We usually keep it to four athletes,” Roozen said. “If it gets bigger, we feel we lose some of the one-on-one instruction.”

Studio 22 Private Fitness in Muncie, IN, trained the entire 24-person Monroe Central basketball team last summer for three sessions a week for eight weeks. Because owner Brad Warner scheduled the camp during the mid-day when his facility is typically closed, he was able to dramatically discount the price of the camp to $220 per athlete. Clients generally pay between $15 to $20 per hour session, with two to four clients per hour, per trainer, he said.

Taking the Mound

Facilities must show tangible results. Warner tracked Monroe Central's basketball team's progress over their eight-week program. The team had a 41 percent improvement in their dot drill speed, a 9.03-inch improvement on standing long jump and a 61-pound average increase in squat strength.

Other facilities have also found success in displaying a youth's improvement.

“Parents love to see improvement for their investment,” Schultz said. “That is why we have pretests and post-tests with valid numbers, so parents can see on paper that their child has gotten better.”

Although it can be challenging, merging a club and a sports training facility can be done. Case in point: Oceanside Wellness and Sport in Egg Harbor Township, NJ. Opened about a year ago, Oceanside is both a wellness center and strength and conditioning training facility. With more than 1,500 members, the facility offers fitness center memberships, nutritional seminars, speed and agility camps, and more.

Sports specific training isn't easy to get started, but for those who succeed, the rewards — both financial and personal — can be limitless. Children improve not just on the field, but also off the court as well. Durkin has noticed increases in his client's self esteem, confidence and academic performance. The before-and-after results can be dramatic.

“Especially in 9- to 18-year-olds there are a lot of social demands on these kids,” Durkin said. “When they're in shape and feel good, it's only going to help them.”

Nine-year-old Anthony Giannini is just one example of a child who has benefited from this kind of training.

“When I work with children who are younger, there is so much more that you can teach them that goes beyond training. You see them grow and mature on all levels,” Geslak said. “This line of work is the most rewarding thing I have been a part of.”

How to Get Started

Before rolling out a full sports training program, biomechanics specialist Justin Price recommended that clubs bring sports training experts and interested parties together for a seminar or workshop at a club. After gauging interest, experts can help trainers meet their athletic clienteles' needs. A seminar can help a club better identify which type of training will be best for its population.

Training the Trainer

The toughest part of sports specific training involves safety issues, Brad Warner, owner of Studio 22 Private Fitness said.

“The workout programs we have for athletes require a tremendous amount of spotting and attention to detail,” he said.

This attention to detail isn't handled by just anyone on the staff. Beyond earning a national, reputable, basic personal trainer certification and a four-year degree in exercise science or a related field, Justin Price advised trainers to specialize in sports or biomechanics.

“Most people don't walk correctly and assume they can run, jump, rotate or bend correctly, but it's something that doesn't happen very much,” Price said. “You need a specialist to oversee the development of these programs.”

Experience working with and talking to kids is another skill that shouldn't be overlooked. Explaining to an 8-year-old why a complicated exercise works takes a skilled trainer. Trainers should provide referrals of prior success with children, and should be insured to work with youngsters.

By the Numbers

  • Fifty percent of boys and 25 percent of girls between the ages of 8 and 16 years old compete in an organized sports program sometime during the year.

  • Three-fourths of junior high schools and middle schools have competitive interscholastic sports programs.

  • At the high school level, there are 32 male and 27 female competitive sports with 7 million high school students participating.

Source: The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

Securing Your Lineup

Clubs must find space, gain the trust of schools and show concrete results.

Because of sports' dynamic nature, clients need plenty of room for jumping, squatting, running and swinging. Studio 22 Private Fitness' strength programs for athletes involve about 80 percent of free weights for dead lifts, power cleans, snatches and more, all of which require additional space. Working in small groups also requires extra square footage to accommodate the movements of up to four children.

Once you've secured space, get the word out. Clubs should make their current members aware of their new services. Some of these members may have or know students/athletes looking to improve their performance, and they can help raise awareness about the program.

When it comes to contacting other key sources of athletes — local coaches, parents and school administrators — it's important to tell them that you are not there to “save the day.” Instead, work slowly to build trust, and when you get the opportunity to work with an athlete, do a remarkable job, so word will spread about the program, Mark Roozen of Performance Zone said.

Rob Wagner, director of strength and conditioning at Oceanside, said it's important to make clients feel at home so that they want to come back. Planning is also of utmost importance.

“Have a clear picture of how you plan to work with your clients and athletes,” Wagner said. “This will allow you to plan for everything from resistance equipment to floor surfaces. You don't want to look back and say, ‘I wish we had thought about that.’”

Hyper Parenting

A protocol for parental involvement and unsupervised work with a child should also be established. Owner of The Biomechanics in San Diego, Justin Price invites parents to each session, but Velocity Sports Performance parents only allows parents to watch from a skybox with thick glass.

The skybox prevents “hyper parenting.” Although some say the overzealous parent stereotype is overblown, trainers do have to deal with difficult parents from time to time.

“A lot of parents nag [young athletes] and use negative reinforcement,” Price explained. “I talk to the parents a lot and give them positive action words to use. If you want the child to get better, then you want the parent behind it.”

And, in the rare case that a trainer suspects a child is training only for a parent's sake, he or she should develop trust with the child and then find out the child's real goals, Price said.

“If it's not their goal, we won't [train them],” he said.

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