Drive around town this month and you're bound to see them. At every major intersection and highway median, they protrude a few feet up from the freshly sprouting grass, a cardboard promise to a slightly better social life.
The second cousin, twice-removed from the November campaign signs and step-brother of the realty marker, I'm speaking, of course, about the crop of advertisements for this summer's youth sports camps.
Growing up in Toms River, the seasons dictated a child's athletic options. For me, the fall meant soccer at Riverwood Park, the winter was YMCA basketball, and the spring saw Little League at the Maple Tree Road fields.
The summer was a time for unencumbered play, when I pursued games of my own choosing and devise. But that was twenty years ago when the world was a smaller place.
As a high school teacher and a coach, I'd have to look hard to find a three-season athlete. Even the two-season variety are fading as more and more kids are "specializing," playing a single sport twelve months a year.
The belief behind specialization is simple: if a young boy or girl puts all of his or her effort into mastering a single sport, he or she will excel, opening up any number of opportunities from elite traveling squads to college scholarships.
In practice, however, this ideal is rarely achieved. While practice is necessary for mastery of anything, other factors including genetics and a mental understanding of the game can determine an athlete's overall success. More often, the child comes to resent the months of hard work and hours logged when lofty goals are not met.
So, why has specialization become so popular?
I'll use myself as an example. In the coming months, I'll be helping run a youth camp for pre-teen athletes in the high school sport I coach. And, while the camp has no direct affiliation with the Monmouth County high school I coach at, the camp's name strongly implies that future players would be best-served by attending this particular camp if they wish to get an edge by working with their future coaches.
Now, of course, this in no way means that athletes who have not grown up in the affiliate camp system would be prohibited or discouraged from eventually joining the high school team.
But you have to admit it is clever marketing. Clever enough to have sold out within days of enrollment opening.
I don't mean for this to seem like a whistle-blower article exposing some
conspiratorial payola sports scandal - especially since I am complicit in the
The coaches who run these camps generally have the best interest of their program in mind and are genuinely concerned with teaching the sport they love to future players. You certainly can't blame them for trying to further their program's influence and earn a nice living doing so.
I am concerned about the mentality that this system creates.
To understand it, you really need to attend a high school sporting event (or watch Dance Moms). As their children are battling it out on the field of play, parents are engaged in a battle of their own, carefully developing a social hierarchy amongst themselves.
Think of it as a more passive aggressive version of those violent parent outbursts that were so prevalent a decade ago.
This hierarchy is solely dependant on the performance of the players on the field. I've seen a mother go from popular to pariah in a matter of games after her child went into a mid-season slump, her stock amongst her fellow parents plummeting with each misstep and benching.
Conversely, I've seen other parents moved up the latter from afterthought to pasta party hosts when their son or daughter answered the bell and became a surprise standout.
Youth sports has always had its share of adults living vicariously through the accomplishments of their sons and daughters, but the situation has seemed to have reached a point where kids are no longer just playing for mom and dad's missed opportunities and failed dreams. Today's youth athlete is playing for mom and dad's invite to the weekend dinner party as well.
Thus, specialization has become more important than ever. An edge, any edge that an athlete can get builds equity not only for their athletic future but also the acceptance of their parents in the social circle.
That's a lot of pressure to put on a nine year old.
I wouldn't expect youth camps like the one I'll help facilitate this summer to go away. In fact, as specialization increases and high school programs get better, we're likely to see more parents rushing to enroll their children in sports camps of all types.
And, just as it isn't the fast food restaurant's responsibility to police the eating habits of its obese patrons, the coaches at these camps aren't responsible for creating this parental caste system either.
It is up these parents (many of whom are already mature and responsible enough to stay clear of the sideline drama) to decide if their own fleeting happiness is more important than the long-term effects the pressure specialization puts on their children.
In short, maybe it's time to give your kids the summer off.