BRANDON — Tyler Davis has big dreams.
He's making his mark playing for one of the area's largest competitive youth soccer clubs, the Chargers. And at the age of 12, he already knows he wants to play professionally one day.
It's that dream that led Tyler, his parents and nearly two dozen other soccer moms and dads to spend a Sunday afternoon in a hotel conference room in Brandon listening to Ryan Maloney share his vision for the Pro Pathways Center of Excellence. The private, full-time school combines intensive soccer training and academics through Florida Virtual School for standout players in third through eighth grades.
Maloney plans to open a west coast branch of the center in either Brandon or Oldsmar this fall. Last year, he launched the program in Palm Coast and there's an waiting list for admissions.
Each morning, students spend three hours working on soccer skills, technique and conditioning with full-time, professional coaches. In the afternoon, they take online classes onsite. After school, it's more soccer practice, since most students play on independent traveling teams.
"I wanted to create a healthy, fun environment for kids who are like-minded," said Maloney, who has played professionally in the United States and the United Kingdom and was a two-time All American at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He spent his teen years in the UK's academy system, an environment not unlike the one he's created here in Florida.
The goal, Maloney says, is to maximize the potential of student athletes so they'll be desirable to college recruiters, earn scholarships and hopefully go pro.
"This is the closest thing your kids can have to a professional environment, and it will make them the people that they'll be," said Bryn Lloyd, a well-known local soccer director and coach who will lead the Tampa area branch of the sports school.
Topics such as goal-setting, proper nutrition, mental toughness and character development are also stressed, lifelong skills that will benefit the students.
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In the competitive world of youth sports, parents spend $1,500 a year or more to have their child be a part of a competitive traveling team, and it's not unheard of for coaches to sometimes stretch the truth regarding a player's talent in order to keep them on the team, and keep the flow of money coming into the club. Maloney is unabashedly honest.
"We never promise that if you send your kids to the school they'll be the next Lionel Messi," he told the parents. "The school doesn't work if we're not black and white."
Only the most exceptional players, who have a strong desire and motivation are invited to attend the school. And since the academy will not have a team and will be "club neutral," it's not a threat to other area competitive teams.
But is encouraging athletes as young as 8 years old to specialize in one sport beneficial?
"When a young athlete's entire focus is on a single sport, they're less likely to report an injury because they worry that they won't be able to play," noted Dr. Patrick Mularoni, who as medical director of sports medicine at All Children's Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine sees more and more young athletes in his clinic. "Although these institutes provide more time for sports, it's also more time to get injured."
Research shows that children under age 10 are more prone to injuries. In fact, one study by Loyola University of Chicago found that early sports specialization is the strongest predictor of injury. Mularoni is quick to point out that he's not opposed to sport academies like the Center of Excellence, but adds, "There's no data that shows specialization at an earlier age makes a student more likely to play in college or the professional level."
Maloney counters that the more time coaches have with players, the better they become, and that as athletes get older, the time spent with coaches actually decreases, making one-to-one training at a young age more important.
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Soccer mom Dawn Addison hopes her 12-year-old son, D.J., will be a member of the Center for Excellence's first west coast class.
"I think he has a lot of potential, and I'm hoping with that and passion and positive influence, it will lead him to be successful in whatever he does."
Tyler Davis' dad, Jon, was impressed with what he heard, as well.
"We look at it as a positive," he said. "Tyler is in honors classes. If we can provide an environment where he can excel academically and in sports, everyone wins." He and his wife, Tricia, are seriously considering the $5,000 yearly tuition if Tyler is accepted.
With Brandon's huge soccer community, Maloney hopes to recruit 50 to 60 students for the inaugural class.
Contact Candace Rotolo at firstname.lastname@example.org.