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TRAIN LIKE A PRO - EVEN IF YOU'RE ONLY 12

Sports performance training is getting big for kids of all abilities. Advocates say it teaches athletic basics during kids' formative years.

Brace yourselves, parents. Besides shuffling the kids to cello lessons, algebra tutoring and soccer matches, another activity is emerging to give prepubescent go-getters a leg up these days: sports performance training.

Because many team coaches don't have the time or the expertise in exercise science to make their troops faster and stronger, specialty programs - part gym, part pro training camp - have stepped in to fill the need. For about $35 a session, they provide rigorous conditioning for any child, regardless of ability, using the kinds of practices that have set apart athletes like Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters.

Sports performance training is becoming de rigueur for ambitious stars in the making or unfit youngsters whose parents want to shore up their confidence. Great athletes aren't born, they're made - or so goes a slogan for Velocity Sports Performance, one of the leading centers that aim to treat Jack or Kate like Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns or Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the Olympic star.

Degrees of difficulty

Velocity, which has more than 75 locations, including several in Florida, had almost 47,000 children participate in 2006, four times the enrollment in 2004. Athletic Republic, until recently known as Frappier Acceleration Sports Training, worked with about 36,000 children last year, up from 27,000 in 2005. CATZ, a chain in Arizona, Massachusetts, California and Texas, trained 6,500 youngsters for the year ended June 2007, up 150 percent from the same period in 2006.

Though kids as young as 8 take part, 12- to 15-year-olds make up the bulk of participants at chains like Velocity and CATZ (Competitive Athlete Training Zone).

Sports performance centers resemble a pro-training camp - without five o'clock shadows or tattoos. Clusters of children alternatively warm up, hoist weights and do plyometrics or speed work supervised by coaches.

Some of the drills resemble amped-up neighborhood games. Others are more grueling, like running while dragging a weight and super-fast treadmills that force legs to go quicker than they could on their own. One result is that eventually children "are able to generate those same velocities by themselves," said John Frappier, founder of Athletic Republic, who has a master's in exercise physiology.

Competitive edge

Fitness matters more than ever, since talent alone is no longer enough to make varsity or win a Division I scholarship.

Sports performance training teaches athletic fundamentals during the "skill hungry" years of neuromuscular growth. It also helps single-sport players avoid injuries by broadening their abilities, advocates say.

Although sports performance outlets strive to be chummy and supportive, parental pressure coupled with the ethos of continual improvement wears down some tender-age athletes.

Parents who say "we are not going to give Billy or Mary a chance not to do this," need to reassess, said Fred Engh, the president of the National Alliance for Youth Sports and author of Why Johnny Hates Sports.

Selling smiles

Jim Schultz, of Waldwick, N.J., encourages his daughters, Renee, a Velocity year-rounder, and Lauren, who goes twice a month, to think of their sessions as a job. "If you go there and you fool around, you won't last long," he said. "Renee is serious about it. That's what's good."

Renee, 14, who plays soccer for three teams, said signing up for Velocity was her dad's idea. "At first I didn't have a choice whether I wanted to go," said Renee, who is also a basketball guard. "After a while, I really liked going there." What won her over? The emphasis is on fun, and people in the sports performance field downplay the grit the work demands. ("What we really sell are smiles," says Troy Medley, chief executive of Velocity.)

This is not every child's idea of fun. The coaches I observed at three centers offered guidance and didn't yell. Still, how can workouts be lighthearted when the point is to make quantifiable strides? Kids are videotaped sprinting and their flaws critiqued. Benchmarks - distance for a medicine ball throw - are tracked, too.

John Maiolo, a controller for a venture capitalist firm from Monroe, Conn., had to overcome his reservations. After all, daughter Marissa plays three sports but prefers soccer.

"In the beginning you think to yourself, am I one of those parents who must have their daughter be perfect, and have all the opportunities possible?" said Maiolo, who swam in his youth. "Am I going overboard? Am I trying to be the athlete I never was? You second-guess yourself, and that's good."

Ultimately, the Maiolos went for it, and Marissa has no regrets. "If I didn't go to Velocity I'd still be what I was before," she said. ". . . It made me better."

After three years of training, Marissa, now 14, says she'd like to be a professional soccer player one day.

Gains? Sure, but . . .

Do trainees improve? "The answer is a qualified yes," said Avery Faigenbaum, an associate professor of exercise science at The College of New Jersey. "If we put a 10-, 14-, 15-year-old in a sensibly prescribed program, the child will get faster, jump higher, she's stronger and she's faster on the court." But gains should be taken with a grain of salt, he said, since children naturally improve with age. As Faigenbaum puts it: How to improve the vertical jump of an 8-year-old? Do nothing. "She'll jump higher at 12," he said.

Overtraining is a concern, since parents often don't realize the importance of recovery between hard workouts. "They need to look at the total stress being placed on their kids," Faigenbaum said.

At the other end of the spectrum, some participants only break a sweat at performance centers. Suzanne Holder, of Pasadena, Calif., said it took signing up for CATZ to awaken her 11-year-old daughter Maddy's interest in activity. "In sports, you may be the one who the goal got past, or who didn't catch the fly ball," she said. "But at CATZ your only goal going is to have fun, and suddenly you realize you've accomplished 20 push-ups you couldn't before."

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