Wednesday January 20 2021
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The Lowdown on Summer Camps

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In some ways, it seems so easy. With a veritable buffet of choices, finding a sports-related summer camp for a youthful participant can simply mean picking a date, paying an entry fee and playing.

It’s not that easy, though, and such a half-hearted, hands-off approach does not represent the best way for parents to select a camp for their children.

With so many options (day or overnight, this sport or that, a session at the local high school or something on a college campus farther away from home), parents need to take a fairly aggressive approach to selecting a summer camp.

“There’s a match for everyone, you just have to find it,” said Paul Halford, director of coaching education and player development for PA West Soccer Association. “We conduct camps for at a variety of sites and for a variety of age groups. Several other groups conduct good camps, too. It’s just a matter of finding the right one.”

When considering camps, parents and prospective participants must know what they want before they attempt to find an activity that lasts as little as couple days or as long as a week.

Families selecting a sports camp just to fill time between the end of school in June and when it starts again in August or September clearly have different needs than participants looking for a camp to hone their skills toward an elite level.

Options on either end of that spectrum exist throughout western Pennsylvania, and those opportunities exist for every possible activity imaginable. From archery to soccer, baseball to swimming and basketball to wrestling, would-be campers can almost always find a camp that meets their interest.

Still, the secret to camping success comes in the search—matching an interest with a quality opportunity—and parents need to approach camp selection as consumers by asking questions and seeking clarifications when necessary.

Those who conduct the camps know their sessions are not for everyone. They typically enjoy answering questions because they operate the camps to make money, and they want campers to have a good time and spread the word about it in the future.

“We’re not a training camp, or a camp to necessarily get you to the next level. We compete with a lot of other camps, but I think we’ve found our niche with a focus on education and the swimming stroke,” says Pitt swimming coach Chuck Knoles, director of the Nike Swim Camp at Pitt.

Initiated years ago as the Pitt Stroke Camp, Knoles thinks the combination of classroom sessions on topics such as nutrition and psychology, as well as an intense focus on improving the swimming stroke of participants, sets the Pitt swimming camp apart.

A brand name and a small instructor-to-camper ratio provide other positives for the camp that regularly sells out its sessions. Those sessions are a day camp for children as young as 8 years old and an extended camp for those as old as 17.

For his part, Knoles thinks a camp experience—no matter what the location or sport—can be an important activity.

“No. 1, it’s just something different to do. No. 2, it’s a mini-vacation for both the parents and the kids,” he said. “From my point of view, in this day and age when parents can be overprotective of their kids, a camp experience allows kids to grow. They experience a change of environment, they get a little homesick, and they have some fun.”

Camp administrators and organizers almost unanimously preach enjoyment and fun among their ultimate goals.

Those should be important considerations for campers and their families as well. But, cost and opportunity should not be overlooked.

After all, camps are expensive. If campers do not get as much time participating at camp as they expected, that ultimately makes the experience less enjoyable.

So it again comes back to asking questions. In some cases, the day camp at the local high school that costs half as much can be just as valuable as a camp on a college campus, which ostensibly includes instruction from the college coaching staff, because the camper might get more hands-on attention at the high-school session.

Also, while the varsity swimming coach at Pitt leads his camp (with help from assistant coaches and select student-athletes and alumni), that’s not always the case with more high-profile camps on any college campus—especially basketball and football.

For example, Joe Paterno’s presence at Penn Sate football camp would be ceremonial, at best, while many high school coaches from across the region handle day-to-day instruction.

Other camps thrive on big-name instructors. Those include the Dermontti Dawson Football Camp, coordinated at Robert Morris University by Sports International, a nationwide camp operator based in Laurel, Md., that uses a fairly standard blueprint for football camps across the nation led by current and former NFL standouts.

“Basically we like to find the right headliner for campers, someone who will bring people to camp and someone who helps instruct,” said George Brown, a regional camp coordinator for Sports International. “We have high school and college coaches working our camps, and we want to focus on instruction. We do get a lot of former Steelers involved, but it’s not an autograph camp.”

Sports International started conducting camps 25 years ago. It’s first was headlined by former Washington Redskins receiver Art Monk in the Washington, D.C., area.

This year, the company has 19 different headliners for camps in 11 states. In addition, it conducts 13 camps specifically for kickers and punters.

With a variety of headliners, the Steelers camp has existed for nearly 20 years. And the company’s four-day camp model has proven repeatable and successful.

That’s the same approach utilized by every camp. Only the scale changes according to the respective business model.

At a local high school, a veteran coach might use an updated version of the same fliers and brochures every year for sessions where high school student-athletes serve as instructors for elementary-age participants.

At the college level, some places, like Pitt, outsource some of their camps, including the Nike deal for the swimming team, while other places keep the camp operation in house. For example, the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics at Penn State plans 94 camp sessions for 27 different teams this summer.

The ultimate goal is to provide some compensation for the assistant coaches who conduct the sessions. It can be an added bonus for the coaches, and even an important revenue stream for the athletic department to provide competitive pay packages for coaches.

Even before campers arrive for their sessions, the camp process can be competitive. At YMCAs throughout the region, many of which operate weekly camps during the summer, the spring sign-up and selection day for the summer camp often includes parents camping out to be among the first to register.

Parents with that type of commitment and foresight often find the best camp matches for their children. If done right, it’s a process that eventually pays off for all involved.

“You know it’s been a good week when the kids want to stick around for pictures at the end of the week and the counselors get hugs,” Knoles said. “We’re here for the campers, and it’s nice to make that connection and know they had a good time.”

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