As kids age their interests change and the types of summer camps they choose can evolve as well. When it comes to sports, day camps are often the rule for younger tweens. However, by the time a dedicated athlete is 12 or 13 years old he or she has often exhausted the possibilities close to home and starts to look at overnight camps for the next challenge. Younger tweens may want a recreational sports camp as an alternative to more rustic overnight options.
Unlike traditional summer camps, where many campers return annually until they get too old (and then come back as counselors) overnight sports camps typically target different skill levels and age groups for different sessions. Sports camps can vary widely in terms of physical and emotional intensity. What is right for an elite athlete who works out year round would be a confidence shattering disaster for a recreational player who is just thinking about trying to take it up a notch.
For those who are new to selecting summer overnight sports camps here are seven tips to consider:
- Book family trips first: most families with teens and tweens need to squeeze family vacations, college visits, summer jobs, and overnight camps into just a couple of summer months. If you live in the Northeast, you have probably already lost a week of summer vacation to snow days that will have to be made up in June. We have learned to set priorities by blocking the time for family trips first, then, fit in the camps around those plans. We’ve seen too many friends sign their kids up for so many divergent camp commitments that there was no time left for a family vacation.
- Decide early if the teen wants to go with a friend or travel solo: If your athlete has a good friend and teammate with a similar skill level it can be a great experience to attend a challenging camp together. On the other hand, many camps house players of similar levels together since they will be rotating through the various camp sessions on the same schedule. Some camps even refuse roommate requests because they want to make sure kids make the effort to engage with other campers. If the friends have widely different skill levels they might not see much of one another as most camp activities will be grouped by skill levels based on assessments made on the first day. Some kids prefer to go solo and make new friends at camp. If your teen is planning to sign up for camp with a friend find out if the camp will honor roommate requests and try to determine if the kids will get to be together for at least some of the activities. Deciding early about bringing a friend allows you to evaluate camps based on their roommate and teammate assignment policies, if those are important to you. It also makes it a lot easier to coordinate schedules. Last summer we found exactly one week that worked for the princess and her hockey playing buddy to go to the camp they both wanted.
- Check out the coaching credentials: Ask around at the rink or the field to find out what a particular camp experience is really like. Most camp brochures promise big skill improvements, amazing workouts and great experiences but take a closer look at who will be working with your kid. Many camps are run by someone well known in their sport – but the star may not always spend a lot of time with the campers. Check to see what the mix of pro, college, prep school and high school coaches and assistants really is. Often the camps with the most popular pro players on the marquee are very recreational and rely on a lot of student helpers. By comparison, the intense camps meant for highly skilled athletes are often staffed by college or prep school coaches assisted by Division 1 college players. If you are hoping a camp experience will help your player get recruited for a college or prep school team, be sure the coaches you want to impress will be there. Also recognize that different camp weeks may feature different player skill levels or skill development focus areas. These might impact your thoughts about coaching credentials as well.
- Match the intensity level to your player’s current needs: Be realistic about your player’s skills and the amount of physical activity they will enjoy. Are they scared or excited about 3 or 4 hours of skating and 2 or 3 hours of dryland workouts daily — plus the lectures and film reviews that are expected at some camps? Would they rather have evenings reserved for fun times or field trips, or do they want to keep exercising after dinner?
- Realistically evaluate how well your teen or tween handles stress and disappointment. Many recreational overnight sports camps put a big emphasis on fun and keeping stress levels down (did you know for example there is an ice hockey camp in Rhode Island where the kids go surfing every afternoon!) More competitive camps, however, can be very emotionally challenging and stress inducing. Players may get moved up or down levels. Some camps could actually be tryouts to get selected for even more advanced camps. How will your teen feel if he or she doesn’t make the cut? If they see it as an opportunity to test themselves then go for it, but if it is just going to stress them out look for something else.
- Make sure you are comfortable with the level of supervision provided in the dorms. We’ve been surprised at how variable sports camp supervision can be in the dorms or hotel. Some camps use prep school or college dorms and sports facilities and rely on older teens to navigate their way around campus pretty much on their own. Some dorms may not be locked during the day. Other camps assign multiple counselors to small groups of kids and never let them out of their sight. They won’t even let the kids have the keys to their own rooms so they can’t sneak in unsupervised. At night, some camps may have just one or two supervisors per dorm floor while others may have paid overnight security guards or tape the dorm doors to make sure no one goes sleep walking. Many camps have a no cell phone policy which could make it hard if you are the type of parent who wants to check in regularly. Go with your gut and pick an environment where you feel comfortable about your child’s safety.
- Leave some downtime in between the return from camp and starting the next adventure. Kids come home from most overnight camps exhausted, but, this is particularly true for sports camps that work them really hard from sun up to past dark. Plus, you never know if the kid will come home sick with something picked up in a dorm. Save yourself the disappointment of spending a long planned family vacation cooped up in a hotel room because your teen is too sick to have fun. We try to allow at least a week in between returning from an overnight camp and scheduling another big adventure.
This will be our third year making decisions about sleep away ice hockey camps. Each year, the right choice for the hockey princess has been different as she has gotten physically stronger, become more skilled and continued to raise her goals. Her first overnight hockey camp was an inspiring but fun recreational camp coached by Olympic athletes. The next year, it was a skills development camp that required competitive tryouts and recommendations. This year, we are still debating the right choices given our schedule, budget and her current level of hockey aspirations. Whever she goes, we know she’ll give it all she’s got!