Summer camps bring to mind idyllic images of roasting s’mores by sunset campfires and splashing into crystal-clear watering holes.
But it’s a different game if you’re a young athlete who wants to sharpen skills to make the high school varsity squad, or you’re already a star looking to showcase talents for college recruiters or for an athletic scholarship.
Sports camps come in all shapes and sizes for all abilities, and there are thousands to choose from. So how do you know which will be the best fit for you?
We surveyed several experts for tips, including coaches who organize and work at camps, an all-star athlete who has attended them, and a youth educational consultant who helps families through the planning process.
Tom Turco is head volleyball coach at Barnstable High School in Hyannis, Mass., and director of Cape Cod Volleyball Camps in Hyannis. He has twice been honored as national volleyball coach of the year, and his Barnstable girls team recently won its 17th state championship.
Danielle Derosier is a junior at Barnstable High and three-sport athlete. She was a key contributor to the state champion volleyball team and is also a standout in ice hockey and lacrosse.
Chris Leahey is a staff coach at Match Fit Academy FC in Bayonne, N.J., and has coached boys and girls soccer teams for 13 years.
Here’s a summary of their advice:
1. Talk with your parents and coaches about what you want to accomplish.
Be honest in assessing your abilities, and look for a camp that will help you reach your goals.
Derosier: Know what you need and what you’re going to get. Younger players might need more practice and skill training. Older players need instruction, too, but maybe with more intensity and more opportunities to play actual games.
Leahey: If you want to play in college, attend a “showcase,” or elite-level camp where there will be college scouts. But there are risks. If you attend a camp of an institution you want to pursue and have an “off” week, it could lead to falling off the list of potential recruits for that school. Make sure you are ready to be “on,” playing at the top of your form, for five days.
Tipograph: Players need to be honest in their commitment. Parents need to be honest, too, and objective about their child’s potential. Building your athletic resumé is fine but not on false hopes. If you’re going to a showcase, ask for proof that scouts will be there. Find out what kind of relationship the director and staff have with colleges.
2. Ask about the daily schedule and program beyond instruction. Also, what is the camper-to-coach ratio?
Leahey: I’d recommend a 10-to-1 maximum player-to-coach ratio. Camps for higher-level players are more game-centric, and 15 or 20 to 1 is manageable.
Turco: It is important to offer a college recruitment session where college coaches on staff say what they look for and collegiate players talk about the college experience. Other things that are helpful: sports-specific weight training and conditioning; sports psychology and team building; and for rising freshmen, a session about playing in high school.
Tipograph: The serious athlete should be prepared for the intensity. The days are long – an average of five to six hours of instruction and game time. Some kids overestimate their energy, so shorter camps, less than a week, can sometimes be better. It’s summer, and you don’t want to burn out.
3. Do you want a day camp or an overnight residential camp?
Turco: Day camps are popular for those who want to enjoy life after six hours of sport.
Leahey: The overnight residential camp is a different experience for players: being away from home, managing a schedule, rising at the correct time, ensuring they’re nourished and hydrated. And it requires the organization to build in “down time” activities. It’s not feasible to have players in a classroom or on the field all day.
Tipograph: Kids are kids. Ask about what kind of supervision there is, especially if it’s an overnight camp. Who is watching them? Typically, younger kids are more suited for day camps because they come home each day, and you get a chance to debrief them.
4. Some camps promote high-profile college coaches or professional athletes. What role do they play?
Tipograph: If it’s a camp with celebrity coaches, it should be more than just a photo opportunity or an autograph. They don’t have to be on the field every day, but are they checking in? Do they have a role in the curriculum, staff training, and philosophy?
Leahey: Typically, showcase camps staff with the institutions they promote. Sometimes the head coach is only there the first day and then assistant coaches take over.
5. Do your homework. Talk to other players who have been to camps, and ask your coaches for advice.
Derosier: Word of mouth is best. Other players can tell you what to expect and if it’s a good camp. And your coaches know what kind of player and person you are and what will be the best fit.
Tipograph: Plan ahead so you have options. References are very important and better than testimonials; kids talking with kids, and parents with parents, about good and bad experiences. Summer camps should be part of the whole educational experience and help you make good decisions for the future.