Sara is 7 years old, and goes to sleep with the NHL Network playing reruns of games in the background.
Her parents, Jon and Molly Woll, have her playing on two hockey teams this fall — and attending two ongoing clinics. After school, at a hockey training center in Edina, she did her second-grade phonics homework before starting wind sprints and sit-ups. Often, she is surrounded by hockey players more than twice her age.
Her family, meanwhile, forfeited a mini vacation to Duluth and applied the $500 to hockey fees.
And through it all Sara — with an impish smile and weighing only 58 pounds — says she loves her blossoming life of hockey. In her bedroom, a hockey trophy sits on a desk in front of Snow White, one of her Disney princess dolls.
As in many households throughout Minnesota, the debate over how-much-is-too-much with youth sports goes on almost daily in the Woll home, a modest, two-story in south Minneapolis with an aging Ford Taurus parked out front. Every clinic, practice and early evening ride to a training session becomes another extraordinary commitment from an ordinary family.
For three months, the Wolls gave the Star Tribune wide-ranging access to their decisionmaking, finances and Sara’s schedule for an in-depth look at one family’s commitment to youth athletics.
The Wolls are moving ahead, wary that there is plenty of cautionary evidence about harm that might be caused by children overtraining.
An American Academy of Pediatrics study, updated in 2011, said incidents of overuse injuries were increasing among children and that overtraining can lead to burnout. An estimated 30 to 45 million children between the ages of 6 and 18 participate in youth sports in the U.S., the study said. It recommended that children take one to two days off per week from organized sports, and take longer breaks from training every two to three months while finding other activities to keep up their conditioning and skills.
‘Sweaty and tired’
For now the decision is to keep going — Molly gushed at the strides Sara made over the summer — and try to keep pace with thousands of other hockey parents in Minnesota. And though they are critical of much of what youth sports has become — corporate sponsors for high schools and college football scholarships being offered to eighth-graders — they also talk proudly of Sara having her picture taken with members of the Gophers women’s hockey team.
“They told my husband yesterday, ‘You know what? You got a hockey player here,’ ” said Molly, an attorney who has taken a second job working at Target’s corporate offices to pay the bills. That was two days before Molly drove Sara to another dry-land training session inside 1st Athlete in Edina, even though summer and a 93-degree July day beckoned outside.
So the Wolls watched as a coach hooked Sara to a set of cables — which suspended her in the air like a puppet — and set their only child on a treadmill to study and improve her skating skills.
“Her and I have talked about, ‘Where [are some] of the places you want to play in college?’ ” said her father. A Wild team poster hangs above her bed.
For her part, Sara is mostly quiet but committed. In early September, at one training session, she wore a blue T-shirt that read “Cuter-Faster-Stronger.” There is a miniature Stanley Cup trophy in her bedroom. “My mom got it for me from Chicago,” she explained. She is up at 6:45 a.m. on school days, and in bed by roughly 8 p.m.
After a one-hour practice on a Saturday, Sara was asked how she felt. “Sweaty and tired,” she replied.
By October, sitting in a chilly ice arena on a Saturday night, Jon toyed with the idea of signing Sara up at yet another training center. ProEdge Power, located in the Twin Cities, features U.S. gold medalist figure skater Diane Ness, he said. “She’s worked with the New Jersey Devils,” Jon added. The cost: $95 for eight half-hour sessions. A woman who overheard Woll talking of Ness leaned back in the stands and said, “She’s supposed to be amazing.”
Jon Woll quickly mapped out what a typical week for Sara might look like: Monday — ProEdge training; Tuesday — 1st Athlete training; Wednesday — Minnesota Blades practice; Thursday — off; Friday — probably practice; Saturday — practice; Sunday — two practices. Thursday is “definitely off,” said Woll, a 42-year-old computer systems coordinator.
“The more she says, ‘Yes,’ the more we let out the leash,” he explained at one point. “If it gets to be too much, we’ll slow it down.” Molly added that hockey will end if Sara’s grades plunge.
The Wolls occasionally hear others wonder whether it is all too much. A friend told Molly in July that her own daughter — after four years of swimming lessons — had suddenly announced that “I hate swimming.” Molly said the friend then asked: “Does Sara really enjoy hockey, or are you just kind of pushing her into it?”
Molly said she and her husband wonder whether friends might be whispering “behind our backs” that they have gone too far. Sometimes “we totally doubt ourselves,” she said. But Molly said that when they ask Sara whether she still likes hockey, their daughter “looks at us like we’re nuts.”
There is, of course, another tally, and Molly knows it well: 1st Athlete — $68 a month; Minneapolis Storm hockey — at least $250; the cost of outfitting Sara in hockey gear, which was recently stolen and had to be replaced — another $400.
“It’s still a stretch on us to pay for this stuff,” Molly said. Sara, in addition, attends a private school.
“We want to give this to her,” Molly said. In mid-October, while outlining Sara’s upcoming week, her mother talked of training and practices on five of the next seven days. “Next week — Girl Scouts!” she said, adding one more activity.
On Halloween, Sara dressed as a werewolf. Her mother, meanwhile, breathed easier because layoffs announced last week at one of her jobs will not affect her.
“I made the cut at work!” Molly e-mailed.
There have been results.
“A lot of times the kids that miss summer [training] look kind of shaky the first few weeks” of fall league play, said Eric Loichle, who coached Sara last year and watched her during her third practice of the fall in early October. Sara, he said, “is real comfortable, [skating both] backwards, forward.”
But there also are words of caution.
“She’s one of the younger athletes that we have,” said Karl Erickson, the director of sports performance at 1st Athlete. But “at seven, I don’t think you can tell where somebody’s going to be when they’re 18, [or] 16.”
Though Sara’s father has wondered when it might make sense for his daughter to start lifting weights, Erickson was firm.
“Right now, Sara, she doesn’t have that mental maturity yet,” he said. “I would still like to [wait until] she’s closer to 10.”
As a steady stream of young hockey players entered and exited 1st Athlete — the logo says the company is “Building Tomorrow’s Champions” — an ad by the front door extolled the virtues of Coco 5, an all-natural coconut water drink that “contains all 5 essential electrolytes.” Mike Powers, a trainer at 1st Athlete, said he has 75 to 100 training sessions a week, mostly boys and some as young as 4. “They see the progress, [and] they get hungrier,” he said. “Kids are sponges.”
But he added: “There’s a fine line.”
From the sidelines, Sara’s grandfather is cheering on her development. John Woll, a pharmacist from Pine City, said both his sons — Justin and Jon, Sara’s father — played hockey at an early age. He said Justin would leave Pine City at 9 p.m., get to South St. Paul by 10:30 for practice, get back home at 1:30 a.m. and “went to school the next day with shirts and ties.
“Do I support it? Yes, I do,” he said of Sara’s hockey passion. Yet John Woll said he has also talked with Sara’s parents about “how will you support her when one day she comes home and says, ‘I’m tired [and] I don’t want to go to practice?’ ” He quickly added of Sara: “I don’t see that happening.”
Molly’s mother, Ann Walsh, meanwhile said she was surprised to learn recently that Molly now plans to move to Edina — mostly for other reasons, but also partly for hockey.
“That’s the icing on the cake,” Molly said of youth hockey in Edina. On some evenings in the later summer and early fall, during Sara’s workouts at 1st Athlete, the Edina girls’ high school hockey team trained only a few feet away.
On a warm Friday in mid-September, Molly fought rush-hour traffic to drive Sara to Blaine for practice. In the otherwise cold and empty arena, coach Jason Hemp watched the girls skate.
“[Sara’s] a very young player — she may have been our youngest player” last spring, he said.
Hemp said this level of hockey is relatively cheap, $350 for the whole season. “All my other girls, after this level, they all pay $1,560,” he said.
At one point over the past month, Jon tried to juggle Sara’s hockey schedule to fit in the normal activities of a 7-year-old — in this case, a sleepover with her cousin.
“Poor kid — she wants to do this play date,” said Jon, who promised to make it happen. “We feel her stress for her,” he said, smiling.
At a cost
As Jon and Molly watch Sara at her 1st Athlete training sessions, they also eyed one other way to maybe give their daughter an edge: Envision Sports. The company, which shares office space with 1st Athlete, offers private sessions to help increase the eye-hand coordination and peripheral vision of children — for academics and sports.
A sign inside Envision Sports talked of “convergence,” where the eyes turn inward and work together and which can be good for “catching a puck, catching a pass, hitting a ball [and] reading.” Josh Tucker led 10-year-old Anna Podein through her lesson in early October, which appeared as part eye exam, part computer video game.
“For athletes, if your mind drifts for one second, you turn the ball over” in a game, Tucker said.
Sherry Podein, Anna’s mother, waited for her daughter’s session to end. She said her husband, Shjon, who played 10 years in the NHL, is the one pushing the trips to Envision Sports. The cost is $2,800 for 40 lessons.
“It’s expensive,” Sherry said.
“I don’t know how much is too much,” she said of the seemingly endless hockey clinics, practices and games for Anna and her brother, Junior, age 7. “[They] like playing to win.”
Molly eyed the Podein family from a distance and seemed envious. Is she tempted to sign Sara up at Envision Sports? Well, she said with a grin, they probably would have to sell the car.