Grace Coughlin, 16, loves playing basketball but admits her devotion to the sport affects her social life. Despite spending up to five hours a day playing basketball, weightlifting or doing yoga for conditioning, she is also determined to make time for a different kind of fun.

"I know that you only get to be 16 once, so I get my workouts done and then I hang out with my friends," said Grace, who lives in Edina and will be a junior at Benilde-St. Margaret's in the fall. "Some of my friends don't play basketball, but I also have a lot of close friends on the school team, so we hang out, too."

Sports as daily life is a reality not only for many teen athletes, but for families that log countless hours on the bleachers, in the car and in hotels, especially during summer's busy traveling team season.

Kris Coughlin, Grace's mother, said either she or husband Rick always accompanies Grace on the road -- July meant trips to Iowa, Orlando and Chicago with the North Tartan Basketball Club. Grace, who has already made a verbal commitment to play basketball for the University of Minnesota, is a member of the club's elite team.

"We have three girls who all play basketball, so we can spend up to 40 hours a week at games or practices," said Kris. "We've made some great family friends through basketball and at the end of the day, sports brings our family together."

A family commitment

This fall, Esabelle Levine, 14, will be a freshman at Eden Prairie High School, where she will also play basketball. Like the Coughlins, her family spends a lot of time watching Esabelle play -- she has been on a traveling team since fifth grade.

Carol and Geno Levine of Eden Prairie also have two older children in sports -- their son plays football for the U of M and a daughter played basketball for Augsburg College.

"It's definitely a family commitment, but when your children are doing something they love, it's so worthwhile, "said Carol. "You see their heart on the floor or on the field and that's very meaningful for us."

Chris Carr, founder of 43 Hoops Basketball Academy in Hopkins, where Grace and Esabelle play basketball, said parents and young athletes have to be "all in" to make a sports-oriented lifestyle manageable for the family.

"Competing at a high level is an investment in the future with no guarantees," said Carr, a former Minnesota Timberwolves player. "Make sure it is exactly what you want. It's a lot of sacrifice and a lot of energy. If it's not exactly what the parents and the kids want, then don't indulge in it."

In his role, Carr talks to many parents who are extremely supportive, but in some instances overly involved in their young child's level of competition.

"For an 8-year-old to compete at a high level, physical maturity is key. They have to be able to really play in that environment and not get engulfed by the physicality and speed of the game," said Carr. "So when parents tell me they want their kids to 'play up,' my argument is always about whether they are playing perfectly at their age level."

The teen's responsibility

While the family contributes the time and the financial resources, it is up to the young athletes to do the work to improve their game. Citing Olympic swimmer Rachel Bootsma of Eden Prairie as an example, Carr said her level of dedication is "far beyond anything" and the intense kind of commitment she has is a lifestyle.

For families with kids competing to make it as far as they can -- whether that means a high school varsity team or for some, college athletics -- their lifestyle has benefits and teachable moments that might not be apparent to others whose kids are not as actively involved in sports.

"Grace is very self-motivated. We support what she wants to do and we keep it in perspective," said Kris Coughlin. "One of our family rules is that after a game is done, good or bad, we leave it on the court. When we get home, we focus on something else."

The Levines, traveling this summer with the Midtown Lady Monarchs, Esabelle's AAU basketball team, continue to have bonding experiences while rooting for the family's youngest member.

"Esabelle spent time cheering for her siblings over the years, and now it's her turn," said Carol. "All of us are so happy to be there for her."

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.

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