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.