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Manifesto of a Soccer Dad – Camp vs. Organized Sports

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I never thought I’d be a soccer Dad… I always envisioned that weekends with my four kids would be spent hiking in the woods or mountain biking. Instead, Jane and I spend spring and fall weekends dividing and conquering as we figure out how to get our four kids to different soccer games in multiple locations. These parental challenges are not unique.

My kids love soccer and I applaud the many good things soccer brings. I like the friends my children have made through soccer and their families. I like the conditioning and emphasis on activity and health. I like the camaraderie, focus, and the teamwork my kids are learning. I love the fact that my girls look up to Tobin Heath and Heather O’Reilly and not Miley Cyrus or Rihanna.

On any Given Sunday Afternoon!

On any Given Sunday Afternoon!

But while soccer is a great activity, I worry about too much of a good thing. Finding a passion, working hard to attain skills and being able to measure one’s growth through competition is a great way to build the confidence that will serve one throughout life. But now, we feel pressure from coaches and other parents to focus on soccer exclusively. This past fall, the day that travel soccer season ended, we were encouraged to begin winter soccer which began three days later! (We passed)

Whether this quest for specialization is driven by parental dreams of producing an elite athlete or simply the lure of an elusive scholarship to beat the skyrocketing costs of college, I feel that this pressure to specialize in a single sport is ultimately not in my kids’ best interests.

The bar has been set ridiculously high for those who wish to excel. Globalization has created a world that rewards the specialists at the expense of the generalists. We can all quote Malcom Gladwell’s statistic that it takes at minimum 10,000 hours of practice to be great at anything. That bar keeps getting raised. The level of play in high school or even middle school sports has never been higher, but has anyone stopped to question if this is ultimately important? Is there any correlation between the actual caliber of play and the life lessons we can learn from sports?

I was surprised to realize that most of this pressure to specialize comes not from kids but instead from coaches or parents. In fact, less than 5% of kids actually drive the decision to specialize. (Ginsburg, Durant and Bakltzel) It’s often the athletes of average talent that are “asked” to specialize because “these kids are on the bubble.” Specialization creates an opportunity to make an elite team roster and play at a level that wouldn’t be accessible if they divided their time between multiple interests. A varsity roster helps differentiate kids in college admissions, and the “right college” gives kids an “edge” in an increasingly unequal world.

But is this giant “sorting hat” healthy?

When a youngster focuses on one sport year-round “it becomes a job, not a pastime.” By 9th grade, 70% of kids who started a sport at age 8 or younger have given the sport up because they were “bored, burned out or didn’t make the team.”

Besides the mental toll, specialization has a physical cost. Despite a warning from pediatricians that growing kids should cross train rather than specialize; overuse injuries are now responsible for nearly half of all sports injuries to middle school and high school students.

An exclusive focus on sports also takes away the opportunity to have special and spontaneous family days, the kind of activities that build memories and family camaraderie. It also affects the diversity of potential friends. Soccer kids are great but it’s also important to have friends with different interests and perspectives.

Taking a break on a hike up Looking Glass Rock

Taking a break on a hike up Looking Glass Rock

I don’t believe specializing is mentally healthy, either. I think our brains develop better when challenged in multiple areas with multiple activities. In fact, sports psychologists report that the most successful athletes are the kids who are “the most balanced and centered,” not the one’s who train the most or work the hardest (Ginsburg, Durant and Bakltzel) A study of elite Olympic competitors found that successful athletes grew up in an environment where fun was emphasized over winning until the teenage years. Personality qualities inherent and consistent in medal winning Olympians were ability to focus, self – confidence, optimism, resiliency, mental toughness, work ethic and of course sports intelligence and natural athleticism.

I don’t expect my kids to play soccer in the Olympics. As parents, we don’t have the commitment, even if our kids had the talent. Instead, I hope to be able to raise well rounded, balanced kids who will gain competencies in many different areas. If they get asked to do something like go sailing, play bocce ball or go to a symphony – I would hope they would have at least a working knowledge of each so they could be an eager participant. I want my kids to peak in their sixties not their late teens. I wouldn’t want them to look back at their high school sports career as the highlight of their life, but rather just one of many valuable growing experiences that helped prepare them for an engaged life filled with continuous growth.

Despite our family’s love for soccer and the inevitability that a future coach will attempt to gobble up their summers with lures of endless soccer programs and

Campers Exploring Wolff Lake in Canoes

Campers Exploring Wolfe Lake in Canoes

practices, one thing my kids will never sacrifice is summer camp. I know that my kids have so much fun and enjoy their camp friendships so much that they wouldn’t easily sacrifice camp for soccer. Camp also provides a much needed mental break from the pressures of daily life. 2013 research by the American Psychological Association shows that teens are now more stressed than adults, and summer camp is just one way that we can help to reverse that trend.

At camp, campers acquire skills in dozens of activities. These small successes lead to bigger successes. And these successes build confidence and self – efficacy. These are the same traits found in successful athletes. At Pinnacle, one can generalize rather than specialize and learn life and activity skills they will be able to use into old age. While counselors don’t have names like Cristiano Ronaldo or Hope Solo, they are realistic (and larger than life!) role models who engage in two-way conversations. Sure I love soccer, but I think my kids learn more about teamwork, character and leadership at camp than they do on the field.

Every summer I see kids turning away from camp because of sports commitments. These are usually good athletes. They are frequently pressured by their coach and worried that if they don’t devote their summer to the same sport they practice the rest of the year, they will fall behind and miss out. It’s a decision real in the moment but usually regretted in retrospect. Sure sport has lots to teach, but so does camp. In the sports vs. camp equation ultimately it’s about balance. We hope the concept of becoming a Renaissance person will again make a resurgence, after all we want our kids to peak in their sixties!

John Dockendorf

Executive Director


1) Whose Game is it, Anyway? - Ginsburg, Durant and Bakltzel

2) The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families - Mark Hyman

3) Psychological Characteristics and Their Development in Olympic Champions - Dan~El Gould, Kristen Dieffenbach And Aaron Moffett

The Google Car and Camp Pinnacle

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As the pace of change continues at epic speed, I have realized that I may not have the opportunity to teach my 7 year old to drive when he turns 16.  Sure I am jumping the gun a bit …but with the  Google autonomous (driverless car) on the horizon, it looks like the computer will do the driving and Charlie will be able to multi-task on his electronic devices while his “car” gets him safely to whatever destination he keys in.  Having already successfully driven 300,000 accident free miles, and now legal in California, Nevada and Florida, the autonomous car, I have every confidence, will have fewer accidents than the vast majority of 16-year old drivers.

Google Car Prototype

Google Car Prototype

For a parent obsessed with safety, the autonomous car initially sounds like a good idea. Learning to drive in the big cities is a lot scarier today than it was when I learned to drive in Baltimore in 1976. Knowing that motor vehicle accidents are the second leading cause of teen deaths, leaving the driving and navigation to Google has its pluses.  And a Google car might actually be welcomed by many urban kids…  Data suggests that urban kids are less enthusiastic about learning to drive, are getting licenses later in life and are using public transportation more frequently than did their peers a decade ago.   While the car used to be the quintessential element of a teen’s identity and the driver’s license the ticket to freedom,  social media and internet connected phones have made the car already passé in some circles.  And if we can eliminate most of the 38,000 motor vehicle fatalities a year, let alone thousands of injuries, will it be worth giving up driving?

Maybe driving a car will be to my son what using a slide rule was for me.  I remember being forced to purchase a slide rule, (all the while having a calculator in my other hand) as my teacher insisted that knowing how a slide rule worked was essential to succeed in the world.  Well, I never used that slide rule, and while I certainly respect someone who can decipher one, I haven’t felt that a slide-rule-free-life has limited me or my potential.  I can’t imagine teenagers feeling the same way about cars, but you never know.

How the Google Car Works

How the Google Car Works

Am I wrong to feel a sense of sadness that my son will miss the opportunity to improve his judgment and sense of place through learning how to drive?  I’ll need to make sure I can replace the great life lessons and this coming of age experience with something equally relevant.  When kids grew up with DVD players in the back seat, they were spared from endless hours of Auto Bingo, but they also lost a sense of how places were connected.  While GPS and mapping software has been a lifesaver more times than I care to admit, when one relies solely on a GPS, to get where you are going, you lose your sense of place and knowledge of the surroundings.  And if you lose your sense of place, do other people become less important?  If you can let your car do the driving and your social media and digital assistant do the talking do we end up being more isolated? Is driving a car just another mundane task that can be eliminated by technology in order to free us up to do more important things like learn something new? Or will we use the time we save to play Fantasy Football, Solitaire or watch reruns of The Voice?

Fun teambuilding game

Fun Teambuilding game

It’s not that I think the Google car is a bad idea. When we shifted from horses to cars, I’m pretty sure many parents worried how losing the responsibility of taking care of their horse, would affect their child.  I just want to find a way to replace the essential elements of judgment, maturity and responsibility that I feel will be lost through automation.  As the world is changing, so are kids. I’ve seen it myself in my 35 years in this field. Kids have never been intellectually stronger than they are today, but, they also now have fewer hands on and common sense skills than did kids even ten years ago.  Adolescence is being pushed back later in life (even into one’s early twenties) as kids are assuming real responsibility later in life. The Google car will certainly enable this trend to continue.

If we believe author, Paul Tough in How Children Succeed, that character and grit are more important to future success than cognitive skills, shouldn’t all of us, as parents be searching for opportunities that stretch our children and build character rather than letting technology help our kids take the easier way out?

Hiking Near Black Balsam

Hiking Near Black Balsam

Technology offers many benefits that we embrace.  We just understand that with most benefits come costs. The more immersed we get in technology, the more we need to intelligently find ways to realize what we may be losing and figure out how to replace it.  I think Camp Pinnacle is one of several ways to intentionally counter the negative effects of the technologies that can stunt our kids’ growth.  The Camp Pinnacle experience builds responsibility, judgment, maturity, hands on skills, communication skills and common sense.  Perhaps this is why our campers practically “glow” at the end of their two weeks together.   In a technology free environment our kids feel truly alive.  Although the Pinnacle experience could be considered “old school”, it is still very relevant to today’s children.  We give kids the ability to become more self-sufficient, assess risk and face natural consequences, all while communicating face to face, learning new skills and having fun.   Things are not always comfortable nor easy, but they are always rewarding!

None of us can stop the effects of change, nor would we want to slow the many improvements technology brings to our world.  The Google car probably won’t make it to market in the next few years.  But maybe I should start teaching Charlie to drive now, just in case by the time he’s 16, the opportunity is no longer there!

Happy 2014 from all of us at Camp Pinnacle!
“Happiness comes from the capacity to feel deeply, to enjoy simply, to think freely, to risk life, and to be needed.”  – Storm Jameson

Camp Pinnacle at the Summit on 21st Century Skills

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21st Century Skills has been a buzzword circulating the educator community for over ten years.  In 2011 bipartisan legislation, the 21st Century Readiness Act, was introduced to Congress to support state and local innovation around 21st century readiness initiatives.  More and more, schools are reflecting the need for 21st Century Skills in their school missions.  Last week, a multifaceted group of 200 education experts, school principals, leaders of industry, and other national organizations, all dedicated to the education of our country’s youth, gathered in our nation’s capital to support and promote 21st Century Skills at The Summit on 21st Century Learning presented by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

21st Century Skills.  I’m sure you’ve seen it enough now to wonder, “What are 21st Century Skills?  And, why should I care?”

Well, that is a great question.

Fun teambuilding game

Fun teambuilding game

“Between 1999 and 2003, there was more new knowledge created in the world than in the entire history of the world preceding “, stated Dr Linda Darling-Hammond as the opening remark to The Summit on 21st Century Learning last week, “Students will be working with knowledge that hasn’t been invented yet, to solve problems that we can hardly envision, using technologies that don’t yet exist!”  We are living in a changing world, changing so rapidly that our traditional methods of educating children is no longer as effective as it once was.  We can no longer expect students to simply mimic back information and expect them to succeed in college, careers or life.  Our goal for education needs to shift from outcome goals to learning goals, and this is where 21st Century Skills learning comes into the discussion.

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of representing Camp Pinnacle at the Summit on 21st Century Learning in Washington DC.  Surrounded by the best and brightest minds in education today, the importance of this forward-thinking movement and the energy behind it became vividly clear.  Successful education is no longer exclusively about teaching students what to think and learn, it is teaching them how to think and learn.  While we can still lead with content, teaching students to think critically, to innovate, to collaborate, to be creative, to think critically, to communicate, and how to learn is the key to future success.  As a society we need to be intentional about ensuring this deeper learning happens for our children.  It is the best way to adequately prepare every young person for the uncertain future.

As the educational director, I am excited to see the same energy here, at Camp Pinnacle on a daily basis, that I saw at the Summit on 21st Century Learning last week.  The Camp Pinnacle team is passionate about not only providing every Camp Pinnacle camper with the experience of a lifetime, but facilitating an experience that will benefit them for their lifetime.  We believe it is important to take the unique opportunity we have with young people in the outdoors, to prepare the next generation for future success.  Camp Pinnacle activities, by nature, asks students to practice 21st Century Skills.  For example, in cabin groups, students practice:

  • Critical thinking while learning new outdoor skills.
  • Collaboration with other cabin groups during the fun and exciting, camp-wide, “Hunger Games” event.
  • Communication when presenting trip reports after activity outings and for parents at the closing ceremony.
  • Innovation by taking a prompt and creating a skit to be presented at “Skit Night”.
  • Creativity choreographing a dance for the, much looked forward to, “Cabin Dance”.
Hunger Games

Hunger Games

Many times students are having so much fun they don’t even realize the lessons learned until they return home and are put into familiar school or social situations again.

As we look forward to next summer, we aim to be even more intentional in fostering life lessons and 21st Century Skills to every Camp Pinnacle Camper.  We hope to do our part in supporting this important shift in educational thought, but more importantly, we want to support our students in reaching their future goals.  We are fortunate that Camp Pinnacle has the unique opportunity to subtly build these skills in an environment that, first and foremost, is incredibly fun and facilitates lifetime friendships!

Thanksgiving is just a few days away and this year I am grateful for the fun times I have shared with students, having had the opportunity to be a positive influence on their lives, and learning just as much from them in the process as I hope they have learned from me.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours,

Neil Rudis
Educational Director
Adventure Treks/Camp Pinnacle