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An even higher level of play

Ashley Routh has sacrificed playing premier soccer, but “When I go out there and make a great save, I’m so happy I’m doing it.”

Joshua Huston

As a little girl, Ashley Routh tried every sport she could.

Soccer. Basketball. Softball. Volleyball.

She loved them all. 

By high school, Ashley had to make a choice: Continue to play a variety of sports or commit to a high-level premier soccer team.

The Edmonds teen opted to focus on soccer, and the decision has paid off. Now a senior at Meadowdale High School, Ashley has a full-ride athletic and academic scholarship to Seattle University.

It’s the ending many sports parents dream of for their children.

In the push to be the best, more young athletes are focusing on one sport earlier. Families feel pressure to get their kids on the top teams early in order to keep up with everyone else. That has led to private coaching, pricey sports camps and kids as young as 6 participating in multi-season sports teams with tryouts and travel.

High-stakes athletics are changing the landscape of youth sports, and perhaps even what it means to be a child, as pickup ball at the park is replaced by competitive select teams.

Ashley’s success is the exception, not the rule. The chances of a teen earning a college scholarship or going pro are slim. Out of 10,000 boys playing high school basketball, about 330 will play college ball, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Three will be drafted by the NBA.

That doesn’t stop families from pouring thousands of dollars into club teams, equipment, travel fees and private coaching. And dreaming. Who doesn’t hope their child might be good enough to go all the way?


Joshua Huston

The Rouths were never a “no throwing balls in the house” sort of family


The Routh family loves sports. From an early age, Ashley and her younger brother Alex always had a ball in their hands.

Tracey Routh didn’t want her children to feel pressured to be athletes. She let her daughter try different sports and eventually decide if she wanted to commit to high-level competition. Alex, 14, plays baseball but right now isn’t interested in year-round competition. That’s OK, she said.

Sports strengthened Ashley’s character and helped build her confidence, but also took a toll on the family.

Premier soccer is the highest level of play for kids. It’s a year-round commitment — and not just for the athlete. Routh spent countless hours shuttling her daughter to practices that sometimes ran until 9:30 p.m. When Ashley didn’t have practices, she worked out on her own.

Ashley’s team traveled across the country to tournaments. Families typically pay travel expenses as well as a portion of the coach’s hotel and airfare. Routh estimates she spent $5,000 a year — half on club fees that are essentially the price for participation and half on travel.

“It’s very pricey,” she said. “I’m a single mom.”

Those fees are typical. Club fees in the Seattle area for soccer, volleyball, baseball and basketball run on average around $2,500 a year, plus travel and other expenses such as uniforms and tournament fees.

While some teams offer scholarships, a large swath of kids can’t afford to play on private teams.

And the drain on finances and time aren’t the only challenges and potential downsides to highly competitive athletics.

Parents or coaches sometimes pressure kids to commit to a single sport before they have the maturity to know if it is right, said John O’Sullivan, an author, former professional soccer player and longtime coach.

Their growing bodies are likewise immature and vulnerable to injuries caused by the overuse of muscles, joints and ligaments more heavily taxed by certain sports.

For the majority of sports, specializing isn’t necessary until age 13 or 14, according to experts. Except for sports such as gymnastics and figure skating where athletes peak in their teens, most kids benefit from trying a variety of sports and, in fact, can develop better all-around athleticism that way. 

“Children are specializing earlier with the perception they’ll fall behind their peers [if they don’t],” said Dr. Jared Anderson, a sports medicine doctor with the Everett Clinic.

But a UCLA study showed that its top athletes specialized later than athletes who didn’t go on to compete in collegiate sports.

O’Sullivan wants more options for kids between recreation level and ultra-competitive. No child — no matter how good — needs to be on a high-stakes travel team by first grade.

“Sports can teach your kids so much,” he said. “It can make them a better person. If they happen to have the great genes and drive and desire to take their sports to a higher level — that’s icing on the cake. But winning can’t be the sole purpose of sports.”

Joshua Huston

High-level soccer helped build Ashley’s confidence.

Schools used to be the nexus of sports. Everybody competed in high school and the best athletes often played multiple sports. Today three-sport athletes are uncommon and the best athletes might not even compete on their school teams.

In a sport like volleyball, there are limited spots and by high school, competition to make the team can be fierce, said Andrew Kwatinetz, a coach and board member for Cascade Volleyball, a Seattle-area club.

He’s also the father of daughters ages 8, 15 and 19. As a parent, he wonders what the drive toward specialization means for his kids. His daughters play volleyball but have tried other sports, too.

“I’m conflicted,” he said. “I played multiple sports in high school and college. There’s definitely a lot of skills I picked up and it was fun. But the reality for volleyball is that if you have a lot more experience, you have a big advantage.”

The push toward earlier specialization has been happening for a few decades, said Terry Fisher, a former professional soccer player who has coached at every level. He now leads Washington Youth Soccer, the largest soccer organization in the state with 120,000 players from ages 5 to 19.

The vast majority are playing recreational soccer. In his organization, about 10,000 play premier and kids can begin joining these top teams at age 10.

The right age to focus on one sport is different for every athlete, said Dashawn Patrick, a former player in the Seattle Mariners’ minor-league system and a coach of high-level baseball players.

In a sport like baseball, some skills need to be developed and worked on from an early age, Patrick said. Athletes who don’t take it seriously soon enough can fall behind. The earlier they’re exposed to high-level fundaments, the better their chances of advancement.

“It’s rare to see a guy play college ball who wasn’t a daily player committed to a select program,” Patrick said.

Drive can’t be taught, he added. Parents or coaches can’t force it. He’s seen plenty of talented teens burn out because their parents pushed too hard.

“What I tell my own kids is make sure you love it,” he said. “You can’t teach a kid to be passionate.”

Sometimes even the most committed young athlete finds her passion waning.

At times, soccer goalie Ashley Routh wanted to quit. She missed dances and sleepovers. The sport she loved didn’t always feel like just a game. Looking back, she wouldn’t change her decision.

“It takes the fun out of it when you do it so much more intensely,” Ashley said. “You can’t just go and have fun. It’s more of a job, but I’m glad I stuck with it. When I go out there and make a great save, I’m so happy I’m doing it.”

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