Katy Wolfe sometimes gets quizzical looks from friends and classmates when she talks about her athletic pursuits. When people think of sports, they tend to imagine soccer, football, basketball and lacrosse.
But this Ellicott City teenager is a competitive climber.
"It's hard to explain," said Wolfe, a 15-year-old student at Marriotts Ridge High School. "They think it's about getting to the top the fastest. But it's more than that. It's all about technique."
Rock-climbing is just one of the options for athletic kids thinking outside conventional activities. In recent years, youth enrollment has fallen in traditionally popular sports like basketball, football and soccer, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. For some kids, traditional sports are too competitive or require athletic skills they don't possess. Others have parents are looking for alternatives to injury-prone contact sports. Dodgeball, disc golf, archery, karate — myriad options and teams give local kids the opportunity to stay active, build character and develop confidence when popular sports aren't the right fit.
"We have traditional athletes and non-athletes," said Mark Simons, director of the Youth Ultimate Disc League in Howard County. Some are simply looking for activities in between seasons of more common sports. "Kids today spend a lot of time in front of computers. This gives them a chance to be outside."
It also teaches offense and defensive play, field strategy, agility, running stamina and other skills transferable to other sports, he said.
Beyond the physical benefits, parents seek out alternative sports because they want their children to learn good sportsmanship — how to compete on the field and then shake hands at the end of the game — when they've tried traditional sports to no avail. Teams also offer camaraderie and a chance to cheer on peers in ways that aren't always available in classrooms and other social settings.
"You should see their confidence pick up," Simons said.
Rachel Calamba's 14-year-old son, Caleb Dole, wasn't interested in sports, but she wanted him to exercise.
"I told him: 'You pick,'"when they joined a gym, she said.
He chose climbing, quickly becoming so good that they sought out the additional expertise at Earth Treks, even commuting from Reston twice a week to Columbia.
"His personality really came out," said Calamba. "People talk to him. … It's been really fun to watch."
And Calamba found she enjoyed climbing, too. "You're always testing yourself," she said. "Eighty percent of it is mental. … Now, it's something we can do together."
Matt Medicus, adventure and outdoor supervisor for the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, said archery is a sport worth considering for similar reasons. "They're learning focus and mental concentration. … It teaches them the basics of organized sports. They work with partners, scoring each other. And they learn to self-critique. They perfect their technique from watching their teammates. They learn from each other."
There are even parent-child classes.
Non-traditional sports can carry other perks. Many of them, including badminton, are not expensive, which allows children to try them with little investment. For badminton, no special shoes or fancy fields are required — just a racket and shuttlecock, said Sigen Chen, coach for the Catonsville Badminton Club. A net isn't even necessary, especially for practice.
"You can play with two or four," Chen said. "It's flexible. … There's no physical contact, which is one of the reasons it's popular."
As research emerges linking sports to brain injuries, some parents hesitate to enroll their children in high-risk sports like football, opting instead for low-contact sports. Those sorts of sports, where the size of a player isn't such an important factor, can also open opportunities to play on teams that span different age groups.
"Younger kids can play with older ones," Chen says of badminton. "It really can be a family sport."
That's not to say it and other alternative sports can't be competitive.
At Earth Treks, there are three levels of climbers, ages 9 to 18. The most advanced will compete at the national level.
"It's a lot like tennis, with singles matches that accrue points for the team," said coach Matt Jones.
Still, most of the climbers are not also playing tennis, he said.
"They're not usually your typical athletes, the kids you'll see on the soccer or baseball fields," Jones said. "They're often a little spacier, a little artsier. Sometimes, they'll have been here for a birthday party. Or sometimes their parents are saying they've tried everything else, and 'I just wanted them to do something' besides play video games."
It helps, he said, that "sometimes the best climbers are the least coordinated. It makes no sense, but it's often true."
Amelia Cannon, a 10-year-old from Silver Spring, played tennis, soccer and basketball, and tried ballet and gymnastics. But, she said, "I got bored with the rest. I like climbing the best. There are so many holds and moves."
Although Katy Wolfe once played softball, after a birthday party at the rock-climbing gym in Columbia she quickly became into climbing. Now, her sister and her parents all climb. "I love the feeling get when you make it to the top."