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10 tips for picking sports camps

For many parents, sending their children to sports camp is a big step. Whether the child is 6 or 16, there are a number of ways kids can spend the summer: basic sports camps, multi-sports camps, specialty sports camps, training camps and more.

To help narrow it down, we’ve spoken with camp directors, coaches, school counselors and parents for tips on picking the best sports camp for your child.

1. Do your research. First and foremost, you need to learn what a camp is all about. Greg Ackerman, director of admissions at ESF (Education, Sports and Fun) Gilman camps, says parents should first look into what a camp offers.

“One of the first questions should be [about] understanding the program offerings and asking who the staff is,” Ackerman says. “Getting a feel for what a typical day is like.”

Parents can look online or speak with camp directors to get information about the camp’s history. Mike Hohman, chairman of Dundalk Rec soccer, regularly sends his son Austin to the Baltimore Blast summer soccer camps. Hohman says parents should ask questions like “How successful is this camp?” and “How long has it been around?”

2. Learn about the camp counselors/instructors. In addition to making sure the camp does standard background checks on its staff, you should meet with counselors ahead of time to get to know who will be in charge of your child. Kevin Healey, president and general manager of the Baltimore Blast professional soccer team, says parents should learn not only the teaching qualifications of the counselors and instructors, but also how they can serve as role models.

“They should be looking for people who want to help the kids learn and for kids to have fun with the game,” Healey says. “Kids should be enjoying themselves out there.”

3. Talk to your child. Find out what it is your child wants to get out of a sports camp experience. Observe your child participating in sports during free time and ask what he or she might like to pursue during the summer.

“The questions need to be to the child,” says Lisa Sanchez, a parent who sends her 7-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, to soccer camp every year. “What are your interests? Why do you think this would be a good fit? Not be a good fit?  What is something you want to get better at?  Something you want to try?”

Yvonne Lange, a seventh-grade school counselor at Cockeysville Middle School, says there are ways to help a hesitant camper. “If they’re reluctant, send them with a friend that’s interested in something similar,” Lange says.

4. Talk to other parents. Know of a parent who sends her son to baseball camp every summer? Ask her about it. Read a bad review of an advanced-training swimming camp? Ask other reviewers about it. Word of mouth and social media are useful in learning about a camp’s reputation.

Hohman says references are especially important to consider for new camps.

“[Parents should be] aware of inexperienced camps that don’t have references to fall back on,” he says.

5. Check the camp’s safety procedures. You can learn about a camp’s safety and supervision from the camp directors and counselors. Check their protocol for potential emergencies. Sanchez says parents need to ask camp counselors and directors about first aid, CPR training and medical emergencies.

Safety procedures also extend to the equipment children and instructors will be using. Nancy Canter, director of the Chesapeake Field Office of the American Camp Association, says parents should ask how safe the equipment is, whether or not it’s been inspected and how old it is.

6. Visit the camp. Take advantage of camp tours and open houses.

“Show up one night and observe,” advises Danny Kelly, head coach of the Baltimore Blast. “Do a little homework and see what they do, and see if that’s something your child would benefit from and enjoy.”

Visiting the camp not only gives you an idea of what a typical day is like, but it also enables you to inspect the grounds. Bob Rush, director of summer programs at McDonogh School, says parents should ask to see where the campers will be playing and check that the baseball diamonds are trim, the tennis courts clean, or any other facilities are up to par.

7. Consider the size and age range of the camp. A camp with 1,500 campers may give your child a vastly different experience from a camp with 50 campers. Ask yourself: How might this affect the experience?

Hohman says that program size affects the level of individual attention campers receive.

“What’s the ratio of instructors to kids?” he says. “If my kid’s there for two hours and he stood around for 45 minutes in a line, that’s a waste of my time and my child’s time.”

Whether you want your child to play sports with kids of all ages or only children of the same age, see that the camp program ensures that.

Rush says a small program with a large age range of campers is likely not a good program. “Kids should feel comfortable participating with their own age group,” Rush says. “You would not want your 8-year-old to compete with an 11-year-old.”

8. Consider the competition level of the camp. Some camps, like ESF Gilman sports camps, offer a variety of sports in a less competitive environment. Ackerman says Gilman’s multi-sports camps are complementary to specialty sports camps. Other camps, like the Baltimore Blast soccer camps, include varying skill levels and opportunities for kids to move into more advanced training.

“Every child is different,” Lange says. “Be mindful of how competitive [a camp] is or isn’t.”

9. Watch for red flags. Like background checks, reviewing a camp’s license is a major consideration. If you find anything suspicious, run the other way.

“When you’re checking into the camp, find out if the camp is licensed by the state,” Canter says. “If they’re operating without a license, that’s a big red flag.”

10. Start early. Many summer camps run according to the start and finish of kids’ summer vacation, but don’t wait until school lets out to start figuring things out.

Lange says parents should get started on summer camp research and applications in February or March. “You can’t wait until the eleventh hour,” she says. “The camps fill up.”

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