Kids are good sports at camps where they learn the play

Lexa Franklin, far right, and her twin brother, Justin, are mad about basketball and are convinced Elite Basketball Camps will help them achieve their hoop dreams. To play a more games, she's going to try out for her school's boys team.
They've got game, these sports camps -- any game, all games, fun and games. No wonder so many kids clamour to go to them. They're the kind of kids who don't want crafts, who don't want computers, who don't want to put on costumes for a play.

They just want to learn the play, so they can score with it. Luckily for them, they have more of their kind of camp than ever to choose from.

There's the respected 26-year-old summer sports camp run by the department of athletics and recreation at McMaster University in Hamilton, which offers a variety of sports activities, including sport fitness, basketball, football, swimming and volleyball.

Kids who love hoops can sign up for Stephanie Splitter's four-year-old Elite Basketball Camps, where they can learn the right moves on the parquet from some of Canada's best young college basketball players -- and from Splitter herself, a former all-star player with the University of Toronto's women's Varsity Blues team who has been certified as a Level II coach by basketball's National Coaching Certification Program.

Kids who love baseball, football, tennis and hockey as well as basketball can sign on to Jeff Krupski's Score Day Camp. A physical education teacher, Krupski operates his camp like a school -- or at least the way most students wish a school would work: Campers choose two major and three minor sports. They participate in the major sport every day and the minors every other day.

And the summer day camps at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre might have started with computers and canoes, but HarbourKids Camps have rapidly expanded to offer more than 20 specialized camps, including many dedicated to sports. Their golf, tennis, and junior and senior Olympia multi-sports programs are big hits with kids. But after last spring's World Cup soccer fever, their soccer camps became so popular they had to hire four more counsellors for them.

"I suck at baseball."

Sneakers stubbing at a stray stone on the asphalt, the boy hurls the words at Jeff Krupski.

"Hey, Justin, watch the language!" the camp leader tells the already-sheepish pre-teen. What he could have said was: "Watch the attitude."

It's Friday at Score Day Camp, all-star day, when each camp sport stakes out some of the vast grounds behind the camp's summer home at Fieldstone Day School, on Dufferin Street near Toronto's Yorkdale Mall, to put campers to the test.

The ones majoring in baseball are hitting for distance and being timed running bases, the footballers are throwing the pigskin through various hula hoops, the soccer fanatics areshooting penalty kicks and being timed running an obstacle course. The sound of shouting voices comes from every corner of the field. And the disgruntled baseballer is back at play, kicking a soccer ball with some buddies -- and grinning.

A counsellor-in-training sneaks in a penalty-kick try of his own. It's blocked by a camper. Howls of glee erupt from the soccer section, especially from the young goalie.

"I stopped you!" he shrieks at his counsellor. "I stopped you."

Do Fridays get any better than this? Krupski doesn't think so. He's built arts-and-crafts time, theme days, tournaments, all-star clinics and field trips into Score's full-day program. But it's on these all-star days that campers get to put together all the skills they've learned from all the drills they've practised all week to see for themselves just how good they can be - and how much fun they can have.

"In our camp it's competition in a non-competitive environment," Krupski says.

That policy is appreciated by his campers. Counsellor-in-training Daniel Lichtblau, 14 and a Score day camper for five years, says this camp "encourages more fair play.

"Here we congratulate each other for doing our best," he says. "At another camp it was so competitive, you felt stressed. We were always having tournaments; the counsellors were taking it too seriously."

Krupski did his research before taking on Score Day Camp. He talked to many kids who were going to other camps -- and to their parents. The kids were bored, he says. The camps showed too many sports movies and the kids didn't get to participate in the sports they wanted.

As a result, he designed Score Day Camp so the kids can suggest other sports they want to try and Krupski slots them into the camp schedule under the heading Hobby Hub.

"It's for the not-so popular sports," he says. If a camper chose bocce, for instance, Krupski could offer it in the Hobby Hub, which means the camper "could get the experience of it maybe three or four times a week," he says.

It also means the kids have a full say in their camp, he says.

"I don't usually get to play football," says Zachary Rapaport, 10. He plays tennis and he golfs a lot with his dad. Today he's grinning from ear to ear. He has just scored two goals.

The band of high-energy kids scampering over Pantry Park soccer ground in Toronto's east-end Beaches area is showing off for the rangy, balding man in the black T-shirt, who looks so laid-back he appears to hover over the grass. But when the soccer ball rolls into his territory, he pounces, morphing into a smooth and fluid streak, dipsy-doodling through a ragged line of decidedly awestruck kids.

The man is Nikki Vignjevic, the Toronto Lynx's all-time leading scorer in goals, assists and points. His professional soccer team had played in Montreal the night before -- it won 2-1 -- and Vignjevic had driven back to Toronto, arriving at 6 that morning. Wouldn't he rather be sleeping than organizing the kids at the HarbourKids soccer camp into two rows for some drills?

Vignjevic, 31, shrugs.

"I'm tired but I'm happy. We won. It's the professional life," he says as the kids crowd around him.

He's one of several Lynx who regularly show up at the camp. In previous years, the players did it strictly as volunteers, to encourage kids who loved their sport. Last year, HarbourKids Camps and the United Soccer League Division 1 professional soccer club became official partners in the camp. That means that once in every session, campers get to attend either a full-day practice or a game. Better still, it means that twice a week, they get to hang out and learn first-hand from guys who've made it to the top of their favourite sport.

"When the Lynx first came, the kids were swooning. The kids think of them as Superman, or Spiderman," says 21-year-old camp director Kim Hogendoorn, who's been playing soccer since she was four.

Hogendoorn says many people don't realize the skills required for soccer, which include theability to run fast and to start and stop running quickly, stamina, good reflexes, co-ordination and fearlessness.

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- this, the kids at HarbourKids are crazy for the game. "I love it, " says Marishona, 9, one of only three girls at this session. Nine-year-old Allegra, who says she, too, loves soccer, tries to explain the absence of females. "I guess other girls aren't up to the challenge of it."

The third girl, Melissa, 10, says she thinks "other girls have to see what's in soccer and not just play golf or something." She wrinkles her nose at the mention of the other sport.

Allegra can't believe other girls don't want to play soccer. "I was here last week when two Lynx were here juggling the balls with their feet," she says, still impressed.

"It's called keep-ups," Zach, 12, explains. He sounds disgusted at having to do that. The girls look at each other. In more than one way, keeping up with the boys can be tough. A couple of days earlier, Vignjevic and another Lynx indulged in a scrimmage with the kids. Vignjevic impressed them with his ability to control the ball.

"He's amazing," says C.J., a friendly and chatty 13-year-old, who then adds more salt to the girls' wounds: "He knows my name."

But when Vignjevic is asked which of the kids might be able to match him on the soccer field, he cocks an eyebrow not at C.J., nor Zach, nor any of the boys."Only she could maybe catch me," he says, as Marishona smiles with pride.

Lexa Franklin and her twin, Justin, begged their parents to go to Elite Basketball Camps. Serious about the game, both of the13-year-olds have big plans and dreams for next season -- and they believe this camp is going to give them the skills to achieve them.

They are determined to make the under-16 squad at their school, Bayview Glen. Justin plays low post forward; last year his under-13 school team was trailing by three in the fourth quarter at a Vancouver tournament when he scored a basket. "Everyone got excited, we got our spirit back," he recalls.

Bayview Glen went on to tie the game and played two overtime periods before going down to defeat. Which means it's their turn to win, he figures.

For Lexa, it means trying out for the boys' team. So Lexa works on her plays at a court near her home with her brother and his friends. "I've got to be tough. They're not afraid to body check," she says.

Elite Camps founder Stephanie Splitter says Lexa is well on her way. "She's a tough rebounder," Splitter says.

Lexa is also already five feet 10, a half inch taller than her twin, although he vociferously denies it.

Here Splitter interjects. "We get the pipsqueaks here, too," she says. "You don't have to be tall to play basketball." Last session's dynamo, she says, was all of five feet tall. During the summer, Splitters' camps takes place at several locations around Toronto, including the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre on Bathurst Street and at Crescent School on Bayview Avenue. Elite also runs camps during the March, Passover and Christmas school breaks.

This week, the kids at the senior camp in one of Newmarket High School's two gleaming gymnasia come in all shapes and sizes -- and wear one of four different-coloured camp T-shirts. Clusters of kids wearing orange, black, blue and grey gather under one of the baskets.These are the skill stations, where they will be working on shooting, passing, dribbling and rebounding.

"I always tell them that Michael Jordan does the basics," Splitter says, adding that the kids move on to more complicated defensive and offensive moves later in the week.

Even the juniors -- the six and seven-year-olds whooping it up while playing a game called Bump in the second gym across the hallway -- are "getting it," Splitter says. The idea of this shooting game is to be the first of two players to shoot. In this case, the winner is Shanae Keith, who is a month short of turning six but who comes from a family of players. And it shows.

Then Peter Cole Boettger, 7, insists Michael Jordan plays for "the cartoons" (Jordan has starred in the animated Space Jam) and that his favourite team is "the NHL" and that he's thrilled to be at the camp, too.

And Matthew Mariani, 6, says he made a point of wearing his T-shirt with Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers on it on the first day of camp. The younger kids bounce the basketball as high as they can, then as low as they can, then they lie down on their sides on the floor and bounce it. "They're trying to figure out ball control. It's a guided discovery," says the junior camp leader, Ashley MacDonald. "And look at them. They're doing it."

Inevitably, one of the kids in Janet Cook's diving class at McMaster University's sports camps spots the ring. It's on the middle finger of her right hand and it's gold. Cook calls it her "Super Bowl ring," but the kids know better. The five intertwined circles are the Olympic Games rings: Cook was an alternate on Canada's swim team at the Summer Games in Sydney in 2000. And they are in awe.

"It's humbling to know they think you are cool. I look at these kids and think that I was one of them once," Cook says.

Cook remembers a little girl in one of her diving classes who came up to her later, outside, and told her that she, too, was a swimmer, and that she, too, was determined to get to the Olympics.

For her, and for all the other campers, Cook's message is simple: Go for it, but only if you -- not your mother or father -- want it and only if you have a bedrock belief in yourself.

"People always thought I was too small for a swimmer," she says. She's five feet six; most swimmers are a couple of inches taller.

But most of all, do it only if it's fun, she says.

Cook is one of six instructors for the 32 kids in each session of McMaster's popular diving classes. It's a cannonball-free zone, and the seven-metre board is usually off limits, but the kids learn back jumps and basic fall-ins from the one-metre and three-metre boards.

Cook says they're all pretty brave. "I learn so much from the kids here. The six-year-olds are so happy all the time."

And that's the point behind McMaster's huge -- 1,600 kids, 90 staff, 22 sports -- summer-long program.

"The idea is to have a great time," says Tim Louks, McMaster's athletics manager. "We encourage kids to sign on to a sport they haven't played before -- water polo, diving, wrestling. This isn't a training ground."

But it isn't for slackers, either. Every day starts with a 45-minute fitness session -- cardio exercises, skipping, games, running -- a deliberate salvo aimed at the increasingly sedentary lifestyle of so many children.

McMaster's summer program was started by now-retired faculty member Dr. Frank Hayden, who was also a co-founder of the Special Olympics, an international organization dedicated to empowering mentally challenged children and adults to become physically fit, productive and respected members of society through sports training and competition in 26 Olympic-type sports.

Louks says Hayden wanted to create a set of standards for physical fitness and needed some kids to observe in order to determine what they should be.

As a result, McMaster's sports programs are designed to encompass specific age and stage-appropriate fitness levels as well as skill sets.

At the lower end of the scale, kids who run a quarter of the university's track at the beginning of camp might well be able to do two laps by the end. But first they must learn how to tie their shoes correctly and how to pace themselves so they can talk while they run.

"It teaches them to breathe instead of holding their breath while running and that everything isn't a race," Louks says. "They learn not to go so fast at the start that they run out of gas."

That's the message Cook wants to give the kids, as well. For 12 years, she trained eight times a week to make Canada's national swim team. But when it came time to compete for the gold in the 4-by-100 freestyle relay, she wasn't one of the competitors chosen.

"I walked with Canada during the Opening Ceremonies and I was part of the team," she says. "I was never the superstar, never at the top, but you don't have to be a superstar to attain your goals."
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