Dropping the Ball

As adventure goes mainstream, a new crop of youth teams takes root. Can climbing moms be far behind?

Ryan Brandt

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TWO-A-DAY PRACTICES, CIRCUIT TRAINING, groggy kids on 6:30 a.m. group runs—sounds like preseason time for the high school football team. But, increasingly, the athletes are wearing wetsuits and climbing harnesses instead of pads and cleats.

At a time when participation in some traditional ball sports is in decline nationwide, sports like surfing and climbing—long neglected at the youth level—are enjoying unprecedented support. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), a trade group that tracks U.S. sports, reports up to 21 percent reductions in the number of school-age kids taking part in activities like basketball, baseball, and soccer from 1998 to 2004. At the same time, kayak academies, high school surf crews, and youth climbing teams have blossomed.

“We’re certainly seeing extreme sports picking up solid numbers,” says Mike May, director of media relations for SGMA. “These teams are signs that communities are openly inviting the sports into their cities, basically acknowledging that they’re here to stay.”

Generally independent but increasingly school-supported, these programs provide the disciplined environments that were once unavailable to kids whose athletic interests fell outside the traditional team sphere. “I was never good at any ball sports,” says Simon Benkert, the current national bouldering champion in the 14-to-15 age group, “but climbing is my thing.” Benkert is a member of Zero Gravity, a San Francisco–based team for nine-to-18-year-olds that hits the climbing gym four times a week for individualized instruction and conditioning in sessions that can last up to five hours. The result: Six of Zero Gravity’s nine climbers earned spots on their respective national squads this year.

With climbing and surfing gaining recognition by the International Olympic Committee, BMX slated to debut as a medal sport in 2008, and snowboarding now a crowd favorite at the Winter Games, the trend toward organized youth development in these sports is set to continue. “We now get the same recognition that the football team gets,” says Erich Hoffman, head surfing coach at New Jersey’s Manasquan High School. “We’ve even got team jackets.”

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