From Little League to Superstar - Making Dreams Come True

by Patrick Hite

Ask a team of Little Leaguers what they're going to be when they grow up, and the answers will be almost unanimous: professional baseball players. Of course, there will be a couple future superstars who plan on going the Deion Sanders route and splitting their time between baseball and football or baseball and basketball. And there might be one or two who even have back-up careers planned as astronauts or rap stars.

Now ask the question of their parents, the ones who never miss a game and cheer their lungs out from their seats on the hot metal bleachers. No doubt the parents are more realistic. Their children are going to be doctors and lawyers. But in the back of their minds, what are they really thinking when their kid hits a home run or makes a great play at third base? Admit it, maybe you've had those thoughts yourself. One minute you're fanning yourself in the hot summer sun, watching yet another game. Then your kid hits a line drive to bat in the winning run and all of a sudden you find yourself at Camden Yards, cheering with thousands of fans as your child leads the Orioles to a World Series victory. And why not dream? Professional athletes all had their humble beginnings on Little League fields, in neighborhood backyards or on the basketball court at the local park. Maybe your child is destined for the big leagues.

But wait, you say, I'm not that presumptuous--I know the odds, my kid may never go pro. All I'm thinking about is the college scholarship.

So how do you know if your child has what it takes to play the game on the college field? There aren't nearly enough scholarships for all of the hopefuls, but it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that one of your kids could make it. After all, athletes go from playing high school to college every year. To a lesser extent, they move from college sports to the professional ranks every year also -- even in Charlottesville.

John Spears, director of the Waynesboro YMCA, began working with future UVA and Orlando Magics basketball star, Cory Alexander, when he was only five-years-old. Coach Spears believes you can tell when an athlete is between 11 and 14 whether or not he or she has what it takes to play the game at a higher level. He remembers that by the time Cory was 12 or 13 everyone who saw him play thought his basketball skills were extraordinary. But even then, he wasn't sure how far Cory would go with basketball. What made the difference, he believes, was Cory's attitude. "He was just so coachable," Spears recalls. "He would practice six or seven hours a day sometimes. You had to make him go home. But still, I never thought about the NBA." Looking back, Spears thinks Cory's hard work and his willingness to take instruction were signs that he could make it big.

While Cory's dedication and basketball dreams started at an early age, fellow Cavalier Tiki Barber didn't realize he might have a future in sports until he was almost finished with high school. Tiki, a UVA football star who turned pro in 1997, didn't start playing football until he was 11 or 12. "I just started playing to be with my friends. I never really thought of myself as having a future in football until I was a junior in high school. People started telling me I'd be going to college because of football. Then I started paying attention."

Growing up in Roanoke, Tiki played soccer, baseball and basketball as well as football. But once he reached high school, he focused his efforts on football and track. He was so talented in track that he won state titles in both the triple and long jumps and was second nationally in the long jump in 1992. "I thought about going to the Olympics in track," Tiki admits. "But once I got to college and started bulking up for football in the weight room, I couldn't perform in the jumps as well as I had."

Coach Spears believes that focusing on one sport can give a talented young athlete a competitive edge. "If I saw a kid who I thought had the ability to take that next step," Spears said. "I'd tell him to specialize in that one sport. Most sports are year round now. There are camps during the summer and there’s always work to be done in the weight room."

UVA relief pitcher Greg Hansard focused all of his efforts on baseball growing up, but that didn't mean the road to college ball was an easy one. Greg took his setbacks as challenges and didn't allow himself to get discouraged.

"In seventh or eighth grade I really wanted to make the high school baseball team," Greg recalls. "That's where the big step up comes. You kind of have to decide how serious you are about it. It's a huge difference between Little League to high school." In eighth grade, Greg tried out for the junior varsity team at his high school in Chesterfield, Va. "We all thought we were really good in Little League, and you end up getting two or three days to show them (the high school coaches) what you've got, and the coach has never heard of you before. I ended up getting cut."

But Greg, who is now in his third year at UVA, didn't give up on baseball. He asked the coach what he needed to work on, and then worked hard all summer and throughout the winter. The next spring, he made the junior varsity team and was moved up to varsity by the end of the season. "You are a kid growing up in Little League, and you just play," Greg said. "You go to practices, but you don't do much on your own."

Getting cut taught him what it takes to play at the next level. "I think that year I went back and ended up running because I wanted to get faster. I ended up lifting weights. You have to do a lot of stuff on your own time instead of just going to organized practices. I realized that if I really wanted to do it, I had to work hard and get the things done that I needed to in order to get to that level."

Greg's perseverance and Cory's seven-hour-long practices came from their own individual passions for the game. No matter how large a parent's dreams of their child's superstar glory or how convinced a coach is that a kid "has what it takes," the child's own passion for the sport is what can make or break a future career. Tiki believes that if a talented young athlete truly loves the sport and doesn't complain about playing and practicing, he or she might have the drive to succeed.

And with that passion and all of that practice has to come a willingness to make some sacrifices. UVa. volleyball outside hitter Jenny Harmon said the hardest part of playing college sports is making time for the other side of her life, the side outside of the volleyball court. While growing up she spent most of her time outside of school at volleyball practices or playing on traveling teams. "There was not much time to just run around the neighborhood," she remembers. "There are trade-offs to everything in life and when athletics are involved other things can be put on the back burner." Jenny, who has two years of eligibility left with the Cavaliers, said that sports helped teach her to appreciate the time she spent with family and friends because she had to make the most of every free moment.

All of the work that Jenny puts in at practices has paid off outside of athletics as well. "It kept me active and kept me doing well in school," she said, explaining the benefits of growing up playing volleyball. "I had a limited amount of time to do my work, so I buckled down and did it. It definitely helps me now, my time management skills are really well-developed, and I feel like athletics has played a huge part in that."

Balancing academics and athletics was a must for Tiki. "My mom insisted that I make good grades, or I couldn't play sports. It was important for her and for me that I keep things in perspective," Tiki said. He was recognized for high academic achievement at Cave Spring High School and worked hard to maintain good grades during his years at UVa. "Academics were almost more important to me than football. My football skills were just a God-given ability, but I had to work to be successful in the classroom. I worked all the time," he recalled.

Regardless of whether or not your child is headed to the WNBA or the NFL, the benefits of youth sports that can be carried off the playing field may be the most important reasons to play. With higher levels of game play and practice, time management skills and a great work ethic can translate into good grades and success off the field. Jenny's good grades and time management skills helped her score a summer internship at Deloitte and Touche, one of the nation's top accounting firms. And the benefits of athletics don't just come to those at the top levels of their sports. Maureen Weiss, professor and Director of Sports and Exercise Psychology at UVa., said playing sports has positive benefits at any level. "Physical activity and sports have tremendous potential to enhance children's self-esteem and motivation," she said.

Studies have shown that children who participate in youth sports consistently earn higher grades and demonstrate better behavior in school. Ronald M. Jeziorski, an educational psychologist in Santa Clara, Calif., has researched the correlations between youth sports and education. He found that children who play youth sports attend school on a regular basis, are less likely to drop out and behave better while they're at school than their peers who don't play sports.

But it's not just psychologists who recognize the benefits of youth sports.

Coaches often see first-hand the benefits for the kids on their teams. They see the friendships formed, the confidence that builds when the kids learn new skills and the teamwork that will help kids out later in life. They see kids learn to set goals and work towards attaining them, and they teach kids that you need to play by the rules. Coach Spears believes that participation in youth sports gives kids a sense of responsibility and respect. "At the YMCA, we teach the kids to have fun and work hard. We want them to respect the game and those around them. I tell all of my teams that we will earn respect from our opponent by playing hard," he said. Sports can offer children new opportunities, too. Traveling together as a team to tournaments teaches the kids about more than just the game, Spears believes. "I take kids to tournaments in North Carolina, West Virginia and other parts of Virginia all of the time. Some of these kids have never spent a night away from home. They see things they've never seen before."

So whether your child's greatest play is a winning hit at Camden Yards, or just an RBI at a summer Little League game, what matters most is that they're enjoying themselves and they're learning the lessons they can take with them off the field.

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