Youth sports' training, recruiting radically transforms with technology

Eric Sondheimer
Contact ReporterVarsity Times Insider
Youth sports goes through changes in connected world, as new generation takes every advantage of technology

As a young man growing up in Canada, Peter Cookson practiced and competed as a rower the old-fashioned way — out on a lake, his coach the sole guide to what he was doing right and wrong.

Watching his teenage daughter Madelaine participate in recent championships in Long Beach was an entirely different experience.

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FOR THE RECORD

April 9, 2015: This article incorrectly identifies Cookson as Peter Cookson. His name is Mike Cookson.

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There were 15 computerized rowing machines linked to a large video screen showing animated boats that moved with each stroke, the cheers of about 200 spectators merely backdrop static to the music blaring over each of the competitor's headphones.

It was a welcome-to-the-21st-century moment for Cookson. "I'm thinking, 'Oh my gosh. I can't get over how sports has evolved,' " he recalled.

That's a sentiment shared by many parents of developing athletes.

Dave Fein, a former baseball player, saw only snapshots of his swing when he was in high school. Now he uses a smartphone app to shoot video of his son Jaden hitting, and plays it back frame by frame for an instant, slow-motion evaluation.

"You can replay your swing over and over again and fix it immediately," Jaden said.

"Crazy," said his dad.

Jaden and Madelaine, each 14, are among the first born-in-2000 athletes who have reached high school competition. Jaden is a lanky 6-foot-3 freshman third baseman on the Simi Valley Royal High varsity baseball team. Madelaine is a freshman at Calabasas Viewpoint who started rowing only two years ago but is already displaying potential that could earn her a college scholarship.

Their fathers are both athletes. Dave Fein, 39, played four sports at Simi Valley High. Peter Cookson, 53, rowed for the team at Northeastern University. Each is now attempting to navigate a youth sports scene that is constantly evolving.

New-tech training, recruiting

When Cookson drives Madelaine to Marina del Rey for workouts with her club team, he reminisces about a different era, when college scholarships for women didn't exist, trips for competitions took days to complete and technology to help athletes was as unsophisticated as a coach barking instructions using a cardboard megaphone.

"The methodology was the coach telling you right or wrong," he recalled. "You're dropping your shoulder. You're not pulling in high enough. You're not finishing your stroke."

Madelaine's coach, Zohar Abramovitz, uses his iPhone as a stopwatch to time workouts and an iPad to shoot video, which he critiques immediately or later sends to her in an email. Madelaine rows in water, but mostly relies on a machine known as the Erg to provide information on her training and stroke efficiency — "exactly where your mental strengths are, where your mental weaknesses are, how strong you are and how far you can go," she says.

"You think of it as the SAT of rowing," Abramovitz said of the Erg.

Along with aiding performance, advances in technology are creating new ways to gain exposure.

"Unless they saw you at a regatta, you weren't going anywhere," Cookson said of the old recruiting practices in rowing.

These days, college coaches track prospects with the click of a button on a computer, tablet or smartphone. Recruiting sites connect athletes with college coaches and serve as a distributor of videos and resumes for high school athletes seeking a scholarship.

At the top level in college competition, there are 153 teams and more than 2,000 scholarships available for women.

"People are almost acting as agents for high school athletes," said Abramovitz, the rowing club coach. "I don't think we had that 20 years ago. Kids in every sport, from football to rowing, are working with services."

News travels; so do athletes

Social media is another influential aspect of new-era recruiting. Whether it's Facebook, Twitter or through access to recruiting sites, athletes are being connected, identified and exposed in ways their parents never imagined.

"It's made the world feel much smaller," Dave Fein said. "I had no idea that sports were being played outside of Simi Valley. I had no idea what was going on in Florida and Texas. Now there's star rankings and kids know where they rank at all times."

Young athletes also are traveling more and are increasingly specialized in their training.

Cookson recalled that as a teenager, he and a friend embarked on an 800-mile, four-day trip from Canada to Delaware for a regatta. They packed a flashlight, sleeping bags and tent, hoisted their wood boat atop of an old Datsun, and navigated their way to the race using paper maps.

These days, club teams fund raise so they can travel on chartered buses or planes and stay in comfortable hotels. The boats are state-of-the-art fiberglass with oars made of carbon fiber. The baseball bats, in aerodynamic design and grip, are cut from the same cloth as the wing of a fighter jet.

When Dave Fein attended Simi Valley High in the early 1990s, he played football and baseball, ran track and wrestled for the school. He didn't play on a club team, didn't have a private coach, and never considered specializing in one sport.

His son plays on baseball teams year round. He's part of a growing group of teenagers who are identified as promising athletes before they reach high school, then asked to participate in camps, showcases and travel teams that are popping up around the country. Some young ballplayers work with personal trainers and have different coaches to help them increase their speed and perfect their form in hitting, pitching and fielding.

"I think it's good in a lot of ways," Fein said, "but there's a flip side to all of this stuff." He sees the grind on Jaden's face. "It seems like it was more fun when we were younger," Fein said. "In Las Vegas, he had two games each day. It was 114 degrees. He's looking at me, 'What are we doing?'

"For us, what our role has become in this new and different environment is vetting all these things and figuring out when to say no. Are there opportunities for him to play just for fun? Our role is that we balance the grind with the fun and don't overexpose his body physically and don't let him get burned out. There's offers every weekend to play. … You forget they're kids and want to hang out, go to the mall, watch a movie."

Growing up fast

Fein recalled a morning last summer when he and his wife, Candie, drove Jaden, then 13, to Los Angeles International Airport.

Sitting in the back seat wearing earbuds and listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers on his smartphone, Jaden didn't sense his parents' anxiety as they prepared to drop him off for a flight to North Carolina for a prestigious summer baseball camp, his first solo trip.

At the airport, Jaden hugged his parents and walked toward the boarding gate, pausing to give a hang-loose sign. Mom wiped away tears. Dad was quiet.

"That's when the emotion hit me," Fein said. "I sort of felt what I imagined he was feeling — unease, not sure, probably a little scared to be on a plane."

That lasted until Jaden started sending text messages from the plane.

"Dad, I have Wi-Fi. Dad, the lady keeps bringing drinks. Dad, I've got my tablet."

"Wow," Fein said. "I'm glad we got so worked up."

Jaden spent five days at an invitation-only USA Baseball camp in Cary, N.C., joining other 13-and 14-year-olds sent off on their own to live in a dorm and receive specialized instruction in something of a pro-camp atmosphere.

"It's a little scary, because it seems like yesterday I was playing 10U ball with my friends and all-stars," Jaden said. "Now I'm playing varsity as a freshman."

When he returned home from Cary, Jaden was met by a handmade sign held by his sister: "Welcome home, Jaden." He hugged her and his parents.

His father sensed something different.

"He looked more like a young man," Dave Fein said, "not that little kid we put on the plane a week earlier."

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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