Jim Agostino of Egg Harbor Township watches his son Connor at football practice last week. Edward Lea

In Jim Agostino's world, the youth sports merry-go-round starts with football practices in August.

His 10-year-old son Connor's football season runs through November, by which time wrestling is under way. Wrestling runs into lacrosse, street hockey and baseball. Then it's back to football again.

"It gets to the point where it's pretty hectic," says Agostino, who runs a business from his Egg Harbor Township home. "But it's like that for a lot of parents. Most of the people on the teams that we're involved with are all pretty active."

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Nearly three out of four children compete in sports 12 months per year, according to the National Council of Youth Sports.

And in many homes of young athletes, the schedules cover refrigerator doors, parents are split between siblings' practices and games, and daily shouts of "where are her cleats?" or "where did you put his hockey gloves?" ring out.

Balancing youth sports with work schedules, family events and plain old down time is a challenge for the families of the estimated 44 million children ages 6 to 18 who compete in youth sports every year, according to the National Council's 2008 study.

"It's hard to tell them no," Agostino says. "So you do what you have to do to get them where they have to go."

Three athletes reside in the Agostino household. Agostino's eldest son Zack, 17, plays football and wrestles for Egg Harbor Township High School. His daughter, Maggie, 14, plays high school field hockey. Connor plays five sports ranging from football to lacrosse.

"My wife will have one at a field hockey thing and I'll have another one at a street hockey thing," Agostino says. "We get twisted around pretty good."

Experts attribute the year-round sports trend to professional athletes who have turned kicking or throwing a ball into a lucrative career.

"Parents feel the pressure to get their children involved in as many activities as possible," says Scott Haltzman, a psychiatric professor at Brown University and author of "The Secrets of Happy Families." "If within this child is a burgeoning (David) Beckham, they don't want to miss that opportunity by not exposing the child to soccer."

Or baseball. Or football. Or lacrosse. And parents have the happy task of keeping all the balls in the air.

Each night the Agostinos leave the house at about 5 p.m. bound for the practice and game fields. They stagger back in the door at 8 or 9 p.m. for showers and to finish homework left undone. A Wawa near Egg Harbor Township High School usually provides dinner.

"Wawa is a great place," Agostino says. "And they just opened up a new (Walt's Original Primo Pizza) in the same place. We can stop in and get shorties or get pizza right across the street."

For some parents, it's not that their children play too many sports, but that there are too many children.

Cruise past Jean Camp's Stafford Township home in Ocean County any weekday at about 4 p.m. and you'll likely see her out on the front lawn screaming down the block for her six daughters to get in the house and get ready for practice.

Inside it's a sea of shinpads, cleats, socks and water bottles as Camp's daughters, ages 5 to 17, get ready for cheerleading and soccer practices. On top of their daughters' activities, Camp and her husband coach two traveling soccer teams and a cheerleading squad.

Homework is done, or half done. On a good night, dinner is something out of "Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Meals." On a bad night, it could be a frozen waffle and a fruit cup.

"We have to get their homework done, get them fed and get them wherever they have to be by 6 or 6:30," Camp says. "Everyone is yelling and trying to get somewhere. My mother-in-law can't stand it when she's here."

Camp is a full-time student at Georgian Court University in Lakewood. Her husband works for a printing business from home, a situation that is the family's saving grace.

"If he had a job in Manhattan working 9 to 5 or even in Freehold or Atlantic City we could never do it," Camp says. "But it is hard for him. Sometimes we forget that he's still working even if he's at home. If our daughter expects him at a soccer game, he has to stop work at 3 in the afternoon to go see her game."

Why they drive

Agostino doesn't drive to Princeton for elite baseball tournaments or travel to North Dakota for wrestling tournaments so his children can collect on multimillion-dollar contracts. But he does see sports as a means to an end when it comes to college.

"If a kid chooses a sport like baseball or soccer and they want to get better at it and use it as a vehicle to go to school, they almost have to get involved with an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) league of sorts," Agostino says. "(Recreational) coaches and the athletic association do a great job, but they're not there to develop athletes."

According to NCAA statistics, about 470,671 athletes play high school baseball nationwide. About 6 percent of those athletes play in college. Less than 0.5 percent of high school baseball players turn pro.

Parents often tread a thin line between giving their children the best opportunities to become elite athletes and overloading them with activities.

"You have parents who have kids in soccer, and then they have to come right from soccer over to football, or they're playing football and fall baseball," says Brian Welfield, an Egg Harbor Township sports coach and father of three athletes. "Some of them drive themselves batty."

Game hazards

Welfield's wife, Jill, president of Egg Harbor Township's baseball program, likes to keep an eye on injuries within the league. She often sees athletes returning to the field sooner than they should so they don't miss playing time.

"I have seen a particular child do so much that an injury just won't heal," Welfield said. "The doctor has said stay out for six weeks and I see that child right back out within two or three weeks saying 'Yeah, I'm fine.'"

More than 3.5 million children under the age of 15 suffer from sports-related injuries each year, according to a recent study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Experts blame this on young athletes overspecializing and not having down time.

Dr. Stephen Zabinski, division director of orthopedic surgery at Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point, has seen 10-year-olds with torn anterior cruciate ligaments and little leaguers with elbow and shoulder injuries.

"Their ligaments and tendons are pulling on bones that aren't fully grown," Zabinski said. "So not only can they overuse the ligaments and tendons, but they can pull on growing parts of bone and cause stress injuries."

Most stress injuries just need rest, and parents often take this news tougher than the children, Zabinski says.

"(The parents) have already marched four or eight years ahead," Zabinski says. "Where his college scholarship is depending on him getting onto the right high school team, which depends on his playing on this travel team in eighth grade."

The Welfields hope to avoid these problems by not letting their children, ages 10 to 17, play more than one sport per season.

"I would see these parents who were pushing and pushing their kids to do more things," Jill Welfield says. "I want to be the parent that, yes, I'll do whatever it takes for my kid. However I don't want the kid who is running in the car changing from one uniform to another for a totally different sport and then running to a third sport."

Family time

In October 2002, Jill and Brian Welfield celebrated their 13th wedding anniversary. Instead of going out to a fancy dinner, the couple spent the evening watching their eldest son play baseball at All Wars Memorial Park in Linwood.

In hopes of salvaging the evening, Brian Welfield went up to the announcer's booth and had the staff wish his wife a happy anniversary over the loudspeaker.

"Of course the other parents were all around, and I was kind of embarrassed," Jill Welfield says, recalling the event eight years later. "But you know, this is what family life is about."

Time is the biggest sacrifice parents make to youth sports. Time to unwind. Time to eat dinner as a family. And time to pursue their own interests.

The Welfields are both former casino employees. Brian Welfield is now a full-time student at Richard Stockton College in Galloway Township, while his wife is job searching after recently graduating from the Prism Career Institute in Pleasantville. They spend their free time at football games, baseball games and dance recitals.

"I can't even begin to tell you how many Mother's Days I spent traveling for baseball tournaments," Welfield says. "One year we were home and I said, 'Holy mackerel, this is the first Mother's Day I've actually spent in my house since (her youngest child) was born."

Jean Camp has a little black notebook to keep all the practice schedules, doctor appointments and school activities straight. There aren't many blank spaces in there for romantic dinners with her husband.

"We don't see each other much," Camp admits. "We see each other in the mornings when we figure out who needs to take who where that day."

Family vacations are built around sporting events. The Welfields turned a recent baseball tournament in Pennsylvania into a family weekend at Hershey Park.

"We've done Dorney Park that way, and Great Adventure," Jill Welfield said. "Those have basically been our little vacations."

But no matter how much they hustle, parents are always left with a sense of guilt when they can't make it to everything.

"With the girls if you miss anything they pout," Camp says. "It will be the game we miss where they have three goals. I get the text message but it's not the same."

Camp lives for Friday night home football games at Southern Regional, one of the few times the entire family can gather on the bleachers to watch their eldest daughter cheer for the school.

"We bring sandwiches and make sure everyone has blankets," Camp says. "And once we get there it's great. The whole family is sitting there watching her cheer. It's almost like you take a deep breath."

E-mail Courtney McCann:


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