Once upon a time, summer sleepaway camps were the only thing. Boys and girls played a variety of sports, did arts and crafts, had campfires and color wars — all for 8 weeks in the woods.
Then came sports camps. They offered specialization in one thing — basketball say, or soccer — led by noted college coaches, and their athletes.
It’s hard to find a “sports camp” anymore. They’ve morphed into “ID camps,” marketing themselves as the best way to get onto a college program’s radar — early.
They’re all about competing for coaches’ attention. There’s little instruction. But there is plenty of down time, away from the court or field. Sometimes, athletes are not even on campus. They’re holed up in a hotel, playing video games during down time.
“ID camps” and their cousin, “college showcases,” are now so prevalent that many youngsters feel the need to attend several each summer. Even those who enjoyed a traditional summer camp decide, reluctantly, that they can’t go back. They “have to” travel the country, hoping to shine for at least one college coach.
Jem Sollinger, Jon Deren and Josh Hahn know that landscape well. Owners and directors of 3 highly regarded traditional summer camps — Laurel, Manitou and Somerset respectively, all in Maine (the first 2 with winter offices in the same Brooks Corner building in Westport) — they have seen first hand the demise of “all-sports” camps, and their replacement by “ID” camps.
Laurel, Manitou and Somerset continue to thrive, with long wait lists. But as Sollinger, Deren and Hahn — longtime colleagues and friends, all of whom grew up playing multiple sports — talked, they wondered if they could create something that combined a traditional summer camp experience with a specialized emphasis on one sport.
They could — and they did.
Academy Camps opens this summer. With an emphasis on 4 sports — soccer, basketball, lacrosse and tennis — at Suffield Academy, using state-of-the-art athletic facilities on a 368-acre campus (but far from the Maine woods), it promises short sessions, excellent coaching, innovative leadership and more.
In other words: “a modern approach to the summer sports camp.”
Besides Sollinger and Deren, Academy Camps has a heavy Westport imprint. This is fertile territory for young athletes who have gone to summer camps, yet felt pressured to travel the “ID camp” circuit.
The executive director is well known here too. Mike Maurillo — a former Fairfield University lacrosse captain, with more than 2 decades experience in advertising, and health and wellness — has spent 12 years in Westport as a volunteer coach in lacrosse, soccer, flag football and rec basketball.
When Academy Camps opens in June, much will be familiar to traditional summer campers. But much will be much different.
There are 3 sessions, for boys and girls ages 10 to 15. Each is 1 or 2 weeks — that’s up to the camper. The first begins June 25; the last ends on August 4.
There are morning and afternoon blocks for the sport of specialization. (With plenty of room: Suffield boasts 2 turf and 7 grass fields, 10 tennis courts and a 30,000-square foot fieldhouse).
But athletes need more than just skills training. Academy Camps emphasizes leadership training and wellness too.
The schedule also includes an outdoor ropes course and balance bar, and work on mindfulness, breathwork, visualization, flexibility and mobility.
Former pro athletes and current college coaches will be invited to speak to campers too.
“We’re teaching the ‘character’ skills we as coaches don’t always have time for, or believe happen by osmosis,” Maurillo says. That includes goal-setting, communication, conflict resolution and appropriate reactions to pressure.
Many youth sports experts — and high-level athletes — decry the increasing emphasis on early specialization. Academy Camps provides opportunities for everyone to play flag football, pickup basketball, frisbee golf, floor hockey — the types of games kids enjoy at traditional camps (and whenever they get the chance to be kids at home too).
Another summer camp ritual that Academy Camps continues: color war. Contested each night, in everything from floor hockey to trivia contests, a scavenger hunt and a rope burning game, it’s a way to bring campers of all ages and both genders together.
Like many summer camps — yet unlike most ID sports camps — this one is “tech-free.” Electronic devices are prohibited — the better to enhance teamwork, teach interpersonal skills, and reduce social pressures (and dependence on parents).
Maurillo ticks off other reasons he’s excited about Academy Camps’ launch: Much of the staff (including nurses, dining hall, maintenance and security) comes from Suffield Academy, so they know the facilities and have a vested interest in its success.
(One non-Suffield name: basketball director Mike Evans. Well known in this area, the former Weston High star founded Full Court Peace, a non-profit that brings diverse teens together to repair courts in low-income neighborhoods from Norwalk and New York to Havana.)
The Suffield academy location is another plus. Two hours from JFK and Logan airports — and just 10 minutes from Bradley — it’s more accessible than most summer camps.
And Academy has the whole school to themselves. There will be no other program during the summer.
Is there a concern Academy Camps will cannibalize the directors’ existing traditional camps?
No, Maurillo says.
Some youngsters who have enrolled in the sports program will also do a half-session at Laurel, Manitou or Somerset. Others were already ready to move on.
The involvement of Sollinger, Deren and Hahn gives Academy Camps legitimacy and prestige. “This is an ‘and,’ not an ‘or,'” Maurillo says.
And — most emphatically — not an “ID.”
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