More toddlers are getting into sports

Teammates Patrick Lally, 2 1/2, Gianluca Stornello, 2,

Teammates Patrick Lally, 2 1/2, Gianluca Stornello, 2, and Ethan Ayami, 2 1/2, sit still with their soccer balls as they wait for their next instructions from coach Jason Russell at Pro Kids Soccer in Rockville Center. (Dec. 4, 2010) (Credit: Nancy Borowick)

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A Saturday morning at Two Worlds gym in Greenvale:

Weights clang, treadmills hum and a trainer shouts, "Just three more reps." In an alcove a personal trainer and martial arts specialist holds a pair of boxing pads within arm's reach of a 4-year-old.

"Punch right, left, now duck," trainer Spencer Gee says as he claps the pads together just above the boy's head. His parents cheer, and the smile never leaves the youngster's face.

A growing number of parents have sought Gee's services to hone a child's coordination and agility, he said. Some hope to give their children a leg up in sports.

Still others are interested in self-defense, like Rob Mulligan of Amityville, who takes his 5-year-old daughter, Keena, to study martial arts with Gee.

"I brought Keena to Mr. Gee when she was 4 because I wanted her to be able to defend herself," Mulligan says.

"Mr. Gee slips self-defense moves into a regular workout, and kids just think they're having fun. However, it's real martial arts tailored lower for kids."

Gone are the days when a child's first foray into sports coincided with kindergarten. Judging by the number of programs currently offered by businesses, recreation centers and Y's for children younger than 5, toddlers and preschoolers appear to be spending less time in the sandbox and instead dashing straight for the playing fields.

 

Kids get in the swing

At SoccerTots in Huntington, the Lil Sluggers class - baseball for 3- and 4-year-olds - is in full swing. SoccerTots, with nine locations on Long Island, offers multiple sports for children 18 months to 6 years old.

In a training facility that resembles an airplane hangar, six boys sporting matching Lil Slugger T-shirts line up inside batting nets, each clutching an oversized plastic baseball. "OK, guys, remember," says coach Bill Millikin, as he demonstrates. "Point, step, throw."

A second later, six balls fly though the air toward Millikin and assistant coach Jeremy Cummings. Next Millikin asks, "How do we field?"

"With alligator hands," the young voices shout. Then each Lil Slugger puts his wrists together, one atop the other, and opens his hands wide.

A group of parents and a few grandparents watch. "It's a nice afternoon outing," said Diane Weber, who was there with her grandson, Mathew Weber, 4. "It doesn't depend on the weather, and it exposes him to different sports. Last year he tried soccer."

 

Where the ice is nice

At the Port Washington Family Skating Center, ice skaters wearing Windbreakers and gloves glide around the rink, some practicing turns and jumps in the center. Daphene Huang of Albertson is hurrying to tie the laces on her daughter Ella Zhong's skates, a task made difficult by the cold. This is the third lesson for the 3-year-old, who is bundled into a purple parka and sporting a purple-and-yellow helmet. The rink requires all preschoolers to wear helmets.

Ella gives a shy smile as coach Corinne Raile Heilbrunn swoops her up and skates to the end of the rink. Ella takes a seat in a blue plastic chair as Heilbrunn explains what they'll do next; she then places a cone about 3 feet from the chair and hands Ella a small rubber ring to drop on to it. Grasping the instructor's hand tightly, Ella skates toward the cone and bends, swaying a bit. Then they turn around and skate back. By the end of the 30-minute class, Ella tries to skate on her own, and after a few tentative steps, her mother and coach applaud.

Elsewhere on the rink, 4-year-old Nicole Kurzrock is a bundle of energy and assurance as she weaves in and out among skaters of all ages, the smile never leaving her face. She started skating a year ago spurred on by her sister Julia, 7. Julia is practicing spins in the middle of the rink under the discerning eye of private coach Donna Capolino of East Meadow. Fred Nielsen, owner of the skating center, says it's been his experience that if one child in a family starts skating, chances are the siblings will soon follow.

"Julia began skating at 31/2 and progressed very quickly," her mother, Louise Kurzrock, says. "I've been told she has potential." After her lesson Julia does some cartwheels in an empty corner. Could the Olympics be in Julia's future?

"Who knows? That's a long road," her mother says. "She could burn out by the time she's 15." Capolino has suggested that Julia start training to take the first of several exams necessary to qualify, "so we'll see," Kurzrock says.

A small boy steps out onto the ice and makes his way sure-footedly around the rink. Lane Sim is 3 and determined to skate as his older brothers and father, New York Islander Jon Sim, are doing. Lane first tried the ice at 21/2. His family is from Canada, where his mother, Marla, says it's not unusual for children to start skating early.

 

The making of an athlete

Can potential be identified at an early age? Nielsen hesitates, then says the most important quality he looks for is enthusiasm: "An enthusiastic child will stay with the activity and improve to whatever level he is capable of. The most important thing is to see them happy, enjoying the sport."

At Eisenhower Park in East Meadow, the sun is shining, and it's the perfect fall morning to be 2 years old and learning soccer - or to be a parent watching. But is 2 a bit young? Coach and owner of Pro Soccer Kids, Thomas Creagh, says no. "Besides honing pre-soccer skills, they learn colors, how to follow directions, wait their turn and interact with other kids."

 

Little stars, big fans

There is much laughing and cheering from the sidelines. Marie and Eric Grieco have been waiting for three weeks to watch their 2-year-old grandson John.

"My daughter thought it best if we waited awhile so that he wouldn't feel self-conscious with everyone watching him," Marie Grieco said. John, a huge smile on his face, is among the throng of 2-year-olds running after large hoops the coaches have rolled in every direction. Unnoticed, Grandpa moves in with his camera.

Nearby, in a class for 21/2- and 3-year-olds, children chase coaches as they dance around, wrapped in soccer nets. Once the nets are in place, the children begin chasing soccer balls, using their feet to inch the balls toward the nets. A few try to hasten the process by picking up the balls.

"No hands, no hands," shouts coach Jason Donavan. A small girl, her dark curls bouncing as she jumps up and down, shouts from the sidelines, "Go Oren, go Oren." At 31/2, Tali is Oren's big sister and biggest fan.

With a well aimed kick, Oren sends the ball into the net. He runs over to his family beaming, and Tali gives him a hug. Their mother, Beth Kichel, says her son was diagnosed with low muscle tone, wears leg braces and receives physical therapy twice a week.

"Soccer is a good addition to the rest of his regime," she says. "Plus, he really loves it."

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