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Chicago Sun-Times

Mike Travlos hasn't had an offseason in almost a decade.

The Lake Zurich junior plays boys basketball for the Bears in the winter, but his season doesn't end in March. In fact, his season hasn't really ended since the third grade, when Travlos said he started playing travel basketball.

Between high school, AAU with Rising Stars Elite and individual workouts, Travlos plays basketball almost the entire year. An average summer week might include three days with a physical performance trainer to work on strength and athleticism, two days with a basketball skills trainer, one or two AAU practices and somewhere between three and seven AAU games on a weekend.

If any of those pursuits fall on the same day, he pulls a double shift.

There are at least two reasons for the year-round grind. The first? He loves playing basketball. And the second? Travlos, like many prep athletes, is trying to attract the attention of college coaches.

"I'd love to play in college," said Travlos, who is looking at schools like Cornell, Lehigh and Bucknell. "I'm getting looks right now, and if I could get a couple offers and go to one of those schools, that would be awesome.

"I want to use basketball as a way to get a good education."

Travlos, who averaged 20 points for Lake Zurich this winter, has a chance to reach that goal. But there isn't a guaranteed payoff for the growing number of athletes who choose to specialize in a single sport. Overuse injuries and burnout are among the concerns tied to year-round training.

"The majority of high school students, as they get older, they tend to specialize in their sport," said Dr. Kathleen Weber, director of Primary Care Sports Medicine and Women's Sports Medicine at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush. "The trend is that if you play the same sport year-round, you're going to be better at it. And that's not always the case."

Injury concerns are among the most prevalent for year-round athletes. According to Dr. Jeffrey Mjaanes, a sports medicine specialist and orthopedic physician at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush, overuse injuries tend to occur when growing children do not take enough time to rest.

"Oftentimes I'll see parents that feel three weeks off here and four weeks off there is going to be enough time," Mjaanes said. "It's really not. And so usually what we recommend is that you take one season off. So winter, spring, summer, fall - one of those seasons, 2-3 months - should be out of the sport, doing something else."

Cases like that of Loyola sophomore and girls soccer standout Devin Burns have caused her club, FC United, to reconsider the way they view their training habits.

Burns tweaked her right knee playing in a tournament in Kansas with FC United's 18-U team last summer, but she didn't feel much pain, so she left to catch up with FC United's 16-U team at another tournament in California.

She was on a plane when her knee started to swell, and an MRI revealed a torn ACL. Surgery in early August sidelined Burns for that 16-U tournament and put her on the road to a seven-month recovery. She returned for Loyola on March 20 and scored five goals in her first five games.

"It leads you to examine and re-evaluate what you're doing," said Craig Snower, who is both the Loyola girls soccer coach and FC United girls director. "No one can ever tell you [if the injuries] were overuse or just [athletes] in the wrong place at the wrong time, but we've taken a proactive attitude."

For Snower's teams, the proactive approach means mandatory rest periods and weekly workouts focused on strength training and the prevention of ACL injuries.

Speed and agility drills are key, along with strengthening of leg and core muscles with exercises like one- and two-legged squats, hamstring curls with an exercise ball and side planks to aid balance.

"What is rest?" Snower asked. "Is rest sitting on the couch watching TV for two weeks? That's probably not the best thing for an athlete, either.

"When I say rest, we basically call it a rest from soccer-specific movements. Striking soccer balls, overusing those muscles. So giving those muscles a rest and letting the kids maintain a fitness regimen. ... That, we feel, is the right formula."

Harder to detect and treat is the mental strain that a packed schedule can have on athletes. According to Jason Sacks, the executive director of Positive Coaching Alliance-Chicago, 70 percent of kids stop playing sports by the age of 13.

"I've been in workshops with high school athletes where they talk about how soccer used to be fun for them, but then it's turned into a job because they're traveling all over the country on the weekend," Sacks said. "It [a year-round sport] can be a strain on a high school student's life because it's 24/7 they're just thinking about that one thing."

Of course, just because an athlete is given time off doesn't mean he or she will take it. Snower tells the story of a time when he gave his FC United girls two weeks off after a tournament, only to hear days later that a bunch of the players were getting together for pickup games.

"I had to send out kind of a nasty text saying, 'If I wanted you guys playing soccer, I'd have practice tonight. Two weeks off means two weeks off from soccer,'" he said.

But despite the challenges, many athletes talked about how they prefer their year-round schedules.

"Yes, a part of it is you want to get looks and you want to get an opportunity to play college," Travlos said. "But it's you love playing. You don't want to stop. You want to keep going."

Morgan Park senior Lamont Walker was thankful he has been playing basketball year-round since he joined the Mac Irvin Fire AAU team in sixth grade.

"Actually it's a blessing because in my mind, all I'm concentrating on is basketball and school, basketball and school," Walker said. "At first I was like, 'Man, I want to stay home and chill with my friends.' But now I know it kept me off the streets and kept me staying positive."

Additional reporting by Michael O'Brien, Jeff Bonato, Matt Harness, Eric Van Dril, Tim Froehlig and Jon Kerr.


April 11, 2014
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