On a whim, Raleigh's Avery Gardner took up soccer when she was 4 years old. Nine years later, she says soccer “is what I live for.”
“When she was real young when she didn't score in games,” said her father, Rick Gardner. “There would be some tears after the game.”
Her father played football at Wake Forest University, and started three years at defensive end. It didn't take him long to learn that his daughter was “very competitive.”
But that edge came about gradually as friendly weekend soccer matches became more than just a social event.
“A big part of that weekend was going to get an ice cream or lunch after the game – that was almost as important as the game,” he said. “It's not that way anymore.”
Soccer is a part of Avery's everyday schedule. Eight hours of school at the Franciscan School in North Raleigh is just the beginning of a typical day that includes playing in the Capital Area Soccer League at an elite level.
“I usually have 10 or 15 minutes to get a quick snack and hydrate, then I go off to soccer and have fun and get better, then I go home and eat, study and get my homework done and then I've got to get sleep for the next day,” Avery said.
And then she does it all over again.
But how much is too much for young athletes? Youth sports at the top level can require long practices multiple days a weekend and games nearly every weekend.
Throw in constant individual drills, and youth sports can become intensively time-consuming.
Dr. Dick Coop, a sports psychologist, said Avery may need to take off some weekends “to get away from the whole deal. I've just seen so much burnout.”
Girls, as they age, also face other challenges as they continue up the ladder of competition. Girls have a higher risk of injury in some cases, especially with knee injuries. Many studies show women have a higher risk of anterior cruciate ligament injuries than men, for example. Female soccer players also run the risk of concussions as the games become more competitive.
Avery, who has two younger brothers, said burn-out not a problem for now, but realizes there may come a time when she'll need to take some time off.
And her mother, Jen Gardner, said the parents monitor her closely.
“We would know, yes – as her mother I'd know if she was pushing herself too hard,” said Jen Gardner.
One of the first places burnout can be detected is in the classroom.
“If the grades were to slip, we would maybe know that we'd have to make some changes,” Jen Gardner said.
But her grades have not slipped. She's an A-B student who often brings home straight As.
On the field, she's a dynamic scorer, one of the top players on CASL's under-13 Elite Black team.
Sean Nahas, her coach, said it's his job to get the best out of Avery's abilities.
“A player at her level and a player we get to work with on a daily basis we feel we can push to the max level,” he said. “Obviously there will be moments when we have to balance it out, but we feel if we don't push them to the hardest, they don't feel they're getting anything out of it.”
And that would not sit well with Avery Gardner. She's chasing her dream of playing soccer “into college and maybe the national team.”
Nine years ago, Avery's friend said, “Let's give this sport a try.”
Can she imagine what life would be like if she had said no?
“It would be completely different,” she said, “and I wouldn't want to.”