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'It is an achievement for them to get through the week'

Within days of their arrival they were a familiar and colorful sight on the long green lawns of St. Mark's School here in Southborough, kicking, dribbling, heading, and chasing their red and yellow soccer balls.

There was hardly a daylight hour when the young soccer players at the John Smith Soccer Camp weren't bouncing a ball off some part of their anatomy. From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. the campers were at it.

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''It is an achievement for them to get through the week,'' admitted John Smith, the New England Patriots football player who has for the past three summers transformed St. Mark's, a private boarding school, into a soccer camp.

This year the camp drew 350 girls and boys aged 8 to 17 from as far away as Holland and Florida, all of them willing to pay $220 for six days of solid soccer, a John Smith soccer ball, and an official T-shirt to take home.

Interrupt the bouncing long enough to ask them why they are at a camp where there is nothing to do but play soccer and the answer is always the same: ''I love soccer.''

Because so many children ''love soccer'' and so many more love hockey or cheerleading or field hockey or basketball, camps like Smith's are taking over the vacant playing fields and dormitories of many independent schools during the summer.

What you get at a sports camp is training and practice. There may be an outing or a barbecue, but there is no regular schedule of traditional camp fare - swimming, arts and crafts, nature study, archery, and so forth.

At Smith's camp, the campers began warming up at 8:45 a.m.; at 9:15 they were learning techniques; at 11, playing games. At noon they took a break for lunch. At 2:15 they tackled tactics. From 4 until dinner at 5 there was open time - for soccer golf, headball, soccer tennis, and individual games. At 6:30 there were group competitions. At 9 they analyzed films of professionals at play until bedtime at 9:30.

The schedule is typical.

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''This isn't a keep-the-kids-amused kind of thing, said Robert Anderson, the athletic director of Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Mass., where facilities are booked for almost the whole summer by outside groups.

One of those groups, New England Camps Inc., brought abut 900 campers to the school this past summer, according to Doug Wood, the athletic director of a local high school, who started running the camps in 1974. The demand has grown steadily since then, he said.

Boarding schools provide the perfect location for the camps, he said, because everything needed is already there. The camp negotiates a price for the use of rooms and fields and uses the school's food service. The cost is usually between

The arrangement is good for the schools, too, because their buildings and grounds are being used.

Both parents and schools should take care when picking a sports camp, said various heads of schools and camps.

The camp can provide good or bad public exposure for a school depending on how well run it is, Barlow said. Even if the camp is an independent operation, it is associated with the school.

Parents should be careful, said Smith, not to select a camp just because a big-name athlete has his name on the brochure. They should find out if the director will be at the camp and the qualifications of the coaches.

And, Smith warns, the camps can improve skills through drill and teach rules and strategy, but they can't send home a professional after one week.

Although they work hard at soccer, the campers at Smith's camp said that they do enjoy the week. ''This is great,'' said one 12-year-old, adding the ubiquitous refrain: ''I love soccer.''

They are not fanatics, they assured this reporter. ''We tell ghost stories when we are supposed to be asleep,'' said one, ''just like we did at the other camp I went to last year.''

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