Travel Team Tirade & Tips

Once again, I listened as an anguished mom of four complained about the schedule of her 12-year-old son’s travel baseball team. The game was two hours away on a Sunday, which was also her 8-year-old daughter’s birthday. She dared not state her frustration in front of her son but quickly took advantage of my empathy. In hushed, sharp tones she admitted he usually spends the majority of the game on the bench, putting up a brave front. She questioned whether she should pay for batting lessons in addition to the two practices and one game per week.  Another option would be for him just to quit the team after this season. Yet, this would risk his chances of making the high school team.  However, would he even make the high school team either way?  Was she pushing too hard, or not pushing hard enough?

Have you been there?

On the other hand, I know many families who have wonderful experiences on travel teams. When done well, their children get to feel that unique and almost spiritual energy that comes from effective teamwork. They learn the invaluable lesson of tenacity. They learn to trust and respect coaches and teammates alike. The whole family often establishes amazing friendships with other families as part of  the team.  These parents make huge sacrifices, financial and otherwise, to make this happen, and without a doubt, it’s all worth it!

So which is best for your family? The obvious considerations are your child’s age and interest level, your availability, your other children’s schedules, your family’s tolerance for busyness and your overall organizational leanings. Some folks thrive when in constant motion, others whither. Where’s that sweet spot where the kid is happy, and the parents are sane?

Let’s face it, we have a tendency, as parents, to overschedule and over-manage our children’s time. However, when it comes to teens, this may not be a bad idea. As parents of teenagers know, unstructured and unsupervised time is the breeding ground for risky behavior. Participation on a travel team will definitely limit these opportunities.  However, grade school children do quite well with precious unstructured time. Kids younger than twelve years old tend to play easily, create, learn, fantasize, ponder and wonder. These vital activities are amazing and fleeting childhood learning opportunities.

Many families with decent, average athletes unwittingly find themselves lured into travel sports. Unfortunately, the treatment of the entire league is based on the behavior of a handful of exceptionally talented or passionate athletes. You know the kid I’m talking about. Certain kids simply can’t get enough sports.  When I was young, there was a kid on my block who spent the entire summer bouncing a ball off of his front porch.  The entire summer! Or you may recall the kid who irritatingly bounced a basketball everywhere, every three seconds, each and every day.  Yes, those kids could have used a travel team.

The majority of kids, mine included, like to play a sport, for a while. They can improve. They can enjoy. They can even win. They are coordinated, athletic and interested, but not necessarily obsessed or highly gifted. Most 8-year-olds are satisfied with ten baseball games per season. They don’t need fifty. Most child athletes would enjoy the parent-coached games run by the park district or some local league. Too often, we follow the pack to travel sports, and the child is subjected to pressures placed on the adults in their lives.  The expense. The time. The family sacrifice. Some coaches, as part of the travel league, have a vested interest in winning.  The parents, who are paying quite a bit, expect continual improvement. Joy and fun are not the priority.

Some kids thrive in this environment.  If your kid skates, swims, runs, jumps, dives, dances, swings, shoots or throws with abandon for the pure pleasure of it, a travel team may be an option. I remember seeing a 9-year-old girl amaze the neighbors by gracefully, silently doing backflips across the yard with no visible effort.  Yes, certain kids have the talent and the passion. These kids need practice, and play, and lots of it! In general, however, these kids are the exception.

I honor the local leagues for providing just enough each season and then allowing the children to move on to the next sport. My sons thoroughly enjoyed local baseball, basketball and football leagues in grade school. Great coaches, good families. My daughter ventured into the world of travel sports in middle school with hopes of making the high school team.  Ironically, my son who never played travel sports is now a college athlete in a Division III league. My daughter, who improved dramatically through the travel team, still she did not make the high school team.

To help determine the correct path for your family, let’s look at the common assumptions that we make about participation in travel sports.

  1. If my child plays on a travel team, he/she will get better at the sport. TRUE

Practice makes perfect!

  1. If my kid makes a travel team, he/she is “talented,” and therefore we should continue to enroll in future travel teams. FALSE

With the proliferation of travel teams, if a kid is a decent, average athlete, and has parents that are able to afford it, they can usually find a travel team that will take them. Talent aside

  1. My child will play professionally someday. FALSE

Trust me on this.

  1. My child will get a full ride to a Big Ten college. FALSE (most likely)

If your child is extremely passionate, well coached, and physically matches the sport of choice, it is more likely that they would receive a partial scholarship to a Division III school.  Full rides are rare. If this is the only reason to enroll your 8-year-old, keep reading.

  1.  If my child plays travel sports, he/she will make the high school team. MAYBE

This is probably the most common reason for parents of middle school children to enroll their child in travel sports. I did it myself. What I learned is that for many sports, the odds improve if your child physically fits the sport of choice. (Obviously, basketball and volleyball players should be tall.) Yet we all know the 5’9 ” seventh grader who stops growing and is incredibly average in high school. So, if there is a good genetic predisposition toward height, or strength or balance, this  will improve their chances. Otherwise, participation in a travel sport  will  not guarantee a spot on the high school team. Also consider the school size and the passion of your child.  A skilled, talented, passionate kid who is not the right body type, could  still make the high school team but might spend most of their years on the bench. For some kids, quite honestly, this is great!  Since they love the sport and the practice, they are thrilled to be part of the team. This is an example of the exceptionally passionate child who would do well on a travel team earlier in life.

  1. Playing travel sports will make my kid popular. FALSE

You may see a temporary boost in social standing, but without other social skills intact, this is no guarantee of happiness or social success. Being nice and being interested in the activity at hand, (whether that is a sport or not), is a better route toward friendship. Forcing a child into any activity to gain social standing sets a dangerous precedence for adolescence and beyond.

  1. If my kid wants to join a travel team, it is my responsibility to make it happen. FALSE

It is your responsibility as the parent to weigh your child’s wishes with your family’s reality. To assess your reasons honestly and separate your desires from what is best for your child.

  1. My kid eats, sleeps and breathes this sport and drives our entire family crazy by their incessant interest and chatter. I think the travel team will indulge their interest and bring them joy. TRUE

This is what I’m talking about!

As with most parenting decisions, think before you leap! Focus on the next season, as opposed to strategizing a year or two into the future. Choose what makes sense for you and your family right now and forget about the predictions that you have little control over. Trust that your child has a talent for something, and right now, does not have to be the best at anything. If they are talented or passionate enough, you will know. If a travel team does not seem like the right fit, decline the option and allow space for another interest to arise.

One of the nice things about my job is that I often witness the desire of parents to do right by their children. I hope that these tips help with this endeavor.

Happy Spring!

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