Mamas, are you gearing up for spring sports? Have you registered your kids? Volunteered your husband to coach? Do you have the sports backpacks out and shin guards dusted off? Have you purchased a ‘cup’ and molded the mouthguard? Have you figured out how you will have the grass-stained uniform washed and ready for games on back to back nights? Have you considered how you will squeeze in dinner each night or if you will forgo it all together some nights? Get ready, we’re almost off to the races…I mean the fields.
The Spring sports season is a time to reconnect with others in your community after a long, cold winter and finally breathe in the fresh Spring air (though, sometimes it’s still freezing air here in Michigan, but still, we’re out of hibernation). It’s a time to sign up for post-game snacks, including the otherwise-banned Gatorade and a time to load up your trunk with chairs collapsed in bags. It’s a time to socialize with other parents while you watch your youngster do what he loves, or kinda likes, or sometimes hates.
That is unless your kid plays travel sports. If that’s the case, there’s no dropping your kid off at the local school around the corner for practice. No getting rides from neighbors to games. It’s rare that teams are formed around your immediate community. Nope, this is TRAVEL. Literally. You travel, you drive. ALL. THE. TIME. It’s a logistical nightmare trying to get to a 5:30 practice that’s 30 minutes away during rush hour. And really, at that time of day it actually takes 45 minutes; and don’t forget that the coach wants you to arrive 15 minutes early and if you are late, your playing time may be affected. Oh, and travel sports are not just limited to the Spring, so this stress carries on all year long.
My oldest son Neal has had a ball in his hands since he was six months old. Even now at 15, balls can be found in our house everywhere he has been . . . from the family room couch to his bedroom where they cover his bed as if they were stuffed animals.
We knew he was athletically inclined from an early age. When he was 3, we enrolled him in a local soccer league, followed by t-ball, basketball and flag football by age 6. He dominated in each (or so his proud parents would say).
By age 8, he had fallen in love with baseball and wanted to try out for a travel team. I remember my husband Joe coming home and presenting the ‘information sheet’ in front of me. I saw that the team cost $1,200 to participate. We promptly recycled the sheet and signed him up for the parks & rec league.
But, as the years went on, most boys were leaving for travel ball and we felt obliged to concede to the status quo. We decided to revisit the travel team idea and when he was 11, he and his buddy joined the Cyclones.
We didn’t know what we were in for and it was a whirlwind. After that year and a trip to Cooperstown, NY, the Cyclones dissolved. We scrambled to find another team. No one tells you that ‘hey, this isn’t a guaranteed thing year to year. Teams break up, teams reconfigure, coaches change; it’s all up in the air come July.
He and his buddy transferred over to a new team, the Indians. It was part of a bigger ‘organization’ and was, in fact, much more organized. Neal learned more, grew as a player and it was pretty fun. The end of the season ended with a big tournament in Myrtle Beach, and an announcement that the team was reconfiguring. It was a bit shocking, but I guess we should have been prepared, considering the year before. Neal decided to stick with the Indians as others moved on to another team. After another year on the Indians, another trip to Myrtle Beach, another announcement and the team dissolved. This was much more predictable considering the rocky season we had.
So, this past summer, it was off to tryouts again. This time, Neal decided it was much more important for him to be with his friends when choosing a team. He had a couple of good options, and friends on both, but ultimately reunited with his best friend. His mom and I were thrilled for them (and us) to be back together! Even with uncertainty, travel baseball has been a good experience for Neal and has taught him many lessons both on and off the field.
Our daughter has had a different experience in travel sports. When Neena was 8, she played on a travel soccer team. In travel soccer, the playing season is all year and the cost is more than double travel baseball! But, Joe was a soccer player and in an attempt to keep one of the kids in ‘his’ sport, we sucked it up and forked over the $2,500. Within the first month, she hated it. It was difficult to get her to go to practice and she would often arrive at the field in tears. But we encouraged her to finish out the season (to get our money’s worth) and promised her she could go back to parks & rec when it was over. Having had good and bad experiences, I agree that travel sports have benefits for some and big downsides for others.
An article on verywellfamily.com summed up the pros and cons of how I feel about travel sports:
When Neena played travel soccer, she was burned out. She didn’t have any time for other activities and Joe and I always felt guilty when she needed to miss a practice or a game. We felt we were lacking in our commitment or wasting our money. Coaches expect you to show up to all of it…even at age eight. We knew she was getting better quality coaching, and that’s part of what we were paying for, but if she was not happy, was it really making a difference? And, you do get caught up in when other parents say: “She’ll never make the high school team if she doesn’t play travel”. It’s hard not to think that way. Luckily, we were able to weigh the pros and cons and make the tough choice that was ultimately right for our family. In Neena’s case, the cons were too hard to overcome. She may not improve as fast as she would in travel, but her happiness is worth so much more.
For Neal, his experience has been much more positive. He loves playing with a dedicated group of boys that are all at his level and he’s never once complained about going to practice. He most definitely has improved with better coaching, more practices and a bigger commitment in time. In addition, we have grown close to the other families on the team. There are cookouts, family nights, and fun family weekends away at tournaments. It will surely bring back great memories as we look back on these days. Travel baseball also allows for time off and an opportunity to play another sport, and so Neal gets to enjoy tennis in late summer and fall.
There is so much more to this conversation. There are debates over whether the travel level is detrimental to youth sports with the impact it’s having on mental health and the overwhelming number of surgeries that are necessary due to overuse injuries. There are concerns that parents are digging themselves into a financial disaster and sacrificing precious family time to drag their family to games and tournaments. Yet, another opinion is that it’s very unfair to the families who can’t afford it. The ones who can afford it even see it as a social status sometimes. These are all real concerns and it begs the question “What are we doing”?
If I had it my way, everyone would go back to parks and rec and I’d be able to unfold my chair in a few days a week to hang out with the local moms. The kids would be playing a game with their friends, the dads coaching and the younger siblings would be off on the monkey bars; always magically knowing to return just as the Gatorade is handed out.
Where do you stand on travel sports?