From the absurdity of ranking tee-ballers to barnstorming teams comprised of 8-year-olds, our youth sports system is broken.
Where the goal once was to prioritize fun and fundamentals, we’ve devolved into a pay-for-play system that sells the appearance of elite competition to the highest bidders. Worse yet, we’ve convinced parents that the only way for their son or daughter to compete is by joining a travel team.
Look, I get it. As a new parent (my son recently turned 1), my natural instinct is to do anything and everything to help my child. That will not change as his interests develop, and undoubtedly, I will face some of these same pressures.
Yet as a coach, I view the current landscape with frustration, because it seems so misleading. The promises of exposure and potential for scholarships are tenuous at best, especially the earlier the age. The costs to join are prohibitive. The time commitment creates stress both for the child and the parents. A 2015 study from Utah State actually found that the more money the parent spends on the sport, the less enjoyment and more stress the youth athlete feels.
When I consider the future of our youth sports programs, I think it’s time for a reset. We need alternatives to this:
Parents and kids alike should understand that enduring a 200-mile drive or a 3-night hotel stay 30 weekends out of the year isn’t necessary to play youth sports. Yet many parents believe if they don’t try to get their kids on these exclusive teams, then they’ll simply sit on the couch and play Xbox all day. This simply isn’t true. There are plenty of ways to develop healthy, happy, athletic young people without joining the travel team rat race.
With that in mind, here are four alternatives to help you delay or avoid the need to participate in pricey and stressful travel sports.
1. Play Multiple Sports
Often the most expensive travel teams are the ones that travel the country and compete near year-round. Engaging in multiple sports is an easy way to avoid these money-sucking squads.
While the coach running your local travel team will insinuate that the only way forward is to play the sport year-round, collegiate and professional coaches/athletes extol the virtues of multiple sports.
Be wary of a travel coach with a vested financial interest in having your child play for his/her team, especially if they promise you things they cannot possibly deliver. You’re better off listening to the actual decision makers who ultimately determine what scholarships and contracts are given out and to whom they are given.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what NFL superstar JJ Watt has to say on the subject:
Needless to say, I’m a big multi-sport proponent, especially at early ages. When your child plays multiple sports, here’s what happens for them:
- Gross motor skills, like running, jumping, skipping, balance and coordination are improved.
- Long-term athletic development is prioritized.
- Injury risk from overuse is reduced.
- Likelihood of burnout is reduced.
- Opportunities to experience different roles and adapt to different teammates and coaches increases.
Overall, that’s a very nice outcome.
Multi-sport participation doesn’t have to last forever either. As they mature, your child might gravitate toward a specific sport. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I firmly believe their interests should be kept at the forefront. If they want to specialize in their mid-teens, that’s much better than them specializing before their age hits double digits. On the flip side, if they have a continued interest in playing multiple sports, there’s really no reason they should feel the need to give any of them up before they graduate high school.
There’s currently no better billboard for multi-sport participation than Kyler Murray, who currently has two leagues competing for his services. While the NFL salivates over his skill set, MLB is willing to change their rules in hopes that he plays for them. He’s certainly an outlier in terms of skill and ability, but there’s no question that his athleticism and marketability are enhanced by the fact that he plays multiple sports. He’s just one of many quarterbacks who believe baseball made them a better signal-caller.
Finally, and this should go without saying, but multi-sport participation doesn’t mean playing multiple sports at the same time. Sadly, I’ve seen this ,and it only serves to create some of the very issues we’re trying to avoid. Save for rare exceptions, one sport per season is best. When that season is over, on to the next.
2. Utilize Local Rec Leagues
While your local league may not have the word “elite” attached to it, you’d be wise to consider them over a travel team.
To be quite frank, what constitutes elite is quite fleeting when you’re competing in youth sports. Too many variables like height, weight and hormonal changes exist at these early ages. Year to year (or even within a season), the strongest, fastest and most athletic will change. However, if a coach believes a player to be marginal, they may not receive the instruction needed to improve. Many of these flashy travel team coaches prefer to spend their time with those they deem to be “worth it,” because they think their future success will enhance their own standing and credibility. Clearly that’s detrimental, not just to player development, but to self esteem and overall interest in the sport. Again, the best interest of the child is not front and center.
Travel teams are also expensive and the return is dubious. If you’re spending a lot of cash on travel teams, hoping to receive a scholarship, I’d encourage you to check out the numbers. Just 2% of ALL high school athletes receive a college scholarship. The odds of hitting your number at the Roulette table are slightly better. They don’t improve because you specialize earlier. If college is a long-term goal, you’re better off putting your money into a 529 plan than spending thousands upon thousands of dollars on youth travel sports.
While you can never fully resolve concerns related to development and play time, local teams tend to offer the “fun and fundamentals” aspect that many travel teams have lost. Plus you eliminate the need to travel from city to city just to play a game. In this manner, local leagues are superior for reducing monetary investments and time commitments, while lowering stress for both child and family alike.
If you doubt that positive outcomes can be had at the local level, hopefully this quote from Coach Matt Lisle of the Chicago White Sox hits home:
The takeaway: except for some very rare exceptions, no colleges are recruiting kids based on anything earlier than their play in u-14 or so. They still spend the massive majority of their time scouting junior and senior high school players, so don’t think you need to be a phenom by the fourth grade to earn a scholarship.
3. Have at Least One Offseason
College players have one. Professional players have one. That some younger athletes do not is laughable.
An offseason for a young athlete looks like this: school. play. sleep. repeat.
With phys ed and recess in decline, we’ve skewed toward structuring every waking moment of a child’s life. As great as playing multiple sports is, we also must think of what environment children are playing in. Unstructured or “free” play is a critical component of physical, mental and social development.
Play time allows kids to expend energy and affords them an opportunity to create, problem solve and think for themselves. As a kid, time free of adult supervision was gold. We biked, played pick-up games, or created all sorts of made-up games in the yard. Most importantly, we had a blast doing it!
This video from coach Jeremy Frisch is a great example of kids creating a game and developing athleticism while the adults watch from afar:
4. Get Them Into Strength Training
The Mayo Clinic states that kids as young as seven or eight can safely start strength training provided they’re mature enough to take and follow instructions.
By starting early, we increase athletic potential, now and in the future, because we maximize childhood adaptation windows. We also keep our kids active and help them learn how to move better. It’s important to remember that strength training is not just barbells and weight plates. For young children, it could simply be some basic bodyweight or resistance band exercises.
I recommend finding a certified strength and conditioning professional in your area if you’re interested. This coach will know how to evaluate your child and structure a workout that is age and skill appropriate, while also engaging and effective.
At these early stages, strength training mustn’t be complicated. If the child doesn’t want to do it, they shouldn’t be forced to do it. But if they’re interested and engaged, they can take on a number of different drills and exercises. Some of my favorite bodyweight movements for young athletes include:
You can mix and match 3-6 of these exercises for 2-3 sets of 6-15 reps to create an effective workout. Try to consistently change up the movements from one workout to the next. These movements are a great starting point because they challenge a young athlete’s strength, explosiveness and stability in multiple planes and ranges of motion. During this initial training phase, they’ll learn to Squat, Hip Hinge, Lunge and perform a Push-Up correctly before they ever touch a weight.
These are not high-volume workouts, so they can safely be implemented during the sport season. In the offseason, they leave plenty of free time for play. In either case, it’s a simple tweak that will help both engagement and athleticism above and beyond simply playing a sport.
While a lot of pressure exists to get caught up in travel team participation, consider the four alternatives presented in this article. Rather than forcing your child to play one sport for months on end in the pressure-packed environment that excessive travel and high costs can create, try these strategies to develop a well-rounded, grounded, and happy athlete who is in the game for the long haul.
Photo Credit: The Washington Post/Getty Images