As your young athletes grow older, they—and, ultimately, you—may be faced with a choice of keeping them in rec league or moving them up to a travel team.
For the uninitiated, a travel team, also known as a club, comp, elite, or select team (or by the organization sanctioning the competition such as AAU or USA Swimming), offers a higher level of play than a standard rec league youth sports. Travel teams play more games per week and practice more hours, and some, as the name suggests, travel outside their immediate area for competition, whether across town or to other states.
Travel teams are a source of controversy in the youth sports realm in that some people feel they are killing rec leagues and burning out young athletes. Others tout comp teams as a way to boost kids’ skills and improve the chances of making their high school teams. This post will not delve into the debate, but rather, focuses on offering parents advice on whether jumping to a travel team is the best move for their families. Here are several considerations:
Coaches Recognize Your Athlete’s Potential
Your child’s rec coach may suggest that your athlete is ready for the next level. And if he or she hasn’t, don’t hesitate to ask. Often, youth sports coaches see the little things—how the player responds at practice, how quickly an athlete picks up new skills, and so on—that aren’t always evident on game day.
The decision to join a travel team requires a fair amount of homework on your part; a rec coach can help with that and possibly even offer suggestions on which club programs might be a good fit for your child.
Your Athlete Is Dominating
Stats aren’t everything when determining skill level, but if your child is scoring every goal for her team or hitting a home run every time he bats, at least considering a travel team is a natural step. But remember, just because your child is dominating at the rec level doesn’t mean he or she will be a superstar at the comp level—in fact, you might be surprised at the learning curve your young athlete will encounter.
Your Athlete Is Bored
If your otherwise excelling athlete is acting up during practice and being snarky to coaches, teammates, and opponents, the reason might be more than a bad attitude—he or she might simply be bored. The basic level of skills being taught, as well as the competition, may no longer seem like a challenge, and we all know how quickly 11-year-olds can become disinterested. Many club teams will let a prospective athlete participate in a practice; if your child does this and his or her attitude is noticeably more enthusiastic, the comp level might be a better fit.
Your Athlete Is Disciplined Academically
Travel teams require more time devoted to practices and games, which ultimately means less time for other activities. Schoolwork is obviously not optional, and if your child already struggles to finish homework in a timely manner, doubling the amount of time to sports will not help the situation. Don’t overwhelm your athlete—rec sports and satisfactory grades are preferable to a travel team and Ds and Fs.
Love of the Game; Love of Other Sports
If your child isn’t passionate—watching it on TV, practicing it outside of practice, looking forward to workouts and game days—about the sport, the extra effort required to play on a travel team may seem like a chore rather than an opportunity. On the other hand, kids who truly love their chosen sport often embrace the chance to play comp. That said, if your child likes other sports, too, don’t ditch those other rec opportunities to focus on one travel team. Most experts agree that any child younger than 14 shouldn’t specialize in just one sport. A 10-year-old playing on a travel team in soccer and a rec league in basketball might tax your schedule, but ultimately, he or she will be a better athlete and more likely to avoid burnout than the tween playing only soccer.
You’re Ready for What the Next Level Entails
Perhaps the most important part of your comp team decision isn’t if it will be a good fit for your child, but if it will be a good fit for you. Some travel teams really do travel—an out-of-town tournament every weekend for soccer teams, for example—which requires an incredible commitment from you. Club baseball teams can easily play 50 or more games a summer; the hours add up. And the financial costs cannot be overlooked: A few thousand dollars a year to pay for a travel team is obviously much more than $100 to pay for a rec season. Some families accept this level of commitment, and that’s fine—you simply must know that a travel team is a whole new ballgame (pun fully intended).
Finally, don’t look at this commitment as an investment, but rather a chance for your child to play a sport he or she loves, develop skills, and have fun. Too many kids stay on travel teams because their parents, after spending so much time and money, won’t let them quit. If you think the resources you devote to a travel team will be wasted if your child moves on from the sport, stay in rec—that’s simply too much pressure to put on the shoulders of a 12-year-old. The bottom-line goal is happy, athletic children, and whether they are playing in a rec youth sports league or on a comp team, that goal can be achieved.
Does your child play on a travel team, and what has been your experience with it?