I began 8U Travel because I thought it ludicrous my son was starting travel sports at the age of eight. I still do. I think the state of travel sports is verging on insane with “elite” programs looking to “take it to the next level” (whatever those statements mean) and forcing young kids to play one sport year-round preying on the fears of parents. And I agree those same parents have lost the plot in their blind belief their kid is getting a college scholarship or “going pro” (she isn’t). But people whining about travel programs ruining youth sports and the demise of the rec league are kidding themselves. If the objectives of youth sports are kids being active, improving in their chosen sports, and gaining life skills, travel sports are the singular best option to deliver.
Before diving into the benefits of travel, let’s get the competitive, only focused on winning cards out on the table. A common argument of naysayers is travel programs eliminate the fun with an over the top focus on winning. Sports are competitive by definition and it’s naïve to think rec leagues are not focused on winning just because they employ equal playing time rules. The kids on my son’s t-ball team were constantly counting runs and trying to figure out who won the games in which no outs were recorded, everyone hit in every inning and the last kid up always hit a “home run.” In Minors rec ball this past summer, I watched coaches try to stack their teams at the draft and, more than once, my son’s team was on the receiving end of some (expletive-deleted) bush league plays from coaches so worried about winning they resorted to tactics which would result in the next batter getting drilled at older ages. All sports are competitive, the kids who play them want to win as do the coaches as do the parents regardless of playing time rules and the “everyone makes a team” scenario of rec leagues.
So what do travel sports bring to the party that rec sports cannot?
You want your kid to be active
The rec baseball season is 12 games plus playoffs over seven weeks. It’s short. It’s compact. Travel baseball afforded my son the opportunity to play another nine weeks into the dead spot of summer when organized sports are few and far between. Where we live there is no rec soccer after U7 so it’s either play travel or don’t play soccer.
You want your kid to improve
Every parent who volunteers to coach rec league should be applauded and thanked profusely. But when the only prerequisite to being Coach is the ability to raise a hand, your kid’s development as an athlete is left to potluck. Hopefully you get a coach who knows about the sport and can break it down into something a kid can absorb. Of course, if I hear another “keep your back elbow up . . . .”
Then there’s that short, compact season again. Players don’t get better in games. They get better at practice. My rec team could only find time for three practices last season with our two games per week schedule. There wasn’t a lot of development going on there. Of course, we could have added a third or fourth night a week for practice at which point what’s the difference between rec and travel?
There’s also the fact playing with better players speeds development. It’s hard for a kid to get better as, say, a second baseman, when the other infielders have a 50-50 shot of fielding a grounder let alone knowing to try to get the lead runner.
You want your kid to develop some life skills
Learning how to be part of a team: Being part of a team, learning your role within it and understanding how teams work are social skills which serve a lifetime both professionally and personally. The problem is rec teams are teams only in that the players wear the same color shirts. By virtue of the everyone plays equal time, everyone plays every position and everyone bats in every spot in the lineup ethos (important and pivotal as it is), rec sports lack both the catalyst to drive player bonding and the reward systems which help kids learn how teams work. Having to make the team helps immediately kick start the gelling process which is further accelerated by getting together for practices and games three to four times a week. Coupled with the extra playing time together, it helps the kids quickly sort out the hierarchy in the team, who the better players are, who plays what positions, who the leaders are and how and when to lead and how and when to follow. It just doesn’t happen with rec ball.
Learning how to deal with the fact not everyone is treated the same: I once heard former MLBer Art Shamsky say superstars are treated differently so you had better get used to it. It’s a salient truth of sports and everyday life. Have I mentioned in rec everyone is on the team because they signed up, everyone gets a shot at every position and everyone plays the same amount? Travel sports, where the best kid plays short and bats third most the time, offer young athletes their first exposure to the fact not everyone is treated the same. Even on my travel team, where I did my best to give innings to all the kids, the better players played more innings in the field and played more innings in key positions because they deserved it.
Learning how to work for what you want: That reward system can help instill the “hard work” ethic. You work hard at practice, you get opportunities to play. Unburdened by the need to have everyone get a shot at short, I was able to reward kids who worked their tails off at practice with opportunities to play in certain positions or situations. In rec, well, everyone got to play shortstop.
Beyond helping your kid be active, improve athletically and develop social skills, travel sports provide them the bonus of belonging to something larger, of accepting someone and being accepted simply because you share a uniform, basically of being “one of us” because you are part of the travel team. There’s a circus in my town every July 4th. My daughter loves the circus; my son hates it. So while my wife and daughter where watching the acrobats and elephants last summer, my son and I went down to the field to throw the baseball around. When we got there, several boys from the older teams in our program were playing a whiffle ball game. My son walked over hesitantly because he knew no one and was instantly invited into the game simply because he wore the same hat. The power of the uniform is enormous.
I understand the downsides of where travel sports are headed and perhaps already have arrived. There are too many programs. There are too many programs which prey on parents who are afraid little Sally is going to fall behind by calling themselves “elite”, charging a fortune and then forcing Sally to specialize in that one sport year round in order to justify the high price tag yet. But if the objectives of youth sports are to be active, to develop athletically and to develop socially, the truth is rec leagues have almost no chance to deliver on those objectives. Travel programs unequivocally do. The key is choosing the right program with the right coach and philosophy for you and your child at the age and a price point which are also right for your family. Maybe I’m lucky. I’ve found a soccer coach who is understanding of my son missing practice because of baseball in the spring, just as I am lucky to coach in a program where I’m not forced to have the kids play year round to justify a cost. Then again I wouldn’t be doing travel sports any other way. I don’t think my situation is unique. I think the benefits of travel sports are.