TRAVEL TEAMS: The Time Has Come for Some Real Reform

As I opened today’s radio show on WFAN, I asked the question that, quite honestly, has troubled me for some time. In short, there’s no question that travel teams have spread all over the country in the last 25 years like wild fire, but in truth, these programs are unregulated, for the most part the coaches are uncertified or licensed, there’s all sorts of concerns about issues regarding costs, try outs, playing time, coaching styles, and on and on.

So my question: is there no better way for the United States to run travel sports programs?

Let’s face it. Our country has now reached the point where we rely on travel teams to produce our premier athletes. That’s great. But it seems to me that in order to produce a few polished gems, there are thousands – and probably millions – of other promising athletes who end up disillusioned, upset, and angry by their own experiences with travel teams.

As the world’s most successful and wealthiest nation, is there no other way for us to train our athletes?

Consider: the US Soccer Federation now forces HS soccer players to choose between their program and their HS varsity team. Why?

Any parent can put out a shingle and announce to the local community that he or she is starting a travel team. That parent controls the tryouts, the costs, decides who makes the team, who plays in the game, and so forth. Why do we allow this?

Too many travel team coaches talk about equal playing time at the beginning of the season, but as the season wears on, they tend to playing the more gifted athletes on the team in the hopes that the team can make the playoffs. What happened to the emphasis on developing skills in ALL of the players?

Too many travel teams are aimed at kids 10 and under. Why do we even allow travel teams for kids before they’re in middle school?

Hasn’t the time finally come to inject some sanity and start to eliminate some of this madness? Ever see a 10-year-old kid not make the cut for a travel team? The trauma is palpable, and clearly they don’t want to try out again the following year. End of athletic career. A wash-out at age 10.

Is that the right message to send a kid who’s still a few years from adolescence? Why do we allow this? Suppose the reason why the kid didn’t make the team was because the Dad who started the travel team has his own kid on the team, and he plays the same position of the kid who got cut? Is that fair?

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Again, travel teams aren’t going away, but it does seem to me that we need to finally set up some real guidelines to protect our kids.

  • Don Staffin

    Here is how Bridgewater, NJ faced this situation.

    In 2007 there was a single club in town which started kids in travel at U8 with full tryouts, cuts, etc. A player could make the program at U8 or U9, and be cut at U10. “See ya! Have a nice life” Costs were out of control. A majority of the parents on a team could vote an escalation of expenses on the minority. There was no accountability for the quality of the coaching, or even the paid trainers.

    A new club, called Bridgewater United SC, was formed that addressed the problems as follows:

    1. No cuts at U14 and below. If a kid was judged sufficiently athletic to be capable of learning the game, he/she was accepted. The only reason for cuts would be if we did not have anough plaers to form teams, and in such a case we would call around to neighboring clubs to try to place the kids.

    2. Strict cost controls. Most teams are able to keep the total annual cost less than $400 per travel player until a team starts to show that it is capable of playing at an elite level. If there are one or two players who are far more advanced than the rest of the team and the parents wish to move to one of the academy programs in the area, we don’t try to discourage them or impose the costs of their dreams on the rest of the players.

    3. The program is financially an independent trust, but is administered by the township recreation department together with the in-town recreation program. So all of the safeguards are in place to ensure accountability and transparency.

    4. We have a contract with a professional training organization that provides the independent trainers and also conducts the tryout evaluations.

    As with any organization that makes use of a lot of volunteers, the process is not perfect. But the program has served as a good example of how to improve the travel sports experience, and has now been duplicated with our travel basketball as well.

    Don Staffin, past President, Bridgewater United Soccer Club

    • Bob James

      Rick,

      This topic of travel teams struck yet another responsive chord with me. I equate this discussion to “showcases.” There is an enormous falacy among parents (fathers mostly) that enrolling their kids in showcases and travel team programs will give there son or daughter an edge on kids that play youth sports in their respective town programs.

      I must admit that I speak from experience, having scoured the CT area for a travel baseball team for my then 13-year son old to play on and then enrolling him in a few baseball showcases during his freshman and sophomore years. Looking back now, aside from the “fun” aspect of it all and parent egos stroked neither was worth the significant dollar investment, not to mention the endless driving to these locations and sitting in traffic on I95. (not fun).

      Tip to parents: enrolling your kids in travel programs before the age of 15/16 is a waste of time and money. As we all know, kids are still developing prior to 15/16 and we’ve all seen those so-called phenoms in little league who fizzled out by high school. Regarding showcases, again a complete waste of time prior to junior year in high school (when college coaches give a hoot).

      Proof that playing for your town reaps benefits:

      In the case of my son, he decided to play American Legion ball (junior 16U and senior 19U) representing our town and it was he best decision he ever made. Not only were half of his 35 games played in our town but most of the games were no more than a 30 minute drive from our house. More importantly, DI, DII and DIII college scouts came to his games, saw him pitch in league games and in the state playoff games, and one top DIII academic school offered him a spot on the 2013 varsity roster. The camaderie of playing for a team with your friends and representing your hometown far exceeded paying the crazy fees, sitting in stand-still traffic and not forming lifetime bonds with your teammates. After all, isn’t it silly to read about a kid who played in the summer “world series” in Texas? Do you know how many “world series” events there are at these “pay for play” baseball parks around the country. Too many to count. Are these trips really worth the 2-3k per kid?

      Last tip to parents:

      Enroll your kids in the town programs. Regarding baseball, Cal Ripken and Little League programs are excellent, as are Babe Ruth and the Pony Leagues. American Legion in CT produces top college talent year after year (list of college players are listed on the CT Legion website). If by the time your child shows REAL potential at 15/16 on, then it might be worthwhile to explore competitive travel team. As noted above, however, be careful what you wish for…

      Bob James

  • Rod

    Get over it. Stratefication is good for everyone, a win-win if not bungled.

    Travel teams are like “gifted” programs for good players. They are rewards for being good at the game.

    There’s plenty of opportunity for the ordinary or weak players; it is the parent’s job to find those (many, many) opportunities that won’t break a kid’s heart.

    Invariably, the parents who don’t do that are the real problem.

    The parents of the poor players mixed in with good players demand all the coaching time and equitable playing time, and their kids still don’t gain much, and for a good reason you have entirely overlooked.

    My son was on Little League and travel teams where players didn’t even want to be there, were only there because the parents forced them to get some excercise and not be in front of X-box, and invariably those parents were the loudest and most obnoxious when the better players didn’t win the trophies for their kids.There were kids who have played spring and fall Little League seasons totalling almost 100 games and still aren’t sure whether or not there’s a force play to be made and swung at every pitch no matter where it was thrown.

    You can set up travel ball to be that, to be all inclusive and to waste the time of the smarter and more athletic kids and teach them their additional efforts and gifts from God are trite, while also wasting the time, energy and money of the kids and the parents who don’t, by their actions, even belong on the field while teaching those kids that their additional efforts and non-sports gifts from God are trite, or you can have a sport where everyone seeks his own level and can compete on a level field.

    I took my pick.

    • Rick Wolff

      Rod – thanks for your thoughts, but I respectfully disagree. More and more countries around the world are now beginning to question the value of travel teams and having kids specialize in one sport at too young an age. Concerns about over-use injuries, burn-out, and slotting young athletes into the wrong sport are becoming commonplace. Be careful about embracing travel teams too strongly. Coach Wolff

  • http://www.westchesterexpress03.com Joe P

    Rick,

    You are looking at the wrong side of this. Let’s look at hockey for a second.
    1. All Coaches must be USA Hockey certified in order to coach and be on the bench at all levels
    2. Hockey is orgainized by three catagories. AAA( The highest Level) AA (The Middle Level) and A( the lower level) I am from Westchester, NY there is 1 AAA organization and about 8 or 10 AA or A. Some with an A and B team at any given level. Example, my son is 9 he plays AAA with the most skilled players vs the most skills players for his age group. If he were not to make that team, our rink has a AA team at that level or he can go to one of the other 8 or so organization and find a spot.
    3. Parents: Parents are the ones making thr trouble, not the programs. Any decent program will let you know exactly what you are getting in to and how much. There is no smoke and mirrors.
    4. If your kid is interested in taking a sport the highest level his ability will carry him he/she needs to play in a travel organzation that puts him out there. For hockey, scouts for Prep-Schools, Colleges, Juniors will not come to a high school game because they know there is not the highest level competion. However, parents should not start out trying to attain that for their kids. Play the kid where he responds best.
    5. My son has stayed in more hotels at the age of 9 than I have in my life time. He has learned through travel hockey to be self reliant, tenacious, strong, team work, confident and most important how to make friends becuase hockey is not a community based travel program you meet kids from all over.

    Let’s look at baseball:
    last year I ran an 8u baseball travel team. It was not tryout, I invited kids it was first come first serve. Also, the city I live in runs a 9U team for the Little League and the kids on my team were going to play there before I started my team. You know what that did, it open up 14 more spots for kids to play for the city so we had 28 kids playing travel summer ball instead of only 14.

    I could go on and on, but come on LET’s LOOK AT ALL THE GOOD THINGS TRAVEL SPORTS DOES!

    Rick you’re off base on this!

    • Rick Wolff

      Many thanks for your thoughtful response. As I have said, I’m not opposed to travel teams – in fact, my son – who by the way played on travel teams in both ice hockey and baseball for years — would tell you that, for the most part, he fully enjoyed his travel team experiences. That’s despite his having to play for a variety of hockey coaches (yes, all USA Hockey approved) who didn’t always get their priorities correct regarding playing time for the kids, forcing my son to choose between playing on his HS varsity team and his hockey travel team, and so on. No, I’m not opposed to travel teams – my argument is that there needs to be a better way to insure that travel team coaches are well-schooled in how to work with, motivate, and understand the mindset of young athletes. That’s what I’d like to see. Coach Wolff

      • Bob

        No doubt that there are some valid points in here, but travel sports is a choice. It has gotten a little out of control, but a parent does not have to put their child into that type of environment if they don’t want to and there are plenty of house programs available in all sports at all levels. So is it a “travel sports” problem or more of a “parent” problem?

        A couple things I disagree with….

        1)Relying on travel teams to produce premier athletes….this is no different than other parts of society. There are high level schools and all types of programs at all ages for gifted kids aren’t there? If there is a talented athlete, then why not let them practice against the best and play against the best to constantly be challenged so they can develop to the highest potential. Is a kid that can outplay everyone on the ice/court/field best served by not being challenged in practice or games? If the kid loves the sport and is talented enough to make a travel team, then I say let them be challenged.

        2) “Ever see a 10-year-old kid not make the cut for a travel team? The trauma is palpable, and clearly they don’t want to try out again the following year. End of athletic career. A wash-out at age 10. Is that the right message to send a kid who’s still a few years from adolescence?” – I’ve been there and it’s certainly not a great experience, but this type of situation is a teaching opportunity for parents. You could allow them to just take their ball and go home or you could teach them that not everything in life is handed to you on a silver platter and if you really want something, you have to work for it. So if you want to make that travel team or get into that high level school, put some more work into it and try again. But I guarantee you, the kids that learn that lesson sooner than later will go on to do great things in life. The kids who’s parents let them take their ball and go home will go on in life to think they are entitled and won’t realize where hard work can get them. If an athlete just can’t get to a travel level for whatever reason, but still love the sport, then let them play in a house/town program. There is nothing wrong with that and again, this is a teaching opportunity.

        I do agree that travel sports has gotten a bit crazy, but I just don’t agree with “protecting our kids” in the way you referenced it. Life is tough sometimes and if our kids can figure out how to get over disappointments in life, overcome them via hard work, then they will be better served in the long run.

        As Joe P. states, there are a ton of positives that come out of travel sports. I am a hockey dad on a AAA team and many people say I’m crazy for travelling all over the place for hockey. If spending a ton of time with my kid, traveling with him to all kinds of cities across the US and Canada and building an incredible relationship is crazy….then I am down right certified and I love every second of it.

  • Steve

    Do 8 year olds really need to travel…I have spent nearly 20 years as a varsity coach and a Physical Education teacher watching parents fall in love with the idea of being able to tell everyone that their child plays travel this or that. I have watched adults compromise their integrity and manipulate everyone and anything they could to win some made up championship, win a big plastic trophy and wear a satin jacket around town. Remember when kids “played” ? Remember when kids left the house and stayed active all day, created their own activities and solved their own problems without an adult telling them how?
    Let’s be honest, this is more about the hopes and dreams of the adults then it is about “the kids”. This nonsense about playing at the highest ability is just that. How can you possibly know what an 8,9,10 year olds highest ability is? I have seen more travel team allstars struggle at the varsity level than I care to count and conversely the “lower ability kids” kept developing at a steady pace instead of just being the “stud” 9 year old.
    Another point I would like to make is the amount of money all these “just for the kids” people are making. They are exploiting kids and ignorant adults alike to fill their pockets. I have seen families pour money into this “industry” because they feel their kids will develop better and faster then someone else. Also, the old scholarship chase is added to the mix as a reason to travel…do some research, it’s highly unlikely you will get a return on your investment. You want your kids to get a scholarship? Here is an idea…STUDY, dump your hitting coach and get a tutor.
    It is an absolute shame what adults have turned this into…have my 7 and 9 year old stayed in more hotels than me in my lifetime? Yes, but we have seen a lot more than baseball fields and hockey rinks…things like museums, broadway shows,etc…I love athletics, I had a successful playing career and love coaching, but I really do not like the whole travel phenomenon.

    Good Luck to all!

    • Bob James

      Steve, spot on.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1122144518 Jose Martinez

    Travel baseball at the High School level is an animal of a different breed. On LI, where travel bb is an obsession, being on the right travel team is more important than being on the HS team.
    The problem is these teams cost in excess of $2500 and no parent wants to pay that and then see there kid ride the bench. The other HUGE problem is MANY coaches enroll a team in a tournament then bring ringers to play in the games. I have seen that situation turn very, very ugly.