Travel Teams

TRAVEL TEAMS: Sports Parents Need to Have the Courage to Speak Up and to Ask the Tough Questions

I continue to receive lots of queries and questions regarding issues with travel teams, or as they’re sometimes called by different names, such as elite, premier, or just club teams.

But no matter what they are called, they all basically work from the same premise: that they offer a higher level of competition for your son or daughter, and in exchange for this opportunity, your youngster has to first try out. If he or she makes the team, then there’s usually a substantial fee to be on the squad.

These days, the vast majority of Moms and Dads understand how this system works, and at the local, grassroots level, when kids are as young as 6 or 7, the parents are often eager to have their little athlete try out and be selected for that local travel team.

Obviously, making a travel team is often viewed as being prestigious; indeed, it’s become something of a status  symbol in one’s community that my kid has been deemed or viewed as a talented athlete – someone who is well above the average.

And from the parent’s perspective, sure, the travel program — no matter what sport it may be – is going to cost a lot more than being on the local rec sports program. But for the parent who dreams about college scholarships for their kid, it’s certainly well worth it.

But it’s then usually two or three years later, when the travel program begins to ratchet up the intensity, that the sports parents begin to worry and quietly begin to wonder if this was the right move for their child.

That is, questions begin to rise regarding a child’s playing time…or playing a preferred position….or whether actual instruction of skills is the top priority – especially at the younger ages – or is the travel team coach all about winning all the time? After all, by this point, the parents now realize that with practices being held three a times a week, and usually two games on the weekend, this is becoming something of a part-time job.

And invariably, there are also questions about a kid’s commitment to the program. Specifically, what’s the team’s policy about missing a practice or two? Or about even missing a game? If the travel team goes from Labor Day to Easter, this is getting to be serious in terms of time and money.

By the way, as noted, it makes no difference what the sport is…soccer, baseball, softball, basketball, ice hockey, lax, you name it…if it’s a travel program, then you first need to understand the basics of how these programs function and operate.

Because so many parents tend to be naïve about these matters, especially if it’s their first time through the process as a sports parent, let me start with the basics.

A QUICK PRIMER

In short….a rec program – short for recreation – is usually run by one’s local town or community or neighborhood. All kids are allowed and invited to participate, regardless of their level of talent or ability or commitment. These rec programs may carry a small fee to register, or in some cases, they are free. Regardless, there’s usually a program person who oversees the workouts and games. There is usually some instruction on the skills needed to play the sport.

But overall, rec programs are low key. Generally, there’s no travel involved, but if there is, it’s a very short ride to a neighboring town or two. All kids get lots of playing time, and in many ways, rec programs are close to what old neighborhood pick-up games used to be; that is, neighborhood kids playing sports with their friends in a low-key environment.

The next step after rec programs are organized teams. Now, these are often run by nationally-known youth programs, like AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) or Little League baseball. And at the youth levels, these teams are open to anyone who signs up and pays a fee. All kids who sign up make a team, get a uniform, and there are usually some rules on minimum playing time.

Bear in mind that, with programs like LL Baseball, at the end of the regular season, the league coaches will get together and will select an All-Star team. And that All-Star team of the best players will form the squad that will go on and compete in the LL playoffs in order to get to Williamsport.

In other words, by the time your child is 9 or 10 or 11, if he or she wants to compete at a higher level – meaning on a travel team….this is where the stakes start to get higher….and where parents start to wonder whether this makes sense, and whether their faith in the coaches and travel program is warranted.

UNLIKE MIDDLE SCHOOL TEAMS OR HIGH SCHOOL PROGRAMS — where the coaches work for the school district and not for themselves —  and there’s no fee to try out for a school team, or to be on the team…TRAVEL TEAMS are totally independent and have nothing to do with SCHOOL DISTRICTS. They are run strictly for profit as money-making ventures for the organizers and the coaches. They can set and charge any fee they want. They do not report to any state or federal body. In short, they can do pretty much whatever they want. And that’s where unexpected issues can pop up which affect your child.

For example, if the Dad who runs a travel program decides that he wants to have his son on the team, as well as some of his son’s friends team on the team, they can certainly do that – and they don’t have to tell you why. That happens a lot with travel programs, and the other parents are not often informed.

Because of these kinds of unexpected developments, parents need to have the courage to ask tough questions before you pay your money.Why? Because if things go sideways during the season, and unfortunately, they can, you need to know there’s not much you can do in terms of making an appeal. It’s really a situation of caveat emptor.

WHAT I LEARNED AS A SPORTS PARENT

As most of you know, I’m a sports parent, and over the years, I learned many of these lessons about travel teams the hard way myself:

—-I can recall my youngest daughter going through AAU tryouts for basketball with dozens of other girls, and my having the very distinct sense that the coaches had already pre-selected the team, and were now just looking to see if there were anybody else they may have missed. In other words, all the kids who were trying out and paid their money and were hopeful to make the team. But the team was already pretty much selected ahead of time.

— I can recall my son being told by a veteran hockey coach that he couldn’t play on both a travel hockey team and his HS hockey team at the same time because that was against NYS rules. My son was devastated. But a couple years later, I found out that there is no such rule in NYS because NYS schools don’t have any jurisdiction over travel hockey.

— I can recall another travel soccer program for one of my daughters where she was thrilled to make the team, but then disheartened to discover there were a total of 24 girls on the squad, which meant that playing time was going to be an issue. And the coach – who was such a wonderful and easy going guy during tryouts – turned out to be an intimidating yeller and screamer at the girls during the games. Not good.

You get the idea…

 

These are essential questions that all parents of travel team kids need to know…and this includes ALL travel programs….including AAU baseball and basketball, USA ice hockey, AYSO soccer, US Soccer Academy, Cal Ripken Baseball, LL Baseball and quite frankly, any kind of travel program where your child has to try out and if he or she makes the team, you have to pay a fee to be on the team.

By the way, when your kid makes a travel team and you note on the schedule that there are games several hours away by car which involves a lot of overnight stays, meals, and gas, understand that the travel team DOES NOT pick up those extra costs….you do!

Now, I just want to make this clear: I AM NOT trying to put down ALL travel teams programs. The truth is, there are many travel programs where the coaches are all about the kids, offer great instruction, and are very understanding of the parents’ concerns.

But unfortunately, there are lots of others which are all about simply winning AND making money.

In sum, some of the basic issues you as a parent need to be aware of include, and need to check on ahead of time:

PLAYING TIME….if my kid makes the travel team, how much actual playing time will he or she get?

WHAT IS THE TEAM’S TOP PRIORITY….are the coaches all about winning every game? Or is there a sense that real instruction and even having fun is in the mix? Too many coaches will tell you that the instruction is only done at practice…and that kids only have fun when the team wins.

WHAT ABOUT MISSING AN OCCASIONAL PRACTICE OR A GAME? This will probably fall on deaf ears. Travel coaches don’t want to hear about your kid needing to miss a practice because he’s got a big math test the next day. Nor do they care that there’s a cousin in your family getting married on the weekend, and your kid needs to miss a game.

When travel coaches start hearing stuff like this, they will tell you that the consequence is that if your kid misses practices or games, that will probably have a real impact on their playing time. Why? Because all the other kids on the team are not missing practices or games, and thus should garner more playing time.

WHAT IS THE COACH LIKE DURING GAMES? In short, is he a firebrand? A yeller and screamer? Better find out because of kids hate playing for coaches who breathe fire during the games.

IS THE COACH ACCESSIBLE? Meaning is he or she available to be contacted during the week in case there’s an issue or concern? Sounds obvious….but you need to find out.

Again, much of this advice is for those sports parents who have never encountered travel teams before. But even if you’re a veteran of these wars, always keep in mind that, at the end of the day, it’s the parents who are paying for these travel programs.