Archive for the ‘Travel Teams’ Category

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.

An Interview with Sue Bird, All-American at UConn and WNBA Superstar

I had the opportunity to interview Sue on my show this AM, and I jumped at it. Lots of questions for her, but most of all, how and why is Geno Auriemma, the long-time head coach at UConn women’s basketball, so successful year after year. As you may know, UConn just won its 11 NCAA championship, which is a national record in any sport.

Sue starred for UConn as a 5-9 point guard, graduating in 2002 on an undefeated UConn team. Voted Naismith Player of the Year, and was selected number one overall by the Seattle Storm in the WNBA.

But growing up in Syosset, Long Island, she recalled that she played a variety of sports, including soccer, right through middle school and into HS. It wasn’t until she was entering her junior year and transferred to Christ the King HS that she focused solely on basketball. That was when she was about 16 and began to realize that college basketball scholarships for her were becoming a real possibility.

CAUTIOUS ABOUT WHEN TO SPECIALIZE

“Growing up, I would have never played basketball all year round as a kid,” Sue said, “I mean, just playing one sport all year round would have been boring. I enjoyed playing other sports, and besides, with soccer, I’m quite sure the footwork and quickness I learned from that sport helped me with my basketball progress.”

Sue was prompted to say this because one caller said he had a daughter who was 6-1 in middle school, and as a very good basketball player, she was being pressured by travel teams and even HS coaches to forego all other sports and just focus on hoops. We advised the father to be very careful about these outside pressures, that focusing on one sport all year round can definitely lead to burn out and repetitive use injuries.

Sue did mention that she started to receive form letters from college programs when she was in 8th and 9th grade, but it wasn’t until she was well along into HS that the college coaches really came after her.

THE COACHING GENIUS OF GENO AURIEMMA

She liked Geno right from the start because “he was honest and upfront. Coach Auriemma made it clear that if you came to his school, you would work hard and maybe have a chance to win a championship. But there were no promises about playing time, and no other fluff.”

When she decided to enroll at UConn, Geno showed his rare talent to reach each woman on their individual level. “I’m the kind of athlete where if you yell at me, I will respond to the challenge and step up my game. And Coach Auriemma knew that, said Sue. “But with other players on the team, he knew that if he yelled at them, they would become de-motivated and not play well. Coach had an amazing ability to know how to reach every player in just the right way.”

As to how UConn’s Auriemma prepared them for each game: “He would tell us that you have to prepare for the next game in the same way you would prepare for a big test in school. That is, you need to study hard and then study some more. That way, when you walked into the exam, psychologically you knew you were ready. Same with preparing for basketball games. But if you slacked off during the week and tried to cram the night before the test, you would go into the text being nervous and tentative. Again, same with basketball. You can’t do that and expect to win.”

Excellent advice for coaches who want to learn from Geno Auriemma’s example. And clearly those lessons have stayed with Sue for her entire collegiate and professional career.

 

TRAVEL TEAMS: More Questions Regarding Travel Team Choices

Because there continued to be such an outpouring of emails this past week to my show on the pros and cons of travel teams, I decided to do another show today on the same subject. And not surprisingly, this second show elicited another wave of strong calls.

I basically asked the same two questions as I did last Sunday AM:

As a sports parent or as a coach, has your experience with travel teams being a mostly positive one? Or has it been a negative one?

And on top of that, has the time come to place travel programs under the jurisdiction of either state or federal oversight?

The calls today were from a variety of parents and coaches, and from different sports:

> One father called to complain that he didn’t understand how a travel baseball program in his town had three different levels for kids in the same age bracket. Not only did this dad come away assuming that only the top tier team enjoyed the benefits of having the better players, but the dad began to become suspicious when his son (who was not on the top team) was told he made one of the lower travel teams, even though his try out didn’t involve any batting practice. The dad found that curious since his son was a position player. “I mean,” said the father, “how can they evaluate him if they (the travel coaches) don’t even see him take batting practice?”

This kind of thing, unfortunately, happens a lot, and gives real credibility to the worry that travel teams are more about making money than really offering really evaluations by coaches who know what they’re doing.

> Another dad – a softball parent – complained that his daughter played travel softball all summer, and that not only was it very expensive, but sometimes they would enter a weekend tournament on the road and the competition they faced was so weak that he didn’t think his daughter got anything out of the experience. “There was no quality control as to what kinds of teams they were playing. It would be a waste of a weekend.”

He also pointed out that since softball is a non-revenue sport in college, that parents should realize that softball players often receive very little financial aid in terms of athletic scholarships.

> That call was followed by a HS lax coach who said the same thing. Since lax is still not a major revenue producer at most D-1 programs, this coach pointed out that one of his top players received a partial athletic scholarship for lax – specifically, it was $1000 a year, just enough to cover the cost of the boy’s books. Sad to say, when a college coach has to slice and dice scholarship money, this kind of thing happens all the time.

In other words, in terms of getting a full athletic scholarship at the D-1 level, the only two sports that offer that kind of luxury are football and basketball.

JUST HOW DOMINANT IS YOUR KID?

Finally, the question that is always asked is whether a young athlete should bypass HS sports and just concentrate on playing one sport all-year round. This is still a very, very difficult question to answer.  My response is this: if your child is clearly dominant in his or her sport in HS – I mean dominant like LeBron James, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Breanna Stewart, or Sue Bird, all of whom were dominant when they were in HS — then an elite travel program is probably the very best move for that youngster.

But if your kid is very, very good in HS, but not a dominant star, then you might want to resist placing them in a year-round travel. Will they improve their game playing year-round? Yes, they will. But they will also improve their game AND probably have a lot more fun and develop life-long memories playing with their buddies on their local HS varsity team. AND if they can attend some showcases or even visit a summer camp at a college where they are interested in attending, those are other solid ways to gain some exposure to college coaches.  Parents and athletes often overlook that, or aren’t even aware of it, as many travel programs don’t even mention those.

What’s the bottom line? As a parent, you must remain diligent and ask the right and tough questions about travel programs. It’s still caveat emptor.

As one caller said today, his kid tried out, made a travel team, and they paid their fees. But after a few weeks, they realized he team wasn’t going to be a good fit for their child. When the parent asked for some sort of partial refund, the travel team said sorry and refused to pay.

The parent wanted to know who he could report this to. Sadly, the answer is no one.

 

TRAVEL TEAMS: Are You and Your Kids Pleased with Them?

I asked a basic question on my show this AM, and the response was amazing.

As a sports parent or as a coach, are you pleased with how travel teams have evolved in your community?

I presented this question because after presenting at the annual convention of New Jersey HS Athletic Directors this past week in Atlantic City, NJ, this was an issue that kept coming up. HS AD’s, of course, deal with this issue all the time, as it’s becoming increasingly difficult for top-end athletes to decide whether to remain with their HS varsity program…or to go off and play for an elite travel program, which usually forces the youngster to bypass their HS varsity teams and to play exclusively all year-round for the travel team.

In some sports, it’s become more and more common for top players to simply transfer out of their hometown HS and ship off to a prep school for their junior or senior year in school. Prep schools like to say they offer better overall academic training for the student, but for the most part, it’s more about allowing the kid to play at a higher competitive athletic level than their local HS or even local travel program.

But as was evidenced by the outpouring of calls this morning, it would seem that a LOT of sports parents and coaches are increasingly concerned about the growing influence and impact of travel programs. The comments ranged from:

>Parents need to do their homework and ask questions FIRST before allowing their kids to try out and play on a travel team. Why? Because travel programs are not regulated or overseen in any way by any kind of independent third party.

>Too many travel coaches attempt to lure kids into their programs with the promise of a heightened platform to college coaches. That may – or may not – be true. Parents and kids: caveat emptor.

> Too many travel coaches may not be as qualified as their slick brochures or websites might promise. Just because one might have been a top player in their prime doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they will be a top coach with kids as well.

> It’s difficult to protest to a travel team coach if your son or daughter is not having a positive experience with the team. Why? Because if you complain to the coach, don’t be surprised if they simply suggest your youngster just leave the squad. And no refund of fees.

In truth, there were too many calls to handle this AM. This is one of those days when I wish I had 2-3 hours to cover these topics.

The overall point I tried to make was :

Should travel programs be overseen and regulated by some sort of state or federal agency?

Too many unsuspecting parents automatically assume that every travel program is put together for the sole benefit of the kids. While that may be true in some part, parents and kids have to know that travel programs are for-profit operations. Even the big, big well-known travel programs are still a business – and they report to no one.

Bear in mind that lots of big elite or club programs say they have built-in their own rules and regulations on who they hire, their coaching philosophy, and so on. But that only means that their so-called guidelines are watched over by themselves – not by an outside third party.

I continue to strongly advocate that the President’s Council on Physical Fitness would be the perfect vehicle to start to oversee the travel team and showcase industry in this country. I just think real guidelines are now needed for this multi-million dollar industry which is part of every town in our country.

TRAVEL TEAMS: Why Cutting Kids at a Young Age is Counter-Productive

Travel teams, for better or for worse, are everywhere, and there’s no indication that they are going away soon.

And in truth, there are a number of travel programs that are run well and definitely benefit the kids on their team.

But there are just as many, if not more, which are run by people who are not especially well-qualified to work with or to coach young kids. Even worse, these travel coaches often set up teams in which kids as young as 8, 9, and 10 try out, and don’t make the team.

What’s backward and wrong about this is that: a) it’s impossible for any coach, especially an inexperienced travel coach, to determine which kids at age 10 have more potential than the other 10-year-olds, and b) nobody can predict how much a 10-year-old is going to grow and improve during their teenage years.

There is one reality, though, which is universal. When a kid is cut at age 10, it’s very, very rare for that youngster to stay with that sport. Invariably, while they may not understand why they were deemed not good enough, they do comprehend that some of their friends have “progressed” to the travel team, and they are being left behind. That’s devastating for a kid.

HOW DO WE KEEP ALL KIDS PLAYING?

Bob Bigelow, who is based in the Boston area, and has been a youth sports advocate and a champion for reform for many years, was my guest on my WFAN show this AM, and Bob echoed all of these sentiments.

“How can any coach determine who are the better players at such a young age,” asked Bob. “But the even worse part of that is that by cutting kids at a tender age, you are doing real damage to your local high school program. That’s because once kids are let go, they just don’t come back to that sport. That ruins your high school varsity and junior varsity because there are fewer kids competing.”

This harsh reality led to a discussion of why cut kids at all — even from travel teams?

One caller from NJ said that they had found a way around this issue. In his town, they have travel teams for baseball players from age 6 to 16. They had teams at various age levels, and had A, B, and C teams.

But the key to the program’s success is that no one gets cut. Everybody makes a team. And each spring, they are allowed to try out for any level. That is, a kid who was on the B team last spring can try out for the A team next spring. And the caller confirmed that kids routinely go from the B to the A team.

The reason? “Because kids change as they get into their teenage years,” said the caller. “And as the kids get a bit older, they improve with their game.”

As Bigelow and I agreed: “Well, if the kids had been cut at age 10, they sure wouldn’t be playing at age 12 or 14.”

And that’s the point.

BE SURE TO ASK QUESTIONS

Look, travel teams are not going away. But there’s no reason why your local travel programs can’t include various levels of teams, so long as the kids can try out for a new level each year. That’s important. If they are assigned permanently to one level, that’s discouraging, and kids will quit.

One more important point, especially for first-time sports parents. You absolutely owe it to your kids to ask the tough questions of travel team coaches BEFORE the tryouts: Do the kids get equal playing time? Will my son or daughter be allowed to play their favorite position? What happens if we have family commitments and have to miss some games? How much does the program cost? Is the head coach calm with kids, or a yeller and screamer? Who makes the decision on which kids make the team?

Tough questions, to be sure. But better to ask these up front rather than be caught off-guard a few weeks into the season.

 

 

TRAVEL TEAMS: Does the IMG Academy Represent the Next Step in HS Travel Football?

Two weeks ago, in the NY Times, sportswriter Jere Longman looked at the IMG Academy HS football program in depth. Started just a couple of years ago, the IMG administration is very upfront about their approach: in short, they are recruiting nationally (except Florida) for the very best HS football players in the country.

And so far, they have succeeded. Their starting QB, Shea Patterson, is considered the nation’s top HS prospect. He’s already won two state championships in Louisiana, and so he figured that he could prepare himself for D-1 football by attending IMG. He plans on graduating this winter, and then enrolling at Ole Miss so he can hit the ground running next fall as a true freshman trying to compete for a starting job.

According to Longman, IMG has about 20 plus top D-1 prospects on its  football team this year, so Patterson is not alone in his pursuit of big-time college, and ultimately, professional dreams.

IMG’s facilities, based in Bradenton, FL, is state-of-the-art, complete with a 5,000 seat stadium. Top-level coaches, trainers, and of course, dorms for the students. In a way, this HS is run more like a rigorous college environment: students go to class in the AM, and then four hours of practice and conditioning in the afternoon.

Of course, all of this comes with a price tag — just under $71,000 a year. That’s more expensive than the vast majority of college in this country. Yes, there are financial packages available, but $71,000 is a fairly hefty sum of money.

The IMG Academy, which started out in the 1970s as a training facility for tennis players, has now grown into offering more sports, such as basketball, baseball, soccer, and so on. And they claim that their graduates do indeed go on to play in top college programs all over the country.

The only real drawback so far is finding other teams to play. IMG was allowed to join the Florida HS Athletic Association, but had to promise that they wouldn’t recruit Florida players. IMG is okay with that, but finding opponents is hard. Most public HS teams won’t play them. Some of the better known parochial teams, such as Bergen Catholic, St. Joe’s, and Paramus Catholic, all based in NJ, will play them, but of course, that means a lot of travel time, expenses, and of course, a good chance your team will lose. For example, Bergen Catholic and St. Joe’s have both lost to IMG this season.

IS IMG RIGHT FOR YOUR SON?

That, of course, is the ultimate question. I interviewed Lou Marinelli, the long-time and highly successful head football coach at New Canaan HS in CT, and Lou feels that if your son is good enough, then the college scouts will find him. That is, there’s no need to attend a private HS like IMG to raise your profile.Besides, Lou points out that when you play for an academy team like IMG, you lose out on the fun of playing with your friends and buddies from your community. There’s something to be said about enjoying the local HS experience.

Marinelli, who has won 10 state championships at New Canaan, says that college coaches are well versed these days to find potential prospects. Thanks to the internet and online video, the recruiting job has become that much easier when spotting players.

All this being said, there is no doubt some HS kids who would benefit from the national exposure and coaching at the IMG Academy. But the general consensus seems to be that this kind of elite travel football program is still a work in progress, an experiment that still is playing out. There is the price tag, of course. And finding worthy opponents will continue to be a challenge.

So far this year, the IMG Academy Ascenders – yep, that’s their nickname, is 4-1. Chances are that they will complete the season with no more losses. But the question remains – what happens to them next fall? Will there still be more HS teams who will want to play them?

 

TRAVEL TEAMS: Why Doesn’t US Soccer Academy Give HS Players and Coaches a Break?

I have explored this issue of US Soccer Academy siphoning off talented HS soccer players over the last few years, but despite the pleas from HS coaches from all over the country, they still don’t seem to get it.

On this AM’s show, I interviewed Dan Woog, who is the highly accomplished boys soccer coach at Staples HS, in Westport, CT.

Like Matt Allen, the boys soccer coach at Byram Hill HS in Armonk, NY, each year Woog loses a few more top players to the local US Soccer Academy. It’s frustrating, upsetting, and according to Woog, kids who are seduced by the lure of  US Soccer Academy don’t often realize the scope of the sacrifice they’re making.

Woog explains: “For a youngster to give up the life-time memories of playing for their HS team, along with their friends and HS teammates, playing for US Soccer is an awful lot to give up. We take a holistic approach here at Staples; that is, we offer the soccer player not only a chance to enjoy representing their school in competition as kids play to win a league championship or more, but also the school offers, of course, guidance counselors, athletic coaches, and administrators who can help prepare them for life after college. Plus just the fun of being with one’s lifelong buddies. Kids on the Academy team rarely develop those kinds of bonds.

“I always hear about kids who leave for US Soccer but then find out that there’s no much support from them in terms of college exposure and reaching out to college coaches. That’s a real concern,” says Woog.

Indeed. Several callers on the show echoed the same sentiments and worries about US Soccer – that when it came time to apply to college, there wasn’t much outreach from US Soccer. Plus the reality is that kids who play in the Academy are not allowed to play on their HS team, and not on any other HS sports teams.

There’s also a sense that the Academy kids don’t really understand how long the odds are of their becoming a college scholarship player, or for that matter, of ever playing for the US Olympic team or turning pro.

And here’s the really frustrating part. It has seemed to me – and to many others  – that US Soccer needs to re-think its policy of forcing HS kids to choose either the Academy or their HS. What’s the big deal if a kid plays for 10 weeks with their HS program in the fall? As Coach Woog points out, most HS coaching staffs have excellent coaches. It’s just hard to believe that those two months are going to give opposing countries that much of an advantage when it comes to soccer.

Plus it’s just not very appealing to force HS kids as frosh or sophomores to make this kind of decision which will have a big impact on their lives. C’mon US Soccer Academy – it’s time to do the right thing and re-think this policy.

 

TRAVEL TEAMS: How USA Hockey Deals with Players Going from One Team to Another

In light of the lawsuit that was brought a few weeks ago by the 16-year-old volleyball player who sued her travel team in Virginia because they wouldn’t release her to play for another travel team, I was curious as to how other major travel team organizations handle these kinds of requests.

To that end, I spoke with Jayson Hron, who serves as the youth hockey communications manager for USA Hockey, which of course runs all sorts of travel teams. Traditionally, in my opinion, USA Hockey sets the gold standard when it comes to being proactive in youth sports.

Here’s Jayson’s recap of how USA Hockey deals with kids who want to leave one team for another. Feel free to share this with your son’s or daughter’s travel team board of directors:

Player development is Paramount

USA Hockey wants every player to have the optimal development opportunity. One major component of that is sufficient playing time for all. Children don’t improve by sitting on the bench, so naturally USA Hockey wants every child to be in a situation that provides sufficient playing time.

Rules and Contracts

Dec. 31 is the roster-freeze date for national-tournament bound teams in USA Hockey. This roster freeze exists to discourage mid-season attempts to aggregate players (recruit them from other teams) with the sole purpose of creating a “super team” for national tournament competition.

Sometimes, but not all the time, individual clubs could take this a step further with one-season “contracts,” but they don’t necessarily restrict player movement. Rather, they could require that the parent(s) pay all or some of the season’s fee in exchange for release of the player. This is done to protect the other players’ parents from unexpected cost hikes and chaos due to the in-season departure of a player from the roster.

At the conclusion of each season, every youth player is a free-agent.

 Due Diligence Matters

USA Hockey encourages parents to use due diligence when they explore playing options for their child. Ask questions and get all the details to ensure that the program they ultimately choose will be the right fit for their child. Look for teams that offer age-appropriate training and competition, trained and screened coaches, and a program philosophy based on long-term athlete development.

 

TRAVEL TEAMS: Volleyball Player Ends Up With Lost Season; Ends up Suing Travel Team

I received a number of emails this past week about a most unusual lawsuit regarding a 16-year-old volleyball player who is suing her travel team because they won’t let her play for another travel program.

This case is most troubling, and speaks to the power – and the common misunderstandings – regarding travel teams and the kinds of restrictions they can place on unsuspecting players.

Here’s what happened…..a 10th grader from Virginia, Audrey Dimitrew, tried out and made a local travel volleyball team back in November.  The coaches of the travel team apparently told the girl that she had the potential to play volleyball in college, and that she would get “significant” tournament game experience  — playing time — as one of the two setters on the team.

Encouraged by this, Audrey – who had also made several other travel teams – decided to join this particular travel program.

But as the season unfolded, Audrey found herself more and more on the bench. When she asked, the coaches told her that she was not as talented as they had first thought. Faced with this dilemma, Audrey asked if she could move to one of the other teams she had made. Her coaches said yes, and sure enough, Audrey did find another team that would take her.

Promises that didn’t come through

But then the travel league board of directors stepped in, and vetoed this move. They pointed out that their league rule book  said that a player could only transfer to another team if there’s a “verifiable hardship condition.” Based on that phrase, the league stopped Audrey from joining another team.

Their argument was that if they allowed Audrey to jump simply due to a lack of playing time, then that would open the door to lots and lots of other players who had issues with playing time, also wanting to jump teams. The league didn’t want that to happen. In short, Audrey was denied.

So, in sum, here’s a girl who was told that she had college potential and would definitely get a lot of playing time on this travel volleyball teams — only then to be told that she really wasn’t that good….and then, with her coach’s blessing, she finds another team to play for….except that her original travel team league blocks that move.

Audrey and her family brought a lawsuit against the Chesapeake Regional Volleyball Assn a few weeks ago, and this is not a frivolous lawsuit. Unfortunately, a circuit court judge ruled against Audrey, citing that the travel team she was playing for was a “private association,” meaning that it’s not bound by any state or federal laws, and that the league’s board can pretty much put its own rules into place.

Look out for the fine print!

WFAN legal analyst Steve Kallas explained all of this today on the radio show, and drew a comparison to Augusta National Golf Club, which is also a private association. Augusta, where the Masters is played each April, didn’t have to admit women or any minorities due to its private status. Thankfully, their board has changed their very restrictive rules but did so only recently.

In any event, as Steve suggested, this volleyball case was a lose-lose as the girl lost pretty much an entire year of her volleyball experience, and the travel league ended up looking pretty selfish and dumb in denying her a chance to transfer. All of this could have been avoided if the league had insisted that Audrey’s situation was rare and indeed a hardship situation. If they had done that, and allowed her to leave, then none of this would have happened.

What’s the lesson here?

It’s another caution to parents about travel teams. Do your homework – and be especially careful if the travel team makes your child sign something in writing. Check out the fine print in that contract, and if there’s a league handbook, make sure you get a copy of that and review it before signing on the dotted line.

TRAVEL TEAMS: Parents, Do Your Homework Upfront Regarding Playing Time

Full Disclosure About Travel Team Playing-Time Policies

By Doug Abrams

 This past summer I received a call from a friend whose 11-year-old son was playing on an expensive travel baseball team. For a few weeks, the coach had played the boy only about two innings a game, even in road games and distant weekend tournaments attended by the entire family. Shortly before another weekend tournament two states away, my friend decided that the family would not make the trip unless the boy was likely to receive a more reasonable amount of playing time.

My friend and his wife concluded that two innings a game was simply not worth the steep price in time, money and emotions. To participate in the upcoming tournament, the parents would have to uproot the siblings for a few days, drive a few hundred miles in each direction, and pay for the whole family’s meals and hotel bills. Add to these costs the embarrassment that their ballplayer was likely to feel because he was old enough to sense the sacrifices his parents were making to watch him warm the bench. Bench warming is unsettling for most youngsters under normal circumstances, but the embarrassment can cut even deeper in distant tournaments.

I urged my friend to talk first with his son, who might have wanted to continue as-is.  Then I suggested talking candidly with the coach, even though the optimal time for candor had already passed. I warned that this sort of conversation during the season can carry risks, but I suggested that my friend consider asking the coach to acknowledge a family decision not to attend for two innings a game.

My friend chose to talk with the coach, but I don’t think the conversation ended fruitfully. The coach evidently dropped hints that the family would not be invited back on the team next year, and added that he “talked regularly” with other local travel baseball coaches. The player was caught smack in the middle of mutual hard feelings.

Youth sports strains many family budgets these days. This column concerns basic pre-enrollment steps for families who are weighing pros and cons of joining a travel team that may be marked by noticeable imbalances in playing time. For parents and coaches alike, the key is early communication based on full disclosure. Because my friend and the coach waited too long to talk with one another, animosity likely displaced candor.

A Badge of Inferiority

First, here is full disclosure of my own. During more than 40 years coaching youth hockey as a head coach or goaltending coach at nearly every age level, I always felt most comfortable giving every player regular, sustained ice time in every game. On this blog in late 2011, I explained why I liken chronic bench warming to emotional child abuse. http://www.askcoachwolff.com/2011/07/21/how-pressure-to-win-can-tempt-youth-coaches-to-create-benchwarmers-and-how-coaches-can-resist-the-temptation/

As long as a player attended practices, followed directions, and gave an honest effort on my house league and travel hockey teams, the player saw game time that was as fair as the coaches could make it. I believe that below the high school varsity level, chronic bench warming is a badge of inferiority that denies children a meaningful chance to explore their love for the game, develop their skills, and be with their friends in a wholesome competitive atmosphere.

Sooner Rather Than Later

USA Hockey, among other national youth sports governing bodies, is right to urge “fair and equal opportunity for all to participate in our sport.” In a variety of sports, however, travel teams marked by substantial playing-time disparities do exist. Travel teams seem here to stay, and indeed seem likely to continue proliferating in the foreseeable future. I find this development destructive for many kids, but that conclusion provides grist for a later column.

The point here is that, given the present and likely future of travel teams, full disclosure becomes the order of the day. Parents typically pay the team’s bills, and parents are the ultimate guardians of their children’s sensibilities and upbringing. The coach must be candid about playing time policies, and so must the board of directors if the travel team is part of an association. For their part, parents need to ask the right questions and weigh the answers carefully before making a reasoned decision whether to enroll their player. The Q & A must come sooner rather than later – before mutual commitments are made. My friend and his son’s baseball coach waited too long.

Early Candor

Ideally coaches and associations should put playing-time policies in writing and make the policies available to parents before players enroll. If the team anticipates playing the most talented kids noticeably more than the others, families deserve to know that up front, before they commit their family’s time, energy, emotions and money. As my friend may have learned the hard way, lack of early communication among parents, coaches, and boards of directors can breed hard feelings later on.

Playing-time disputes during the season do not usually arise by spontaneous combustion; if playing time on a travel team will be noticeably unequal, these disputes are entirely predictable. Pre-enrollment disclosure is best because it comes before the player may face peer stigma from the family’s withdrawal from a commitment seemingly already made to the team. Even without withdrawal, absence of that early disclosure can saddle the coach unnecessarily with disgruntled parents whose attitudes might be different if their families had joined the team with their eyes open.

If the coaches do feel that they need more time to size up a particular player before making a commitment about playing time, they should tell the family up front (full disclosure again), and then should resolve the playing time issue as soon as possible in further conversation with the parents. The family should retain the opportunity to continue, or else to withdraw and receive a pro rata refund of their enrollment fees.

Early candor from the coach can go a long way. I have known parents who remained dissatisfied with playing-time disclosures, or have explored membership on other teams or in other programs. But I have also known parents who accepted less playing time now because their child was one of the younger players. One way or the other, coaches need to talk early with families because parents and players deserve fair notice, and they are not mind readers.