Are Travel Teams Essential?

Question: Should my nine-year-old play on an elite team? Many of her friends are doing this, but I worry that it will be too much stress and infringe too much on our family time.

Discussion: Travel teams were designed for high-school-age youths who are ready to specialize in a particular sport and can make complex judgment calls. Our perspective, based on long experience, tells us that children under the age of fourteen should not be subjected to the intensity of travel team competition. They are not ready physically, as has become clear by the rash of wear-and-tear injuries doctors have recently diagnosed in nine and ten-year-olds (injuries typically incurred formerly by adult athletes).

They aren’t ready emotionally, either. The stress of high-level competition can be detrimental to their young, forming minds. It can prompt indiscriminate risk-taking and aggressive behavior or result in low self-esteem. We have to remind ourselves that little kids are sensitive. They take failure very personally. As sports psychologist Richard Ginsburg, author of Whose Game Is It, Anyway?, points out, “a child [at Little League age] cannot differentiate their performance with who they are as a person.” Coaches and teachers should encourage and praise effort rather than winning. The pressure to perform stresses kids out, and when playing is no longer fun, kids quit.

Research has shown that young children who specialize in formal sports early are likely to burn out by their early teens. As Tom Farrey points out in Game On, the United States has three times as many registered youth soccer players (3.9 million) as Brazil or France. Studies show that participation levels peak at age nine, however, when most Brazilian kids are just starting organized soccer. As they get older, US kids quit in droves.

Parents who buy into the travel team craze are often looking to give their kids a competitive edge, but joining early by no means guarantees skill development. In fact, it can actually stifle or retard a young athlete’s development rather than give him a leg up on the competition. As an athletic trainer who specializes in skill development, Scott notes that most of his clients are the parents of kids who play on travel teams. The reason they pay him and other skills coaches large sums of money to train their kids is because they have realized travel team coaches seldom have the time or make the effort to focus on athletic development or skill training. The kids are often not getting the proper attention and training. Travel team coaches have a greater tendency to be focused on winning games rather than developing players, so parents who sign their kids up with travel teams to give them that “edge” are then compelled to dish out even more money and devote more time to getting their kids trained by one-on-one specialists.

Solution: The good news is that there are alternatives to travel teams and specialists. We are talking about an age group that should be having fun and developing athletic skills during free play with their friends. How do you do that? You can simply take them to the park and let them be. Kids are creative. They will figure it out, whether it’s a pickup game, tag, or capture the flag, or you can give them the materials to build an obstacle course or a bike ramp in your backyard. You can also “recruit” like-minded parents (see “A Story of Proactive Parents,” which follows), but we’ve found that they will gravitate toward you, because parents instinctively know what healthy free play is. It’s what we loved as kids—the freedom to express ourselves outdoors without adult interference. Our kids will love it too, if we give them the chance and the space.

A Story of Proactive Parents

Here’s a group of dads who fundamentally changed their sons’ football experience. After two seasons of travel tackle football, the dads noticed that their kids’ interest in the sport was fizzling. The boys all played on a regular basis and the team was competitive, so riding the bench and frequent losses were not at fault. What it came down to was this: Practices were held too frequently (four to five days a week), and they were boring. The coaches focused primarily on developing game strategy and were teaching way over the kids’ heads. Because the kids did not spend enough time learning fundamental skills, they were prone to injuries.

The dads revolted and created a mini program of their own. The game was seven-on-seven, one-hand touch football, played on a much smaller field. The team size and space limitations guaranteed that each kid got many more chances to throw, catch, and run with the ball than he would have had playing on a full squad. Practices were packed with fun drills and activities that kept the kids active and engaged at all times while developing their skills and athleticism. Teams practiced no more than twice a week and played each other on weekends. Occasional tournaments were arranged with neighboring communities.

The result: These children have become passionate about playing football again. Why not? They are having fun and learning skills that make them better players. Other kids in the community have joined in, including many who had never before considered playing football. The bottom line: Such alternative setups can work in any sport. From a child’s perspective, only three ingredients are required: all-inclusiveness, skill improvement, and fun. ♦

From Kim John Payne, Luis Fernando Llosa, & Scott Lancaster. Beyond Winnning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment (Lyons Press, Connecticut, 2013)