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The Socioeconomics of Travel Sports: Is it for the Kids or the Parents?

Travel sports are crushing the element of proper development for young athletes. And the really crazy part, many of the young athletes playing travel sports don’t care what team they play on – they just want to play.

The concept of travel sports is a socioeconomic status symbol for most parents and, for the ones that truly believe it’s the best thing for their kids, it’s often a delusion.

I’ve seen this also in rec baseball leagues where the focus is on how many games can we pack into a summer season.

As someone that’s coached more than 20 youth sports teams, there’s one clear point I can make –  development happens in practice. Games are different. Games showcase what has been learned and what needs to be taught. The coach has time in practice to instruct, develop, and build confidence in the players. It’s time spent for what all youth sports parents should be focused on – character and athletic development. If the focus is on the games, it’s a misguided effort, at best.

How much emphasis is placed on practice in a travel baseball season? How about the select softball team? Or the elite basketball team? How much development happens in a weekend-long tournament? What’s the cohesion like on the travel team that has a different lineup every weekend because the team changes so often?

Next, and this is by far my biggest problem with travel ball teams, is the focus on winning. Of course, we all want to win. But the focus of the team from the coaches – AND THE PARENTS – should have little to do with winning when we’re talking about 8, 9, or 10-year-old players. However, I’ve watched way too many U10 softball coaches in travel ball tournaments get all bent out of shape because their team is down by a run and his left fielder misplays a fly ball. Any team that has kids below the junior high level that shows a primary focus on winning and not on player development is misguided and is harmful to youth sports.

Now let’s talk about playing time. How are you sure your kid will get some legit playing time? What is the reaction of the parents when they shell out big bucks to get their kid on the travel team but he doesn’t play much during the weekend tournament (because the coach is focused on winning)? Interesting? The parent can still say, “My boy plays on a travel team.” That’s the social status statement. “Your kid only plays rec ball.”

The allure of playing on a travel team because the coaching is better is also misguided. Anyone can start a travel team. It takes no special education, no coaching certification, only money. How does that make the coaching better? Additionally, the competition is often better, however, as we’ve discussed, the playing time and development are not guaranteed. It’s a gamble.

What’s the correlation between travel sports and playing college or professional later? Nada. How about the correlation between youth travel ball and a college career. Nada.

Travel ball absolutely has its place. The high school baseball player that wants more work or more exposure in the summer – play travel. The high school basketball player that wants more work to get into a college program – play travel (AAU). Notice the trend – high school.

Ask the 9-year-old softball player or the 10-year-old basketball player this question, “Do you want to play basketball with your friends from school or would you rather play in travel basketball tournaments most weekends?” You don't even need to bring up the other conversations (the kid will have to be up really early on Saturdays, no friends get to hang out with you one the weekends during season, forget the pool or parties or sleeping in). Bet I know the answer.

So, is the choice for the kid to play travel ball the kid’s option, or is it a decision (status symbol) for the parents?

Here’s a great article that breaks down travel ball options from the Youth Baseball Edge.

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