The Pros and Cons of Travel Sports
Not all kids are meant to play in elite sports leagues. Are we making them hate the game?
Shona Colglazier’s son Graysen has adored soccer for as long as she can remember. “He eats, sleeps and breathes [the sport],” says the Arlington mom.
Graysen was 4 when he began playing organized soccer with the Arlington Soccer Association (ASA). But when he turned 8—the minimum age to play in ASA’s more competitive travel league—Colglazier and her husband began weighing their options carefully. Though a travel coach had encouraged them to send Graysen to tryouts, they ultimately decided against it. Travel soccer would have meant as many as three practices a week, plus out-of-town games and the occasional tournament on weekends, leaving less time for other sports and activities.
“I didn’t want Graysen to stop loving soccer, because that’s what I’ve heard happens as the kids get to higher levels,” Colglazier says. “Also, we weren’t comfortable with the time commitment and the financial requirement, especially because of his young age. We also have a 5-year-old. It was too much to ask of our whole family unit.”
As a compromise, Graysen tried out and earned a spot on ASA’s Arlington Developmental Program (ADP), a league that plays locally and occupies a middle tier between the rec and travel leagues. The lighter commitment has left more time for him to explore other sports, his mom says, including rugby.
WHEN IT COMES to organized sports, the Colglaziers aren’t the only parents who are hesitant to send their child to the next level. The quaint days when kids would meet up at a neighborhood baseball diamond or an open field for a casual game of pickup are over, supplanted by a whole new ballgame.
Today, parents spectate from sidelines, run concession stands, operate stopwatches, tote post-game snacks and drive long distances to and from tournaments, using online software tools like SignUpGenius to coordinate carpool schedules. They shell out thousands of dollars for team fees, uniforms, equipment and travel expenses.
Youth sports nationwide now represent a $7 billion industry, according to the Sports Facilities Advisory, a business consulting firm based in Clearwater, Florida, that serves as a resource for amateur sports complexes. And in many ways, parents are feeding the frenzy.
“It’s the way adults think about childhood today,” observes Heather Tedesco, a McLean-based psychologist and a mother of three kids who play sports. “More is better. If some soccer is good, more soccer is better. The thinking becomes, ‘If my child is good in house league then they should move forward to the next level and keep improving and doing more and more.’ ”
And in the greater Washington, D.C., area, there’s always an opportunity for more. Two-year-olds participate in Falls Church City’s (FCC) First Kicks Soccer Clinics, and 3-year-olds are eligible for ASA’s Mini Soccer program. By age 8, the most promising players can jump to travel soccer leagues such as those run by ASA, McLean Youth Soccer and Premier Athletics Club, a Northern Virginia league headed by former English Premier League player Sully Hamid.
At Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Ballston, kids can start house-league hockey at age 6 and can try out for the Capitals Academy Travel Team at 10. That’s also the age around which those with hoop dreams can begin vying for spots in elite basketball programs such as Arlington Travel Basketball (ATB), McLean Select Basketball or Bull Dawg Basketball.
Select teams can provide a welcome challenge for young athletes who have demonstrated exceptional skill, coordination and sports intelligence. (And the allure of taking it up a notch grows stronger as rec leagues begin to lose their best players to more competitive leagues—a phenomenon one local dad refers to as “skill drain.”)
But select teams also demand more in terms of time and money. This year, the total financial outlay for 12-year-olds playing Arlington Elite Volleyball was about $1,800. For 9-year-olds playing ASA travel soccer, it was close to $2,500 for two seasons (spring and fall). Away games eat up extra time on weekends, and families sometimes end up forgoing vacations when tournaments fall on holidays such as Memorial Day or Labor Day.
While some kids thrive in a more rigorous program that requires sacrifice on the part of both players and their parents, there are those who don’t. “The program may not be right for every child—even those who have some ability and love for the game,” says a sixth-grade father whose son played one year of ASA travel soccer before returning to rec league. “There is peer pressure to be seen as part of an elite program, when in fact the relentless demands of the program appear joyless at times.”
FEW WOULD ARGUE that sports participation is bad for kids in an age when electronics have made young people more sedentary and childhood obesity has become a national epidemic. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children partake in at least one hour of physical activity per day to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Moreover, the lessons kids learn on the field (court, rink, pool, gym) have plenty of benefits beyond fitness.
“I’ve seen a huge boost in the confidence of my girls,” says an Arlington father whose daughters play travel sports. “Not only do they work hard in games, they also seem better equipped to overcome challenges off the field. I like the girl power aspect of it.”
A recent survey of more than 400 women executives by the EY Women Athletes Business Network found that 94 percent had played competitive youth sports. Another 2014 study out of Cornell University (as reported in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies) found higher levels of career success and charitable work among adults who had played sports in high school. Sports teach teamwork, goal setting and how to cope with disappointment—all of which may be considered building blocks to a successful life.
“You’re never going to win at everything,” says Arlington Babe Ruth baseball coach Scott Nathanson, who’s been coaching for more than 20 years. “I try to equate baseball with joy and bring the life lessons that baseball teaches to the fore, rather than focusing on winning or losing.”
Of course that’s easier said than done in a culture that views wins and losses as a barometer of effective coaching. Parents think, “We’re winning, so we must be good, and therefore the coach must be good,” says Neal Bowes, director of performance at Simply Performance Group, a sports psychology and sports training consultancy based in McLean. (A former professional soccer player from England, Bowes has worked with athletes ranging from English Premier League players and professional golfers and tennis players to multiple Olympians.)
Problems can arise when youth teams are run with the competitive mentality of a professional sports franchise, says Bowes, who lives in Arlington. That’s when teachable moments tend to get lost. “I always laugh when a coach pulls a player out of a game [as punishment],” he says. “If you’re making a mistake, the only way you can correct it is by getting a chance to correct it. How else do you get better?”
Such scenarios are more common in select leagues, which, unlike rec leagues, are not required to grant players equal playing time. Not only do elite players face stiffer competition on the field; they are also jockeying against their teammates to get off the bench. That dynamic can sour some players’ enthusiasm for the game.
“A lot of times kids will start out loving a sport and enjoying playing it, but if it’s too competitive too soon and the pressure starts to mount, they struggle with anxiety,” cautions Tedesco, the McLean psychologist. “What used to be very enjoyable for them becomes stressful, less fun and more of a job.”
THAT ISN’T STOPPING throngs of local kids from vying for spots on select teams. Last fall, Arlington Travel Basketball could accept only 170 of the 350 kids across four age brackets (both girls and boys) who showed up for tryouts. Some 1,800 soccer players tried out for 1,012 available spots in Arlington Travel Soccer leagues this past spring.
For kids, there is a certain status associated with playing for an elite team. (One Arlington mom recalls the day a 12-year-old in her carpool wore his old travel soccer jersey, even though he was no longer playing for the team. “His friends who were still on the team told him rather bluntly that he shouldn’t wear the shirt again,” she says.)
But the hordes of kids who faithfully show up for tryouts aren’t just there to impress their friends. Parents say they worry that without travel team experience, their kids won’t have a shot at making their school teams. And that means getting them in the travel-team pipeline well before middle school.
Parental concerns aren’t necessarily alleviated once kids land on those coveted rosters, either. Though frustrations inevitably arise with certain coaching decisions or league policies, some parents say they are reluctant to speak up in a way that might jeopardize their child’s status—whether it’s simply explaining why their child has to miss a game or practice, or coming to the defense when a coach publicly berates a young player for missing a penalty kick or a free throw.
“Last week, I had a mother in tears [because] she had watched a coach basically belittle and embarrass her child for years,” Bowes says. The mom stopped short of intervening because her daughter had begged her not to, for fear of further embarrassment and reprisal.
In fact, many parents contacted for this story declined to speak candidly about their children’s team experiences, concerned that their comments could trigger some form of retribution.
“I would like to speak on the record, but tryouts are coming up,” one mother shrugged.
“I’m conflicted—my son is trying out again,” a father wrote via email.
Yet another mother half-jokingly asked what “protections” could be offered to parents who were willing to verbalize their complaints.
THERE ARE COACHES who take a hard line with their players, but not all coaches are tyrants. Chummy Gill says she has seen “too many sad eyes” in kids who’ve come to view sports as yet another source of angst. That’s partly what prompted her in 2005 to create Momentum3, a multidisciplinary sports program in Arlington that emphasizes sportsmanship and teamwork over winning.
“I’ve learned through my own mistakes and decided to be better, which means do better,” says Gill, a Wakefield High School basketball standout who played for and coached Guyana’s women’s national team for nearly a decade, and later coached girls’ varsity basketball at Yorktown High School. (Her sister Cindy Johnson, with whom she co-founded Momentum3, was a star basketball player at the University of Delaware and also played for Guyana.) “The most important thing is bringing kids’ confidence back, as well as their love of being active with friends,” Gill says.
Jill Weeter, an Arlington mom whose 12-year-old son plays for Momentum3’s only travel basketball team, remembers her first encounter with Gill. “I recall being so impressed by her coaching philosophy…and then completely scared to tell her that my son also played another competitive sport at the same time,” Weeter says. “[Gill’s] response was essentially, ‘He’s 10, right? Of course, he should play more than one sport.’ She won me over right then and there.”
Still, juggling multiple sports can be tough. Some families whose kids play in travel leagues say the demands of the team leave little time leftover for a second sport.
Physical literacy—defined as competence in multiple forms of physical activity—increases the likelihood that a person will remain active for life, she says, and decreases the risk of injury. It also eases the transition for kids who get tired of one sport and decide they’d like to try another.
But in today’s competitive landscape, kids are being pushed to “find their sport” earlier and earlier. Claire Bowes sees this as an outgrowth of a culture that reveres child prodigies like Tiger Woods, who made his golfing television debut just a few months shy of his third birthday, and Venus Williams, who took up tennis at age 3 and turned professional at 14.
Even in the professional sphere such athletes are anomalies, she says. More prevalent are the stars who dabbled in multiple sports, including NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who also played high school baseball; eight-time All-Star NBA player Steve Nash, who played soccer and ice hockey before taking up basketball; and tennis giants Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, both of whom excelled at soccer before switching to tennis.
In fact, many top athletes credit multiple sports as contributing to their overall game intelligence.
“Playing basketball had a significant impact on the way I play the game of soccer,” Abby Wambach, a star forward for the U.S. Women’s National Team, said in a recent story in USA Today. “I am a taller player in soccer, in basketball I was a power forward and I would go up and rebound the ball. So learning the timing of your jump, learning the trajectory of the ball coming off the rim, all those things play a massive role.”
The same story pointed out that Wambach and her fellow teammates—who recently brought home a third World Cup trophy, making them the winningest women’s soccer team in the world—collectively played at least 14 different sports growing up.
NATIONWIDE, some 20 million kids register for team sports every year, but 70 percent of those kids quit playing by age 13, according to the National Alliance for Sports, a youth sports advocacy group based in Florida.
Mental burnout is one factor. Alarmingly, so are chronic injuries. Which is partly why, in 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued this formal statement: “Those who participate in a variety of sports and specialize only after reaching the age of puberty tend to be more consistent performers, have fewer injuries, and adhere to sports play longer than those who specialize early.”
To reduce the risk of overuse injuries, the AAP recommends that kids between the ages of 6 and 18 take two or three months off from any given sport in the course of a year. It also suggests that young athletes play on only one team per season, with one or two days off per week.
Ronald Paik, an orthopedic surgeon at Arlington’s Nirschl Orthopaedic Center, says he sees his fair share of young patients with injuries stemming from overdoing it. But surgery isn’t necessarily the answer for youngsters whose skeletal systems are still growing. “Ideally, we try to avoid surgery on youth. Their injuries require rest more than surgery,” he says.
The “rest” part is a hard pill for some parents to swallow. Paik says he frequently ends up with parents pleading the case for their child to play in just one more showcase game or one more tournament before taking time off. “Once I lay out all the facts, [the parents] tend to back off a little,” he says.
That’s when he often catches a glimpse of relief on a young athlete’s face. “Oftentimes, they’ve been injured or have been having pain for a while and the parents keep pushing them, saying, ‘Hey, we want to get you out there’ because they’re getting more exposure and potentially scholarships.”
STATISTICALLY SPEAKING, the odds of playing college sports are actually pretty low. Of the nearly 8 million students who participate in high school athletics nationwide, only 5.7 percent (460,000) will go on to compete in college, according to a recent study conducted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
The chances of earning a sports scholarship are even slimmer. Only 18 percent of the total scholarship money awarded by public universities is set aside for sports, and only 1 percent of all high school athletes will earn a “full ride,” according to the NCAA study.
And the likelihood of going pro? The odds of a high-school male basketball player getting drafted by the NBA are one in 3,300, according to NCAA research. For girls who play basketball, the chances of making it to the WNBA are one in 4,000.
It’s normal for kids to dream of sports stardom, and our area has produced its fair share of great athletes. Among them: U.S. Rowing Team members and McLean High School graduates Giuseppe Lanzone and Sam Stitt; Olympic swimmer and Bishop O’Connell graduate Kate Ziegler; and Arlington tennis phenom Denis Kudla, who made it to the fourth round at Wimbledon in July. But the reality is that such athletes are rare, and the sacrifice that’s required to reach the upper echelons of a sport may not be healthy for everyone.
The emergence of options like ASA’s Arlington Developmental Program does suggest that local youth sports organizers are trying to find a happy middle ground for kids who aren’t skilled enough to make the travel roster, or who simply prefer an environment that’s less intense. “This league demands a little bit more commitment than the rec league,” says ADP Program Director Mike Woods, an Arlington dad whose four boys range in age from third- to 11th-grader.
Like travel soccer, ADP requires tryouts. But whereas ASA’s travel leagues are run by paid coaches and practice three times per week, ADP teams practice twice a week—with one practice conducted by a paid coach while the other is run by a parent volunteer. ADP also demands less of a time commitment on weekends, insofar as its teams compete locally and play only one game on Saturdays.
With the lighter schedule, Woods says, kids have time to pursue other interests and, with luck, avoid early burnout. “Personally, I think it’s a crime to tell an 11-year-old they have to pick one sport,” he says. “I just don’t think it’s necessary.”
Still, it’s not easy to earn a place on the roster. This spring, ADP saw 825 players vying for 360 available spots.
HOW TO BE GOOD SPORTS PARENTS
Parents mean well, but they aren’t always the best at controlling their emotions on the sidelines. Mark Boran, a referee for McLean Youth Soccer, says he often hears moms and dads barking instructions that “may or may not be counter to what the coach is trying to accomplish with the team. The conflict in a young mind then becomes, Do I listen to Dad, or the coach?”
Still, the car ride home after a game may be the time that young athletes dread the most, according to sports psychologist Neal Bowes at McLean-based Simply Performance Group (SPG). “Too often, children fear the ride home because they either sit in silence (knowing their parents are unhappy or disappointed in them) or they listen to a lengthy postmortem where their performance is dissected into everything they did wrong or could have done better,” Bowes wrote in a recent SPG newsletter. While parents may think their post-game analysis is helpful, it usually isn’t. Some tips:
• Start out by talking about what went well
• Talk about what was fun
• Talk about what they learned
• Talk about the amount of effort given
• Acknowledge improvements since the last game
• Discuss challenges and how to overcome them
• Discuss different ways of solving problems or challenges that arose
• Praise good sportsmanship
• Allow your child to talk first and have his or her own opinion
• Keep it short and conclude the conversation before you go into the house
• Launch into anything that feels like a post-mortem
• Conduct lengthy reviews
• Be overly critical; focusing on what went wrong rather than what went right
• Use phrases like, “You need to fix this” (they aren’t broken!)
• Focus too much on the result/score/times
• Become emotional (the exception being positive emotions, such as pride, satisfaction, accomplishment, happiness)
• Make your child feel guilty or embarrassed
• Sit in silence
Jenny Sokol is the mother of two Arlington athletes and a former Division I cross-country and track runner. At local sporting events, she can be found under a nearby tree, in search of sideline tranquility.