The Travel Elite Team Trap
Thinking critically about your child’s youth sport experience is essential for it to be positive.
Standards have changed in all that we do. How we consume information, do our banking, the way we work, educate our kids and expectations across just about everything in our lives.
The youth sport experience is no exception to this change.
Today’s experience is unrecognizable compared to the youth sport of yesteryear. At one time youth sport was for the many, required a commitment of 1-2 times per week for a few months of the year.
Different sports have different seasons. Practices were sprinkled in with games and they happened at the local gym, ballpark, arena, or field. The financial commitment was significant for the time with a few hundred dollars per season, but that is nowhere near what it is today.
Today’s youth sport experience is a year-round commitment, some as young at 8 years old and requires multiple out of region tournaments that costs thousands to parents. The participation rate is at an all time low, and the repercussions will be felt for generations.
Families are led to believe that for the experience to be as good as it can be, our young athlete must be on the local travel team, also known as the elite squad that plays too many games and travels too much. The age of specialization has overtaken the priority of participation.
Young athletes are being taught that winning and trophies are the most important thing and the most talented are grouped together for power teams to roam the country. This process not only excludes many but also teaches outcome over process and winning over development.
When I think back to how elite athletes were developed years ago, I remember that the very best emerged from hundreds of hours of playing in the local field, gym, arena, or ballpark. The skills were practiced with neighborhood kids during play time on the playground courts, frozen ponds, outdoor rinks, local ballparks, and fields. Multiple sports were practiced, not just one, and the athletes who progressed to the highest levels were always in these play areas.
Tryouts for the local travel team have been overtaken by parents purchasing their young athletes spot on the regional elite team. Years ago, if you did not make the team, you played in a lower league or house league then tried out the following year. Today, parents are led to believe that the only way to advance is through payment to the local AAA Hockey, or AAU, or elite baseball teams. Some fly kids to tournaments as young as 10 years old and the entire value system has been flipped upside down.
The end result?
The most determined, hardest working, talented athletes find a way to get to the next level. But they must have the means ($$). The kids who are not the most talented don’t have anywhere to learn and drop out.
Parents go into debt, thinking the thousands of dollars spend yearly will ensure the dream of playing varsity and going to college on a scholarship.
The priorities of years go of:
· Physical fitness.
· Social skills of playing with others.
· Dealing with the ups and downs of competition
· Working towards a goal.
Have been replaced by:
· Winning at all costs
· Paying to play on the local team of choice and a sense of entitlement on playing time.
· Expecting to win rather than understanding the process of working towards a goal.
· Minimal development of physical, social, and emotional skills.
· Lower participation rates.
· Ongoing health issues from never learning movement skills that can be practiced in later life.
Where is this headed?
Without drastic changes, the roads of conflicting agendas between the business of youth sport and participants are going to continue to collide.
There is a growing sentiment that strong guidelines need to be implemented ensuring the safety of our young athletes as a #1 priority.
While abuse is one level of harm occurring with our athletes, another level is hours children are being asked to practice and play weekly for the benefit of a business. Legislation is coming to include youth sport under the youth labor guidelines.
Safe sport training is one example for coach education as a countermeasure to the increasing health concerns, provided by the Coaches Association of Canada.
What can be done at a local level in mapping out a better experience?
Evaluation the priorities of participation.
The first step is mapping out the priorities of what is wanted from the experience. Understanding that unless our young athlete enjoys the dynamics of the activity, they will not play beyond 1 or 2 seasons and that makes everything else irrelevant. Having fun drives the experience and the benefits.
Exposure to multiple activities at a young age.
Community playgrounds and opportunities to play can easily come back with a little initiative. Parents taking an active role in playing with their kids is a massive first step. The competitions are a lot more fun if our kids have the physical skills to enjoy the dynamics of the games.
Play, play, play. An experience where your child will play is the best feeder to more play. Understand that playing one sport can help development in others.
How should parents navigate the pressure to join an elite team?
Elite teams and programs can have their place, but they must also have a feeder system that promotes those who can benefit from the higher competition level. If not, more play at a lower level is a better option.
If the goal is to play at elite levels, then finding a way to earn that path is a much more sustainable and realistic opportunity that purchasing the way. The business of youth sport will always try to pull any family with an interest of competition. That path is rooted in the business side and not in the development of our young athlete.
Ask yourself, can your son/daughter develop by playing with the local community team and additional development opportunities be added on the side? Development opportunities could include more time to play other sports and activities. In the teenage years development opportunities should include a strength and conditioning program that will teach the fundamentals and allow our athlete to progress.
The elite team pressure is real and costly. Developmental opportunities are not all created equal. The local organization you are considering for your son/daughter’s development should be vetted carefully.
The cost of the experience going bad is way more than just money. See below.