To travel or not to travel for youth sports?

     (<a href=Soccer player on bus photo via ShutterStock) " title="shutterstock_121422322" width="640" height="361"/>

    (Soccer player on bus photo via ShutterStock)

    To enter the world of travel youth sports or not? That was the question. And for 15 years, I had a simple answer: Heck no. 

    I have many friends with talented kids who have always done travel sports. I saw the sacrifices they made … missing birthday parties, dinner parties, religious activities, anniversaries and playdates. But the thought that most horrified me wasn’t missing out on an accomplishment or social event. It was downtime.

    You see, in my house, we run hard, we play hard, we work hard, but at our core, we are lazy. Put positively, it means we excel at doing nothing. And now that everyone has finally reached the age of reason, we can all chill pretty beautifully. 

    Travel sports

    Travel sports exist as the antithesis of chill. They eat up free time like tiny little Pacman dots, with afterschool practices, scrimmages, time trials, league games, and the grand-daddy of them all — travel weekends. Those are weekends spent traveling across district and often state lines to play against a team whose level of play you could have found much closer to home.

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    Travel sports is an entire industry, I have to wonder if travel agents weren’t in on the whole idea. Most of the time, for those out-of-area games, you need both hotel and restaurant accommodations for the weekend. And don’t think you can get away with just one night. 

    But travel is a higher level of play and a golden ticket to college scholarships, right? Umm, sure. Except the experts in many sports see higher levels of burnout and injuries and lower levels of passion in many kids who play nothing but a single sport from an early age. I know many kids who play travel sports. I know very few who received sports scholarships to college.

    Buckling under pressure

    Scholarships aside, all four of our kids are athletic but display varying interests in competition. My oldest was a natural at many sports, but recreation league competition seemed to suit him just fine. People encouraged travel tryouts, but I always ran quickly in the opposite direction any time someone mentioned it. With three more at home, I had zero interest in complicating our lives.

    Did it hurt him athletically? I’m not sure. But he plays sports on his high school teams, and most of the time, enjoys it. He’s been offered personal training in the last year and hasn’t been interested, so I think we read him well. 

    His little brother has a lot of energy and passion that needed to be channeled somewhere productive. He’s also super hungry to win. He’s the one who had me rethinking my “no travel” rule. 

    So he tried out for and made a travel team. There’s one extra practice a week, and away games are a maximum of one hour away. There’s one tournament at the end of the season that’s in-state, but still overnight. Neither the expenses nor the erosion of downtime seemed too drastic, so he’s enjoyed two seasons of that.

    The boys also have a six-feet tall 12-year-old sister. Guess how long it took the travel basketball team to call us back when we showed interest? Her school did not have a basketball team, and it seemed a waste to not use all of those extra inches, so we dove in.


    Real travel

    Her experience was very different than her little brother’s. This was real travel. We even have to cross state lines for tournaments. She committed to giving up at least two weekends a month plus practice time. It’s a serious loss of downtime for all of us. Figuring out all the logistics became a full time job for us. 

    She loved it. And she did learn a ton. Her coaches were committed and knowledgeable and her teammates had some moves for sure. The travel was great for bonding. I also realized that the league her team had played in prior to their travel season, where they competed against community league teams, seemed just as competitive as the teams many states away. They were just a 15-minute drive.

    So this year, we are seeing what she can learn from playing on her new school’s basketball team. I’m guessing that if she sticks with it, we may be facing the travel decision again in high school, but by then, she can travel more independently with her team and decide just how much time she wants to invest in basketball versus other interests.

    Interests like downtime.  

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