The youth sports world has changed dramatically since I grew up in the 1980s and ’90s. All the way through my senior year of high school, I played football, basketball and baseball. Once basketball season was over, you’d put your stuff away and — for the most part, with the exception of some summer leagues and camps and pick-up games — not worry about it again until the next season.
If you’re from that generation, or before, you can probably relate. Which makes it so fascinating to me now to see the huge boom in youth sports, from a parent’s perspective. Last week, I read IndyStar correspondent Holly Johnson’s article, “Why this Hamilton County family says no to travel sports” with interest.
I posted Holly’s article on Twitter and asked for feedback from readers. Many agreed with her points that “travel” sports are too much of a financial and time-consumption burden. A sampling:
“If a kid is good enough for a scholarship, they will get it through (high school) sports,” wrote Jon Green. “Invest AAU $ into a 529 plan instead.”
“Agree 100 percent travel ball leads to specialization and burnout,” wrote Dave Deitch.
“Outstanding article,” wrote Brian Rea. “Way too many kids losing their childhood playing travel sports.”
“We say amen!” wrote Alicia Yilmaz. “Definitely a personal decision family to family but think there will be a lot of kids stressed/burnt out by teenage years.”
“Travel baseball has hurt basic fundamentals,” wrote JSandor16. “It’s a money racket. Ban it until age 14. Play 100 games practice 8 (times).”
“My kids are 10 & 6,” Andrew Smith wrote. “They should be having fun & learning fundamentals. We don’t do travel sports.”
There were those on the other side, as well. Dan King of Greenwood has been a board member for his 12-year-old son’s recreational baseball league for several years. This is his son’s first year playing for a travel program out of Franklin.
King found Holly’s premise “too simplistic.” His son isn’t playing travel baseball to chase a scholarship, he said.
“Then why does our son play travel baseball?” King wrote. “While he did things like practice on his own, he was not learning how to be coached or pushed to get more out of himself by anyone outside of himself or parents because he was in most cases the least of the volunteer coaches’ worries. In just a few months he’s been in this new environment he’s really learning how to take criticism and use it to make himself better and not just coast on what comes naturally to him.”
I think it’s important to distinguish what exactly “travel” sports are. My sons, fourth and second grade, play what is probably considered a level between recreation basketball and baseball and full-fledged travel. We’ve probably spent the night for a tournament twice and in both instances were more as sort of a “mini-vacation” than a necessity.
To me, true “travel ball” is when you are on the road multiple weekends in a season. Like Holly, I love the idea of having nowhere to be and nothing to do on some weekends (and agree that $500 a month for gymnastics for a 5-year-old is nuts). But if you believe in team sports as building characteristics in kids that can carry over to the real world as adults, you might not see it as a relentless pursuit of a scholarship that leaves you with zero benefits without one.
“Travel sports aren’t for everyone and either is staying home for the weekend,” wrote Chris Collier. “Better question is how many HS athletes didn’t play travel?”
I talked to Nick Reich, a former high school basketball coach, for our IndyStar SportsDay podcast. His sons, 11 and 10, are in competitive basketball, soccer and baseball. The time spent in the car, or coaching his kids, isn’t seen as “time lost” to travel sports. Those memories can be as precious as a carefree Saturday spent at home.
“If you’re driving to a game, you might get 30 or 35 minutes with them,” he said. “That is quality time. If we’re home, somebody might be in the basement or in their bedroom reading a book or whatever. That time in the car can be quality time between fathers and sons.”
There is no right or wrong here, which is an important point. There are unlimited options out there for travel sports and personal trainers, etc. It doesn’t mean you have to do all of it, or any of it.
Is there a happy medium somewhere?
“I believe it is a fine line,” Jason Roth wrote. “Parents that do it for their kids, great. Those that do it for themselves is the issue.”