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Thursday, June 06, 2013

The Impact of Travel Sports

I had a long, deep, good conversation with a good friend of mine who starred at two Division 1 sports -- football and baseball.  He's a bit of an iconoclast, made friends with non-athletes, earned the respect of all teammates, and remains a very thoughtful guy.  He's an exercise maven, looks for ways to compete -- long swims, long bike rides, stuff like that -- and over the years has offered interesting insights into youth and college sports.  What follows is a summary of our most recent discussion topics:

1.  The emphasis on travel sports is out of balance.  In his view, the talent doesn't really separate until ninth grade, and before then the parents have too much control.  He wonders who the travel is for -- the kids so that they can say they are on an elite team, the parents of those kids so that they can say the same thing, the people who coach, because somehow this "elite" coaching adds to their self-esteem and relieves them of boredeom.  His view is that the parents and associations should provide the balls, the hoops, the nets, whatever, and then let the kids choose up sides and play.  They'll develop creative skills, they'll develop leadership skills and critical "work it out skills" that are invaluable to any society and organization.  (Somewhat supporting his point in, albeit, an oblique way is the Dutch national soccer program.  On the one hand, they do identify top prospects as early as eight.  On the other, the requirements for their programs and pretty light -- such as one game a week -- for a while, as they let kids be kids.  The intense part of the academy doesn't happen until the kids are teenagers). 

2.  Travel sports create the illusion that if your kid fares well, he or she will get a full scholarship to college.  We discussed how some parents operate under the false impression that their kids will get scholarships if they focus on one sport and play for an elite travel team.  I've discussed this with the parent of a current Division 1 lacrosse player (who himself played Division 1 lacrosse), a former Division 1 softball coach (who played Division 1 softball) and this friend.  All of us agree that first and foremost, the kids better love the sport.  My son and I traveled to a small tournament a few years ago that was hosted at a private school on Philadelphia's Main Line.  His coach said to the team and their parents:  "Take a look at this place.  Their lacrosse program will have 17 kids getting full rides to Division 1 schools."  He couldn't have been more wrong on so many fronts.  First, lacrosse teams tend to have 40 kids on them, and perhaps 10-12 full scholarships to offer.  Most kids don't get full rides; the teams carve up the scholarship money and dole it out selectively.  Second, this school had very few kids getting any scholarship money because its an elite place with kids whose parents can afford private school tuition and, therefore, college tuition.  Did lacrosse help get these kids into school?  Absolutely.  Did some of these kids get into better schools than they would have had they not been recruited athletes?  Most definitely.  But did any of them get full rides?  According to a friend of mine whose kids went to this school, the answer is "highly doubtful."  Yet, many parents operate with the false hope that their kid will get that full ride. 

Lacrosse seems to be attracting parents and kids who harbor this illusion that they get a full ride to college.  Softball also seems to do that, and the friend who is the former coach suggested that there is very little money by way of scholarships, and, if there is, it goes to the pitchers, catchers and shortstops, period (which does explain why the father of a friend of my daughter's pushed his child into catching; he didn't go to college and has had some trouble sustaining a career, but he pushed his daughter in this direction to earn a scholarship and at least once said he'd be disappointed if she didn't get into an Ivy League school, even if a vast majority of Ivy softball players do not hail from the Northeast).  Again, being a good softball player might get you recruited and therefore preferred admission, but as to money -- it depends on the school, the position you play and how good you are.  It's probably not a great strategy for most people.

3.  Travel sports are expensive, potentially elitist and potentially creating a false self-image.  My friend who played two sports in college and I talked about Princeton's baseball roster, for example.  If you look at the bios, you'll see that most of the kids' parents, if not all of them, are professionals, and sometimes both parents are.  That means that they more than can afford the travel team entry fees, the travel fees, the private hitting and pitching coaches and the $300+ DeMarini bats.  But does that mean that they are the best potential players out there?  They do have an advantage -- there is a barrier to entry, in that poor kids cannot afford that type of training, that type of travel and that type of equipment.  Major League Baseball should be worried, given the drop in their viewership on TV.  What once was the national pastime seems to be the pastime of a subset of people.  Sure, it could be that the prevalence of PEDs has hurt baseball's image, but it's not as accessible as it once was.  All you need to do is read Malcolm Gladwell to know that if you don't get your kid started early to get his 10,000 hours in, he'll be behind.  It's easy to play pick-up basketball or soccer in the inter-city; hard to play baseball. 

My son also noticed this.  He has some classmates who play on a travel basketball team.  They're good athletes, the team has a good coach and it has a good record.  The team is all white.  In contrast, when we went to basketball clinics at our local high school, he also noticed that most of the players are African-American.  What does that mean?  That the kids on the high school team come from somewhere other than this travel program in most cases.  My guess is that the latter play wherever and whenever they can, but that they cannot afford the ante that is required to play travel ball, and the travel programs don't have the infrastructure to offer scholarships, rides to practices and games, etc.  This type of separation could create false hope in the travel players, who might not be, at this stage, playing against anyone other than other suburban kids from upper middle class families.  Again, they're good athletes, but there is a disconnect somewhere. 

As for economics, the entry to play on some of these teams can be $5,000, and then you have the equipment, the travel, the private coaches, etc.  If you have a kid playing "elite" travel for eight years, the money can add up.

4.  Travel sports are exhausting for families and teaching the wrong things.  People are always on the go.  Parents work, use their vacation time to leave work early to drive 45 minutes for a practice, they're gone on weekends, and not every kid is good enough to make a travel team or to play one and only one sport well.  Travel programs can deplete rec leagues, and non-travel kids can lose interest because they get stigmatized as not being any good.  That means less exercise, more obesity, etc.  Alternatively, families aren't together on weekends, the kids who don't play travel feel disrespected, some kids don't see a parent all that much, and the travel culture is one where parents and kids tend to care much more about themselves than their teams or their organizations.  I witnessed it first hand, where otherwise nice parents would get into e-mail wars or shouting matches with coaches about where Sally batted in the order or what position she played.  And how a piece of any of them would die if someone who competed with their kid for playing time excelled.   What is that teaching anyone, other than to look out for me first?  Sometimes, we have to do that, but at this young an age and in an activity that's supposed to be a kid's game and fun? 

5.  How do we know whether the travel coaches are any good or not?  This is another key consideration.  I recall my best teachers fondly, and I spent more time with them than I did my parents at times.  The same would hold true for any travel commitment -- so, as a parent, you had better make sure that you are getting an outstanding teacher, leader and role model.  Sadly, that is not always the case.  You get the self-important, those who think they are Earl Weaver or Joe Torre, those who think that they are power brokers with college coaches, those who are profane, those who are angry, those who drink too much (and during the day and sometimes in front of the kids) and those who are trying to prove something to themselves.  There are many gifted coaches out there, but there are also those who coach so that they can assure their kid a position on the team and a good position within the team.  Softball in certain parts has become known as "daddyball," as a team of 11 can have four coaches, each of whom has a kid on the team.  Perhaps nepotism is part of the real world, but the politics, bad coaching and bad leadership can proliferate.  It's hard for me to be able to parse through the percentages absent a big study, but there is significant attrition because of burnout (either dads being too tough on their own daugthers or families getting fed up with the politics of travel).  That's why kids can play for many different organizations during their careers -- parents and kids are always looking for a better team and a better spot.  Sometimes they find it, and sometimes they trade one set of problems for another.

At some point, we'll discuss potential solutions that do not involve laws or governments, but common sense.  Darwinism is in play here, but it's very hard to tell whether those who survive are the best players, or the parents and kids who are best at "playing the game."  Something tells me that it's a little bit of both, when it should be the former.


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