While there are certainly many wonderful youth athletic leagues and teams around our country, there is an ugliness gaining momentum in our youth sport culture. Tryouts and travel teams are cropping up earlier than ever before. My son, who is an eight-year-old second grader, had to decide whether or not he wanted to try out for the travel soccer team. Really? This is when my son needs to decide whether he is going to be “serious” about soccer - otherwise, he may miss the boat? Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?
There have always been individual sports such as gymnastics, tennis, and figure skating that have demanded huge amount of time for youth sport athletes. But now we are seeing similar patterns in many team sports. And it’s hard for us parents as we worry that we are depriving our kids of valuable sport experiences if we don’t sign them up right away for whatever the cost and time commitment.
Whether you agree or not with the value of early training and sport specialization as a vehicle to athletic success, this movement toward elite play in our elementary school kids is ruining the spirit and practice of our youth sport athletic programs. The system is broken. We have shifted away from education and physical health to talent development and playing for the “right” team. A growing number of our athletic elementary school kids are playing and practicing in the evenings, during vacations, and on almost every weekend. Is this necessary? Is it healthy?
This year, on this one decision making point, we said no to travel soccer and are embracing another year of the town recreational league where our kids can play with their friends on fields close to home and times that allow us to have the occasional family dinner. There is no evidence that playing and training intensely in youth team sports improves performance over the long haul. In fact, there is more evidence that such early extreme training is more likely to lead to over-use injury, stress and early sport attrition.
There are a very small number of youth sport athletes that may benefit from intensive training in supportive and appropriate environments that fit their needs and abilities. But, these programs are few and far between. They do not fit most of our kids. The town leagues, YCMA’s, JCC’s, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America are places where our youth can learn, compete, have fun, and make friends in a safe and supportive environment.
Why then do we continue to support a system that promises elite performance but is more driven by the dollars made as opposed to the actual results? What percentage of these kids who play travel at a young age actually progress to collegiate play? How many of them drop out or are cut along the way, despite the promises made? How many of us have heard, “Your child is really good. She should join the travel team.” Maybe she really is good. Maybe she could play collegiate sports despite the fact that the data strongly suggests otherwise. But, we are rolling the dice when the health of childhood is the stakes.
In many scenarios, making a commitment of extreme time and money during elementary school interferes with the very freedom and lightness of childhood. Sure, elementary school kids are competitive and want to do well, but more important is for them to learn basic athletic skills and be a part of a group of friends that are life-sustaining. We cannot sacrifice these critical components of childhood for the remote possibility that this travel team is putting them on the path to the college of their choice. And if a child chooses to play for the travel team, are they getting enough rest, having time to do their homework, and spending time with their family? Or are they a free agent moving from one team of strangers to another, forming transient ties with other young aspiring players primarily focused on developing their talent. Sometimes going old-school is simply better. Let’s keep travel team tryouts to middle school kids and let our elementary school children be children.