Travel Teams

A few months ago, a highly experienced 7th grade basketball coach reached out to me in frustration, asking for advice on how to deal with players leaving early from his November school-sponsored basketball practices to attend travel baseball practice. I certainly share his frustration, as school-sponsored programs are now taking a back seat to “pay to play” travel programs that offer year round training at young ages for anyone with a heartbeat and a checkbook. A few years ago, I wrote a four part series regarding my concerns with travel baseball. I feel compelled to write more, as I’m worried it is only getting worse.

The strong correlation between youth sports injuries and overuse are well documented. Overuse can occur in season – too many games in too short of time span without proper rest – or it can manifest itself in terms of year-round training. Dr. James Andrews, perhaps the nation’s leading expert in youth sports injuries, uses the term "professionalism" when referencing the recent trend towards treating youth athletes like seasoned veterans.  “Professionalism is taking these kids at a young age and trying to work them as if they are pro athletes, in terms of training and year-round activity," says Dr. Andrews. “Some can do it, like Tiger Woods. He was treated like a professional golfer when he was 4, 5, 6 years old. But you've got to realize that Tiger Woods is a special case. A lot of these kids don't have the ability to withstand that type of training and that type of parental/coach pressure. Now parents are hiring ex-pro baseball players as hitting and pitching instructors when their kid is 12. They're thinking, 'What's more is better,' and they're ending up getting the kids hurt.”

It is now understood among medical professionals that many sports injuries that occur later in an athlete’s career were actually caused by years of overuse at a much younger age.  Like a ticking time bomb hiding in the body, consistent overuse drastically weakens the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in the body, just waiting for the right moment of pressure to finally explode. Former MLB pitcher Tommy John, about whom the famous surgical procedure is named after, has recently engaged on a speaking tour to warn sports parents who have the foresight to listen.  “Throwing pitches in the big leagues will not hurt your arm,” says John. “It's what you did down the road when you were younger. ... In essence, the injury itself is a buildup of overuse. And not overuse as an adult, but overuse as a kid. What I would like to see these guys do, these surgeons and all, is ask all the guys who have had the surgery -- 'How much did you pitch as a kid and how often, and did you pitch year-round?' And nowadays, probably 70 to 80 percent of the pitchers today have been pitching 12 months a year since they were seven, eight, or nine years old. And your arm is not made for that."

Despite the overwhelming medical research against these training practices, travel programs continue to jeopardize the health and safety of their athletes by subjecting their participants to year-round practices and over scheduling of games during the season. It has reached a point where I can no longer feel sorry for athletes who blow out their elbows and shoulders. It’s no different than any other misguided practices – cigarette smokers have an increased chance of acquiring lung cancer, just as travel baseball players have an increased chance of blowing out their arms. In both cases, the public has been more than adequately informed about the risks involved. It’s now in the hands of the people themselves to attack the source of the problem by making better decisions to reduce their risk. 

While I have been warning parents about this for years, I am no longer going to concern myself with discussing the physical risks of overuse. After all, doctors are much more qualified than I am in this area. However, what I do want to focus on instead are the other damages travel programs can cause when preparing young athletes for high school competition, which is still the ultimate proving ground for youth sports success.

  1. Travel programs are feeding into the entitlement and narcissistic culture that is prevalent in current young athletes: Simply stated, high school programs just can’t compete with travel programs in terms of what we can offer. In short, we don’t have the budgets for multiple sets of uniforms, several different hats, fancy warm-ups, cool websites with highly detailed statistics, and weekend tournaments on well-manicured fields. High school programs treat their athletes in an age appropriate manner – as amateur teenage athletes, not professionals. Having multiple uniforms and warm-ups with names names on the back simply has no place at the high school level or below. If I see another 12 year old in a special Fourth of July camouflage uniform with wrist bands, compressions sleeves, eye black, and Oakley Sunglasses on the top of their hat I think I’m going to puke. This is not what youth sports are about. Unfortunately, every year we get a huge crop of incoming freshman who have a difficult time appreciating the simplicity of what a high school team can offer – hard work through internal and external competition, working together for the good of the group, and simply playing for the love of the game.   

  2. Playing time is earned, not paid for, at the school-sponsored level: In the world of travel athletics, parents simply shop around their son or daughter to the team that will maximize their playing time. This mentality does not translate well for many athletes entering high school, who have little experience with sitting the bench, fighting for playing time, or understanding how to persevere when they do not like the coach. This does not help facilitate the grit and resiliency that recent research suggests is most critical to success.

  3. School-sponsored athletics is not business, but rather a program that puts the needs of the athletes and the team above all else: The goal of travel athletics is quite simple – to be profitable. While the interests of the athletes is a priority, quite frequently this takes a back seat to the organization and the coaching staff’s need to financially get what they want out of the deal. In order maintain cash flow, many youth athletes are coddled by their travel coaches, or told what they want to hear, to ensure repeat business. Unfortunately, we see too many freshmen experiencing difficulty dealing with constructive criticism or various other types of pressure applied to them from their coach once they reach the high school level.   

  4. School-sponsored teams practice: Many travel programs just play games and tournaments without allowing much time for practice. At the high school level, practice is a huge component to the process that builds work ethic and mental and physical toughness, in addition to determining playing time. As high school coaches, we expect our athletes to compete as hard in practice as they do in games. I’m also concerned that athletes are not maximizing their development by having limited time to practice skills in a different environment. Of course travel programs do offer additional practice time – private or group lessons with their instructors – that parents also have to pay for.

I am more than aware that the days of house league play are over, just as the days when we all played pick-up from dusk to dawn, when leadership was developed on the playground, and when playing a few organized games a week did not dominate our summer (or our parents' schedules).  

We were all coached by parents, some more knowledgeable than others, but at the end of the day, we all had fun. The ‘crazy’ parents who screamed about playing time, the umpiring, or general coaching decisions were the exception, not the norm. I look back at those days fondly, and I feel badly for these kids who will never experience that.  

I do believe that it is only a matter of time where we will see an end to this current travel sports culture and a return to a more simplistic approach to youth sports as described above. Until then, all we can do now as consumers is to hold our travel programs to a different standard, one that maintains proper perspective, ensures the health and safety of its participants, and promotes positive social and emotional growth.