Sports Travel Teams: Option or Necessity?
Members of Triangle Volleyball Club's 13 Black team compete at a travel tournament in Atlanta.
Photo courtesy of Michele Schwartz
If, as author Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” theory suggests, 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are all it takes to become world-class, there will be a stunning number of elite athletes in college and professional sports in the next few years. Ten thousand hours is nothing to the increasing number of kids playing a year-round sport for a club travel team — that’s a five- or six-day-a-week commitment to a single sport for 11 months a year.
“I’m scared to really do the math,” jokes Amy Tornquist, when asked how many soccer games she has attended over the last year. This full-time chef in Durham has two daughters who play competitive “classic” soccer. “Twenty regular season games,” she says, “plus three or four games per tournament — times two.”
Tornquist’s daughters play because they love the sport and because Tornquist appreciates soccer as a teaching tool. Experts couldn’t be more in sync with parents like Tornquist about the more-than-physical benefits associated with playing youth sports.
At Triangle Volleyball Club in Morrisville, associate director Mike Schall is proud of the club’s commitment to their mission statement: “Educating the whole person.” Schall says Triangle Volleyball Club strives to teach athletes not only the sport of volleyball, but also discipline, respect, responsibility, commitment, leadership, work ethic and the importance of teamwork.
These lessons come in handy down the road. A study done by the Harvard Business Review found that more than half of women in top executive positions had played a college sport (97 percent had played a sport growing up), and hiring partners noted these sport-learned traits as being key to their hiring.
Go for the Goal
Here are some of the reasons athletes — and their parents — decide to commit to a club team.
Fitness. Club sports, with their regular training sessions, offer an easy, year-round solution in a protected environment. Most clubs emphasize conditioning and offer separate fitness programs, usually identified as speed or agility training.
Advanced training. Clubs often offer professionally trained coaches who have years of high-level coaching and playing experience. Many clubs focus on fundamentals, offering additional skill-specific sessions.
Life lessons. Studies have found that sports involvement leads not only to improved health, but to better grades, less drug use, higher self-esteem and key social skills.
Payback. Many kids dream of playing for their favorite college, while parents dream of corresponding scholarships. Most clubs offer exposure to college coaches and scholarship potential as a selling point.
Keeping up. “No parent wants their kid to fall behind,” says Ian Andersen, whose 11-year-old son, Zack, plays soccer for Greensboro United. Peer pressure doesn’t motivate Andersen — Zack has adored soccer since age 2 — but he knows some parents who are already thinking about high school or college and are out there because, he says, “everyone else is doing it.”
Clubs offer sleek uniforms, personalized sweatsuits, matching backpacks and, of course, the cute car sticker or magnet in team colors. And there’s the travel. What kid doesn’t like staying at a hotel with a team of friends and eating sport-approved snacks for four or more weekends per year?
As club teams get stronger and attract upper- to middle-class athletes and their sport-focused parents, recreational and community teams naturally weaken. School programs are suffering, too. Up2Us, a nonprofit promoting youth sports, notes the recent cumulative $3.5 billion cut in public school sports, and estimates that by 2020, 27 percent of U.S. public high schools will no longer have any sport teams or programs of any kind.
Should athletes really play 10,000 hours of any one sport? In addition to an increased chance of overuse injuries, visions of playing at a Division I college on full scholarship are rarely realized. According to ScholarshipStats.com, only about 2 percent of high school varsity athletes end up playing Division I sports, let alone getting a scholarship to do so. Scholarly and non-scholarly critiques offer additional reasons to proceed with caution.
Cost. In addition to yearly club fees, families must figure in the cost of uniforms, equipment, travel, meals and hotels for weekend tournaments. According to a 2014 University of Florida Sport Policy and Research Collaborative report, travel-team parents spend an average of $2,266 annually on their child’s sports participation, and at the elite levels some families spend more than $20,000 per year.
Exclusivity. Increasing specialization at an early age means more casual youth athletes drop organized sports altogether before they even have a chance to try out for a middle school team.
Overuse injuries. Dr. Scott Burbank at OrthoCarolina in Charlotte and team physician for the Charlotte Independence professional soccer team, has observed a substantial increase in overuse injury among his young patients. “It’s not surprising given how much they play,” he says. “Kids are particularly susceptible to growth-plate injury, and if you stress a growing skeleton all year long, it will start to feel that stress.”
Mental toll. The mental drain of over-specialization is equally clear. “These kids who started playing for travel clubs at age 9, 10, 11 — by the time they’re in college, they’re just tired, their bodies are worn-down. It has become a job,” says Greg Dale, an author, professor of sport psychology and ethics at Duke University, and director of the Sport Psychology and Leadership Programs for Duke Athletics.
Less time for academics and other interests. “I’m a big believer in getting done what needs to get done academically before a player comes to the field,” says Jim O’Neill, head lacrosse coach at R.J. Reynolds High School in Winston-Salem, a coach for Winston-Salem Lacrosse and district attorney for Winston-Salem. “It’s the academics that will benefit these athletes in the long run. Your ability to play competitively is a small window. Academics are for life.”
Parental pressure. “When I was growing up, youth sports was about children competing against other children,” says John O’Sullivan, founder of the Changing the Game Project, an initiative to “put the ‘play’ back in ‘play ball.’” “Now, far too often, it’s about adults competing with other adults through their children, and as a result 70 percent of kids quit before they reach high school,” he says.
Burbank agrees. “It’s a societal pattern of behavior. Intuitively, parents think the more you play, the better you get, and it has become a race. Kids will do anything to please parents and coaches: even play through serious pain.”
Parents who sign their kids up for year-round clubs recognize the problem.
“Club sports cost a lot and some parents expect to see a return,” Andersen says. “We have to remember that no one is making us sign up. No one is promising us our kid is going to be a star. Expectations put pressure on everyone, including the kid. We’ve got a lot of young kids thinking too hard, afraid to mess up.”
So, should your child play year-round, travel team club sports? On practical, financial and philosophical grounds, it works for some families, but not others. Club sports can deliver a lot of benefit and enjoyment to your family if you take advantage of it in a healthy way.
“If your kid is smiling and having fun, then you’re getting something right,” Andersen says.
Caitlin Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Durham.