“Is the travel ball opportunity your 7–14 year old kid has more important than Friday nights and Saturday mornings at home with the family? Is it more important than being at church on Sunday morning?”
I have friends I respect whose kids have played (and some who do play) travel ball, and I mean no offense to them by this post. Nor am I categorically condemning their decisions and choices. I am offering these thoughts for parents who are considering whether to put their kids on a “competitive” team, or a “travel-ball” team, or a “tournament” team, or whatever it may be called in your sport and locale.
Don’t get me wrong: I love competition. I love excellence. And I want to provide the best competitive opportunities I can for my own kids.
I played two years of major college baseball at the University of Arkansas, and I’ve been coaching my sons in baseball and basketball for the last 7 years or so. These reflections grow out of my own experience playing and coaching and watching other families. My thoughts will be mainly applied to baseball, but I think they are valid for basketball, volleyball, soccer, lacrosse, swimming, and whatever else.
Here are 10 reasons I think you should keep your kid in the rec league rather than quitting it for travel ball. These are presented in the order in which I suspect most dads think about them, not in the order of importance I would rank them (#6 would be #1, and #4 would be #2).
- Kids should play not work.
Growing up I loved baseball. I wanted to play all the time, until I got to college and had to do so. When I walked on and made the Razorbacks, the sport I loved to play became a year-round job. A job is not a game. We practiced a lot, doing as much as the NCAA allowed, all year long, in season and out.
That’s fine for an 18 year old on the cusp of adulthood, but there’s no reason to put a 7–14 year old through that kind of rigor.
After my first year of it in college, I found that what had been so fun because I had the opportunity to look forward to it in the off season, or even on days between practice or games, began to feel like a dreaded obligation that consumed a significant portion of every day.
The daily grind not only sapped the joy of the game, it was physically punishing. My arm hurt all the time, and I wasn’t a pitcher. The journey the Lord had me on led to me being cut from the team after I did not play summer ball following my sophomore year. I had played non-stop from the summer before my freshman year, through fall ball, winter weights, the spring season, then summer ball before it started all over in my sophomore year. I needed a break, and I wanted to be a counselor at a Christian camp that summer (Kanakuk).
The gods of baseball punished me for my lack of devotion. I was sad when the team cut me from the roster, but I was also relieved. I had my schedule back. So much time was freed up by not having to go to practice. I could now study what I wanted to study, and my classes were no longer determined by baseball practice. I could rest.
I’ve heard of travel ball teams that play 60 games in a summer—for kids under 10!—and then they practice at least once a week through the winter.
I’ve also heard more than one parent tell me that after a few years of travel ball, in some cases only one year of it, their son decided he didn’t want to play baseball anymore. I never felt that way until I got to college, but looking at the demands of travel ball, I totally understand how the kid feels.
That’s why I’m writing this post. I want your son to love baseball, to have the opportunity to be a kid, and to play the game as a kid. Baseball should be a fun game for him not a demanding job.
Keep him in rec ball, where he won’t get burnt out because he’s a kid facing the demands of a profession.
- Your kid isn’t going pro (and that’s a good thing).
The percentages are outrageous. So many kids grow up dreaming, so few put on a big league uniform. No one should expect to make the show.
I grew up wanting to be a major league baseball player, and I’m so glad I never even got drafted. I spent my 20s laying the foundation for what I’m doing with the rest of my life, not bouncing around in the minor leagues. I got an education, got married, we started having children, and now I get to coach my kids.
If I was in the big leagues, my summers (and falls, and springs) would be dominated by an unrelenting schedule leaving no opportunity to coach my kids’ teams. Travel is not glamorous but grueling. How does a big leaguer have a family? And at best a professional athlete might play into his late 30s or early 40s, then what?
I submit that even with all the excitement of the game, and the money and fame that come with it, the life of a professional athlete is not one to be envied.
Don’t sacrifice your son’s childhood on the altar of the hope that he’s the next Derek Jeter. Have fun with sports, and use it to build character, not dream-castles in the skies.
Give your kid the chance to be a great person and cultivate that through sports.
- If your kid does go pro, rec ball is the likelier path.
On the off-chance that your kid is a freak athlete with the arm strength, foot speed, power, stamina, and character, who gets all the right breaks at just the right time, chances are he’ll rise up through the ranks of rec ball rather than being groomed on the travel ball circuit.
Small towns breed professional athletes, and the reason seems to be that kids in small towns aren’t over-coached, over-organized, and over-specialized by the travel ball opportunities found in larger cities. Small town kids grow up playing lots of sports not getting burnt out playing the same one all year round.