Are Travel Sports Teams Worth It?

My 10-year-old hockey-loving son is considering trying out for the travel team.

Travel sports teams seriously ratchet up the time commitment for families. You have to get your kids to the practices and weekly games, just as with other teams, as many parents know. But with travel teams those games are always on the road, and often a few hours, or more, away.

It all sounded like a huge inconvenience to me for our active family of four, and I wondered if I really could buy into all the required extra time and effort.

These teams are supposed to be more competitive and more fun for the kids. They’re supposed to build better bonding experiences and, in theory, hone a stronger set of skills on the ice. That’s how they’re marketed, at least. Would I be a bad mom if I didn’t encourage my young son to go for it?

I decided to find out by gauging some real-world travel team experiences in both hockey and soccer, that other hyper-competitive sport around the Washington, D.C., area where we live. I wanted to know: Do parents feel these travel teams are truly worth it?

One dad’s teenaged daughter is probably among the top two percent of athletes in her county. Excelling in baseball, basketball, and soccer, she has participated in several state championship games by the ripe old age of 14. I thought surely this dad would be a fan of travel teams, but to my surprise Barry Oh (not his real name) was adamantly against the idea.

“People take part in travel teams because they think it’ll get their kids to the pros,” he said. “The odds of that happening are virtually nonexistent.” Besides, he added, for a kid like his daughter, who was interested — and talented — in multiple sports, joining a travel team would mean choosing just one sport, because the travel team time-suck simply couldn’t accommodate two sports simultaneously.

Then my dentist told me about his 8-year-old son’s travel hockey team. His son was expected to appear in a tournament over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Yet he and his wife were traveling to western Pennsylvania to visit family during that time. This scheduling snafu caused some trauma, as his wife, once a competitive athlete herself, insisted they come back early so their son could play in the games. The good dentist felt it was healthier to spend the holiday with extended family and forego the event.

It was crystal clear: Travel teams were and are a full-fledged commitment that require buy-in on the cellular level from every member of the family.

Such dedication was the case for a Gaithersburg, Maryland, couple whose daughter had been a star soccer player since about age 3. Abby Rose (not her real name) had lived and breathed the game her entire life, and ended up being that one-in-a-million kid who got a sports scholarship to college. She believed the travel teams were critical in getting her there. However, travel soccer had also eaten up a ton of her waking hours.

“The biggest downside to travel teams is how time-consuming they are. My life revolved around soccer because I literally didn’t have time to do anything else,” she said. But she said the sense of camaraderie that the team created had made it all worthwhile.

“All of the long hours, practices, and hard work seemed to be worth it when I had my best friends and teammates to share it with. If it weren’t for them, I would have burned out a long time ago,” she said.

Her dad agreed that travel teams had been a great resource. He was a supportive actor who had coached his daughter’s teams in elementary school, then joyfully awakened before dawn throughout high school to shuttle her to weekend games; sometimes, they were several states away.

“Sure, I got a little tired of it sometimes, and so did my wife,” he said. “But when it ended and she went away to college, we really missed it.  It was more fun than not, and I loved watching Abby play, so it was all worth it to me. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

He stressed, though, that travel teams are not for everybody. “If your kid is just playing because his or her friends are, then regular recreational teams are the way to go,” he said. “But if your kid gets frustrated, like Abby did, because the other kids aren’t as good, I’d recommend travel. It should really all be about the kid.”

That sounded like some sane advice. I will probably let my Max try out for the travel team, because I want to encourage all of his pursuits. And probably, I will secretly hope he doesn’t make the cut.

If he does, of course, I’ll be right there schlepping him to and from the games with all the rest of the weekend warrior parents-in-arms.

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