Are Travel Teams Right for Your Young Athlete?

The folks at TeamSnap published an article I wrote for them on the TeamSnap blog.

It’s a question that swirls around in parents’ heads the way midges swirl around the pitcher’s mound at Progressive Field. In today’s manic, ultra-competitive youth sports culture, some parents fear their children will fall behind if they don’t play on a travel team.

Soccer Ball ParentsOf course, there are no have-to’s or cookie cutter approaches to youth sports. So, no. Your child doesn’t have to play travel.

But the reality is if your child has enough talent and has the desire (their desire, not yours) to play beyond recreational leagues, travel sports are in their future.

Click here to continue reading on the TeamSnap blog.


Ok. This Guy Should Stay Away

Last week, I wrote about the reason you cannot keep me away from my kids’ games.  The idea for Stop Telling Me to Stay Away came from reading numerous articles telling parents how much better it would be for everyone if they skipped the next one.  What I quickly glossed over with a sentence or two was the fact the intended audience for most of these articles was, to a large extent, the problem parent.

025 Ok This Guy Should Stay AwayWhen I take my son to his private lesson I go hit in the cages.  I have all spring and summer to coach him, so it’s best if he and his coach work together without me.  When the cages are full the accepted practice is to let other hitters work-in which is how I ended up sharing a cage last weekend with a kid one or two years older than my son.  Ordinarily I would have given up the cage completely, the kid has a baseball season ahead of him, and I have . . . well, I may play beer-league softball this summer, but I felt like hitting and the alternative was to watch my son’s lesson which really isn’t helpful to anyone.

“Johnny” shows up when I am mid-round.  I make my way out after the last pitch to let Johnny step in for his first hacks.  Before a ball can come rolling down the chute and through the churning wheels of the pitching machine, it starts.

“Is that how you’re going to stand? . . . You’re not ready to hit.  Get ready to hit. . . . I’m going to put this on 50 mph. . . . You can too hit 50 mph.”  It’s Johnny’s dad.  Johnny still hasn’t seen a pitch but Dad’s on a non-stop roll for a minute or two.  He keeps it up as Johnny proceeds to miss every pitch.  “You’re swaying back.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just what I said, you’re swaying back.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

And so it goes from one round to the next.  “Do this.  You’re not doing that.  Why is your bat like that?  That’s not where you hold the bat.  Since when are your feet there?  Oh, you missed because the pitch wasn’t perfect, huh?  Should we ask the pitchers to put it on a tee for you?”  Johnny misses the vast majority of pitches, making only weak contact on the handful he does manage to hit.  Through it all Dad is relentless with his useless observations and seemingly spiteful comments.  Somewhere around round six, to prove a point which only makes sense to him, Dad does turn the speed up from 40 mph to 50 mph.  You can guess the outcome.

The monologue would have been as comical as it was futile, assuming its intent was to magically make Johnny start spraying frozen ropes around the cage, if not for the fact Johnny was red faced with two big watery eyes he barely kept from overflowing with tears.  Dad’s crowning achievements of the evening were “What’s wrong with you?” and, three pitches into what would mercifully be his last round, all of which Johnny missed, “Get out!  Get out of the cage!  I can’t watch you anymore!”

Let those sink in.

“What’s wrong with you?”  Because the ability to hit a baseball is something we’re all born with and Johnny is somehow defective because he isn’t tonight.

“I can’t watch you anymore!”  Because Dad’s satisfaction is the only reason Johnny is allowed to play baseball and Johnny is trying as hard as he can to miss every pitch just to get under Dad’s skin.

I debated saying something but did not.  The few people I have retold this story to generally agree I had no business even thinking of saying something.  Still I can’t help feeling I should have, if only to offer some advice to Johnny to help him correct two minor issues with his swing which were going a long way towards keeping him from making decent contact.  Not that it would have mattered.  Johnny’s chances of hitting the ball were over before he even saw the first pitch and probably before he got in the car to drive to the cages in the first place.

I learned a big lesson at my son’s first ever soccer game thanks to my wife.  I was shouting all sorts of instructions from the sideline when, about five mins in, she strode up to me and calmly said “If I were him, I’d be nervous as hell right now.”  She might as well have punched me in the stomach.  I truly didn’t realize what I was doing until she played “sideline-daddy” whisperer, and I knew she was right in an instant.  I shut my mouth for the rest of the game and apologized to my son afterwards.  Now I sit on the sideline of his games, watching him play and calmly cheering for him and his team, whether they do well or not, when and if I say anything at all.  No instructions, no do this or don’t do that.  It’s pretty much the same when I’m coaching his baseball games in terms of instructions.  That’s why we have practice.  When we get in the car after a game and after practices too, I say only two things.  First I ask, “Did you have fun playing today?”  Then I tell him how much I loved watching him play.  From there it’s up to him.  If he wants to talk about the game, I will.  And if not, that’s fine too.  More and more, I find him asking how I thought he played and if I have any advice for him.  I can’t think of a better environment to praise him and offer some examples with actionable tips to help his learning process.

After last week’s post, a good friend commented it depends on the kid as he wouldn’t have wanted his father at any of his games.  Yet another point I glossed over.  So to the Johnny’s Dads of the world,  I maintain it’s not my business how you parent your kids.  Still, a bit of advice.  If you’re going to open your mouth, something helpful or insightful ought to be coming out of it.  If you can’t do that, then keep your mouth shut.  If you can’t do that, then stay home.  Johnny’s not playing for you, he’s playing for himself.   If you’re not supportive, particularly when you are trying to help him, you are only hurting him.  The sooner you recognize that, the better.  Especially for Johnny.

Casey Struck Out

020 Casey Struck OutIt’s every kid’s dream.  If you played little league, it was yours too.  Two outs, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, down by three.  Of course, you hit the dramatic, game-winning grand slam.  To borrow from Neil Diamond, except for the names and a few other changes, this story’s the same one.  Except it’s not.  Casey didn’t get the big hit.  Casey struck out.

It’s the playoffs and we’re playing the second place team.  They’ve beaten us pretty good before but tonight the boys are outplaying their opponents in every way until the bottom of the fifth.  We’re up 4-1 when we implode and give up five runs.  They bring in their best pitcher.  A walk, a hit, an out, another walk and another out brings up my son.  Two outs, last inning, bases loaded, down by two.  Except for the names and a few other changes.

I give him the reminders I use with him, “telephone” to remind him to keep his hands up and “aggressive” to remind him not to let good pitches go early in the count.  Then I tell him, “this at bat is like any other.  You’re been hitting all year so go up there and get your licks in.  Same as always.”  I am telling him this so I calm down.  I yell over to my third base coach to text me the results because I’ll be in the car in the parking lot.  I’d be lying if I said I remember the exact sequence, but he fouls off a couple, takes a couple of balls, fouls off another and goes down on a fastball, a little up but, with the strike zones used in 8U baseball, one he has to swing at.  It was a really good swing, popped the hips, swung hard, got the barrel through the zone in time with the pitch, he just missed it.

I want to go to him and hug him.  I want to tell him, “I know it hurts a lot.  It’s okay.  It’s okay to be upset, but you didn’t lose the game.  It was a great at bat and a great swing.  I’m proud of you for the guts it took to go up there and have an at bat like that.”  Then he throws his bat.

020 Casey Struck Out 003

Even the pros lose it now and then

I want to go to him and hug him, but now I am disciplining him.  He’s an emotional kid so I know he’s upset and there will be tears.  I don’t like the tears, but these are little kids playing a tough game.  Contrary to what Jimmy Dugan said there is crying in baseball.  Lots of it.  (Jeff Vrabel wrote a great piece  on it .)  Now I’m making him pick up his bat, walk it into the dugout and have a chat with me.  When he doesn’t do it my voice goes up a level or two.  He’s in no mood to listen.  More water works ensue and he digs his heels in a little deeper.  I’m getting angrier by the second.  I’m not sure what’s most fueling it, the fact he threw his bat, the fact he is not picking it up, the fact I’ve got 11 other upset kids but there is only one causing a scene or the fact this situation has turned into a parenting moment on public display.  “Who needs this?” flickers across my brain before he kicks the ground, grudgingly picks up his bat, brings it into the dugout and I give him the only warning he will receive, “It ever happens again and you will find yourself glued to the bench.”  We shake hands with the other team and go out to try and give my team some perspective.  He’s calm, or at least calmer, after the post-game spiel so we get an ice cream, and I finally tell him what I wanted to tell him all long.

I always held the hardest part of coaching my own kid to be Daddy Ball, the fear delusional visions of grandeur will motivate me to play my kid in spots he has no business playing in.  But ability and playing time tend to take care of themselves even if parents are prone to see whatever they want to see.  The more young players I’ve seen and the more I’ve heard their private coaches’ assessments, the more I’ve learned to trust my own assessments and those of my assistant coaches to guide who’s on the field when and where.

More and more, I’ve come to believe the hardest part of coaching your own kid is being a parent and finding the balance between coaching and parenting.  I’ve had to cut an eight-year old.  I’ve had to tell a parent they had to ease up on their kid.  I’ve had to occasionally tell a parent their kid wasn’t “all that.”  I might not have enjoyed doing so, but all of those were easier than disciplining my son because I was confident I was right.  The blurry line between parent and coach creates an insecurity and enables clouded judgment.  My son had to be disciplined no doubt.  But who really made it more of a scene in the end?  The moment I became the parent instead of the coach, I lost my ability to remain appropriately detached and not place expectations on my kid I wouldn’t have for the other players  Or at least to deal with the situation rationally.  I turned an unpleasant situation into a bad one for everyone.  I would have spoken with or disciplined any player for throwing their bat.  But I would have been a whole lot calmer about it if it were someone else.  It’s not my kid’s fault his dad is the coach.  We all know he shouldn’t benefit from it, but he shouldn’t suffer from it either.

After the season I ran into a parent who brought up the at bat.  They told me how bad they felt for me and how well I handled it.  “You’ve got such a passionate player and I can only imagine how much you wanted to console him.”  Good job?  Let’s ask my son.

Stop Knocking Travel Sports

016 Travel Sports GoodI began 8U Travel because I thought it ludicrous my son was starting travel sports at the age of eight.  I still do.  I think the state of travel sports is verging on insane with “elite” programs looking to “take it to the next level” (whatever those statements mean) and forcing young kids to play one sport year-round preying on the fears of parents.  And I agree those same parents have lost the plot in their blind belief their kid is getting a college scholarship or “going pro” (she isn’t).  But people whining about travel programs ruining youth sports and the demise of the rec league are kidding themselves.  If the objectives of youth sports are kids being active, improving in their chosen sports, and gaining life skills, travel sports are the singular best option to deliver.

Before diving into the benefits of travel, let’s get the competitive, only focused on winning cards out on the table.  A common argument of naysayers is travel programs eliminate the fun with an over the top focus on winning.  Sports are competitive by definition, and it’s naïve to think rec leagues are not focused on winning just because they employ equal playing time rules.  The kids on my son’s t-ball team were constantly counting runs and trying to figure out who won the games in which no outs were recorded, everyone hit in every inning and the last kid up always hit a “home run.”  In Minors rec ball this past summer, I watched coaches try to stack their teams at the draft and, more than once, my son’s team was on the receiving end of some (expletive-deleted) bush league plays from coaches so worried about winning they resorted to tactics which would result in the next batter getting drilled at older ages.  All sports are competitive, the kids who play them want to win as do the coaches as do the parents regardless of playing time rules and the “everyone makes a team” scenario of rec leagues.

So what do travel sports bring to the party that rec sports cannot?

You want your kid to be active

The rec baseball season is 12 games plus playoffs over seven weeks.  It’s short.  It’s compact.  Travel baseball afforded my son the opportunity to play another nine weeks into the dead spot of summer when organized sports are few and far between.  Where we live there is no rec soccer after U7 so it’s either play travel or don’t play soccer.

You want your kid to improve

Every parent who volunteers to coach rec league should be applauded and thanked profusely.  But when the only prerequisite to being Coach is the ability to raise a hand, your kid’s development as an athlete is left to potluck.  Hopefully you get a coach who knows about the sport and can break it down into something a kid can absorb.  Of course, if I hear another “keep your back elbow up . . . .”

Then there’s that short, compact season again.  Players don’t get better in games.  They get better at practice.  My rec team could only find time for three practices last season with our two games per week schedule.  There wasn’t a lot of development going on there.  Of course, we could have added a third or fourth night a week for practice at which point what’s the difference between rec and travel?

There’s also the fact playing with better players speeds development.  It’s hard for a kid to get better as, say, a second baseman, when the other infielders have a 50-50 shot of fielding a grounder let alone knowing to try to get the lead runner.

You want your kid to develop some life skills

Learning how to be part of a team: Being part of a team, learning your role within it and understanding how teams work are social skills which serve a lifetime both professionally and personally.  The problem is rec teams are teams only in that the players wear the same color shirts.  By virtue of the everyone plays equal time, everyone plays every position and everyone bats in every spot in the lineup ethos (important and pivotal as it is), rec sports lack both the catalyst to drive player bonding and the reward systems which help kids learn how teams work.  Having to make the team helps immediately kick start the gelling process which is further accelerated by getting together for practices and games three to four times a week.  Coupled with the extra playing time together, it helps the kids quickly sort out the hierarchy in the team, who the better players are, who plays what positions, who the leaders are and how and when to lead and how and when to follow.  It just doesn’t happen with rec ball.

Learning how to deal with the fact not everyone is treated the same: I once heard former MLBer Art Shamsky say superstars are treated differently so you had better get used to it.  It’s a salient truth of sports and everyday life.  Have I mentioned in rec everyone is on the team because they signed up, everyone gets a shot at every position and everyone plays the same amount?  Travel sports, where the best kid plays short and bats third most the time, offer young athletes their first exposure to the fact not everyone is treated the same.  Even on my travel team, where I did my best to give innings to all the kids, the better players played more innings in the field and played more innings in key positions because they deserved it.

Learning how to work for what you want:  That reward system can help instill the “hard work” ethic.  You work hard at practice, you get opportunities to play.  Unburdened by the need to have everyone get a shot at short, I was able to reward kids who worked their tails off at practice with opportunities to play in certain positions or situations.  In rec, well, everyone got to play shortstop.

Beyond helping your kid be active, improve athletically and develop social skills, travel sports provide them the bonus of belonging to something larger, of accepting someone and being accepted simply because you share a uniform, basically of being “one of us” because you are part of the travel team.  There’s a circus in my town every July 4th.  My daughter loves the circus; my son hates it.  So while my wife and daughter where watching the acrobats and elephants last summer, my son and I went down to the field to throw the baseball around.  When we got there, several boys from the older teams in our program were playing a whiffle ball game.  My son walked over hesitantly because he knew no one and was instantly invited into the game simply because he wore the same hat.  The power of the uniform is enormous.

I understand the downsides of where travel sports are headed and perhaps already have arrived.  There are too many programs.  There are too many programs which prey on parents who are afraid little Sally is going to fall behind by calling themselves “elite”, charging a fortune and then forcing Sally to specialize in that one sport year round in order to justify the high price tag yet.  But if the objectives of youth sports are to be active, to develop athletically and to develop socially, the truth is rec leagues have almost no chance to deliver on those objectives.  Travel programs unequivocally do.  The key is choosing the right program with the right coach and philosophy for you and your child at the age and a price point which are also right for your family.  Maybe I’m lucky.  I’ve found a soccer coach who is understanding of my son missing practice because of baseball in the spring, just as I am lucky to coach in a program where I’m not forced to have the kids play year round to justify a cost.  Then again I wouldn’t be doing travel sports any other way.  I don’t think my situation is unique.  I think the benefits of travel sports are.

The Coach 15

015 The Coach 15I couldn’t be happier Thanksgiving is in the rear-view mirror.  Now I can figure out which diet I’m going on.  It’s that or get a new uniform.  There are many things no one mentions when you volunteer to coach.  Worst among them, you will become sadly out of shape.  At least in college they warn you about the Freshman 15.

Before I started coaching I did a lot of cycling.  I rode four or five times a week and raced another 20 times a year.  This past season I didn’t touch the bike.  While my lack of riding didn’t start because of coaching (I needed a break after 18 straight years of getting up at 4:00 am), coaching made it all but impossible to get back in the saddle.  I like to ride in the mornings so training doesn’t hanging over my head all day.  That’s hard to do when you don’t get to bed until the little hours on game night.

Game days were a whirlwind.  I’d get to work early as I’d have to catch the 2:38pm train home if we were to have a prayer of making the game on time.  Thus every meeting was crammed in before 2:15pm at which point I left the office at a full sprint, the two block run being the only exercise I got all summer  (don’t knock it, New York City blocks are notoriously long.)  Once home, it was double check the game charts were in my bag, the minivan still had the equipment it permanently housed (my wife loved the mud, dirt and sand which also took up residence, I’m lucky like that) and then pack, check and recheck my son’s equipment bag (yes, I’m totally clear on my enabling his laziness and lack of accountability, but this is baseball we’re talking about.  I’m sure my priorities were straight on this one.)  I happened to have a father who had panic attacks about being late so my son and I left 30 minutes earlier than the time Google Maps said it would take to get to the field that night (telling your son the coach has to be there super early to make sure he knows exactly how field plays works only so many times when you go 2-11.)

The fun really began when we got home after the game which would be 8:30pm if we played at home and closer to 9:15pm if we travelled.  First up, getting him undressed outside lest the dirt follow us inside (ok, my wife doesn’t really love the dirt.)  Then down to the basement to throw his socks in the washing machine and soak his pants (red socks which run and white baseball pants are simply not a good combination.)  Dinner time!  I had a good 15 minutes to chow down and respond to work email before it was time to put down one of the kids (to bed of course.)  Ideally, I’d be out of there by 10:00 pm at which point I could hang up the now clean socks and put everything else sans pants in the wash.  I’d grab a beer from the fridge downstairs and plop down in front of the TV with my beloved game charts.  Stats were always first (pitching followed by defense followed by offense), followed by a rotation update based on pitch limits, and then the next game’s lineup and positions.  I dreaded the positions.  It’s like juggling machetes (balance innings in the field, give everyone a chance at various positions but keep some consistency so kids weren’t bouncing all over the field inning to inning and put a competitive team out there while not showing a hint of “Daddy Ball”.)   By the time it came to positions, I was ready for beer number two which was good because it was also a reminder I needed to hang up the clean uniforms.  Now all that stood between me and unwinding was a game recap emailed to my assistant coaches along with the stats and the next game lineup and positions.  Of course it was also between 12:30am and 1:00am now.  On good nights, I was lucky not to pass out on the couch, so there was no chance I was going to get up three hours later to ride.

Lack of time, lack of sleep and late night eating and drinking; I doubt you will find a Tour de France champion with that combination of habits, though I’m guessing I’m not alone as a coach.  And truthfully, I wouldn’t change a thing (well, I’d lose 15lbs before the season.)  At least there’s some hope.  With Thanksgiving out of the way and soccer season over, I can start that diet and make the long-awaited date with my bicycle.  At least until winter baseball sessions start next month.