What age is the right age to join club sports?

We get asked this question frequently. Club soccer, club baseball, travel basketball? How young is too young and what age is correct?

Coaching Dilemma – Athlete Dilemma

By Dean Hebert

The conflicts between club coaches and school coaches are well-known. On rare occasions the school coach also acts as the club coach for their athletes. However, far more likely the club and school systems are in competition with each other.

  • What philosophy on training prevails?
  • How are competitions treated? Is one put above the other?
  • Are training sessions cooperatively designed in the student-athletes’ best interest or is it a tug of war on what the focus will be?
  • Do one-a-day workouts become two-a-days or three-a-days as a result of coach and team demands?
  • What role do parents play? When and how should they intercede and advocate for their youth?
  • When there are opposing views – who settles them and how are they settled?
  • Is it about egos?
  • Is the athlete penalized playing time or positions if their loyalty to a team is questioned?
  • Is the athlete’s best interest being served?

Let’s just take one example of Mary Cain who lives in Bronxville NY. Not out of high school, this 16-year-old is an elite runner who sought out the highest level of coaching. She is coached by Alberto Salazar in Oregon. She no longer runs for her high school team. She has set national youth and high school records at distances from 800m to 5000m.

A talented high school soccer player who plays both club and school ball: Different coaches. Different approaches. Different training philosophies. Different priorities. Conflicting tournament schedules. The club coach clearly states the only way you will be recognized is through high level club competition. The school coach has college connections and insists on team and school loyalty. (i.e. If you don’t come to practice you don’t play.)

1. Situations are not all created equal. How many athletes are at a Mary Cain level – one. Odds are your youth athlete is not at that level. That means you will more than likely have to deal with several coaches along the way and some of them simultaneously.

2. Only 2% of high school athletes go to college on scholarship. And only .06% eventually go professional – and that only counts the major sports. If you are in an Olympic sport (like track & field) the odds are far worse.

Why do I bring this up? We have to put sports competition – and teams and coaches in the process – into perspective. This helps us deal with competing issues and contentious situations.


  • Focus on what the athlete and parents want; not what you want.
  • Have factual objective data, not your opinion, to back up your side. Whether that is how to train, what competitions are needed, what the future possibilities for the athlete are.
  • Let go of your egos. This is not about you. This about the athlete.
  • Communicate with the other coach and collaborate to make the athlete the best he or she can be. (This is rare but I’ve experienced it.)

Parents & Youth Athletes

  • Parents, focus on your youth athlete. This is not about you. It is not about the coach.
  • Keep perspective. It is not about potential. That is what dreams are about. The odds are clearly that one more team membership, tournament, practice or cross-training session will not get them to the next level.
  • Do not confuse “giving my youth every opportunity possible” with trying to “make something that isn’t there” or “giving my youth something I never had”.
  • Physical health and mental well-being should be the overriding objectives.
  • Keep open lines of communication. By high school the athlete’s wishes should carry more weight than a parents’ or coach’s in this scope.
  • Parents – ultimately you must be a voice of reason. Leave your personal feelings aside (easier said than done.) Use real data (not opinion) if you want to sway your youth in a direction. What is to be gained or lost? This is a learning opportunity for your youth about decision-making and accepting responsibility and consequences (unknown – good or bad).
  • Too much, too soon yields burned out athletes. They not only do not reach any hypothetical potential, they often walk away from the sport all together.
  • Remember that this is not a life-or-death decision.

I coach both club and high school. My perspective is that your high school years are supposed to be enjoyed. Being part of a school team is something almost every athlete looks back on fondly. You are in high school only once. It is where your friends and school-mates are. It does not have to be an either-or situation. If your club and school coaches cooperate you could have a fulfilling time with both. If not, then there is opportunity to take part in club sports when your high school sport is out-of-season. The one thing I know is that when egos and emotions are set aside and the youth athlete’s interest is served – we will have done right by them.

Dean Hebert M.Ed. MGCP is a certified mental games coach specializing in youth athletes and youth coaches. He has authored several books and hundreds of articles. He works with individuals, teams and coaches in all sports as well as performs guest speaking engagements on mental toughness. His website is www.mindsetforperformance.com.