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?

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Who is to Blame for the Decline in Youth Sports? (Part 1)

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck LLC

In September of last year the Washington Post printed an article that should send shock waves through the youth sports community. In the past decade youth sports participation in “the big four”, baseball, football, soccer and basketball has fallen to under 37% of school age children. Why is this happening and is there anything we can do to reverse this trend?

In order to have any chance of turning around the downward spiral in youth sports, we first need to identify some of the causes. What follows is a list of various factors that have combined to create a culture which is not conducive to mass participation. No one factor is solely to blame, nor is there any easy solution.

Travel Sports

Whether you want to refer to them as travel, club, competitive or select teams, the explosion of non-recreational sports organizations has undoubtedly had a tremendous impact on the youth sports landscape.

I am not against travel sports. All of my kids played them. What I am not a fan of is travel sports instead of rec sports. I’m not in favor of travel sports as a sole way of life, as a child or (usually) a parent’s identity. I feel that, often, they begin too early. I do believe travel sports and rec sports should be able to coexist. My boys, for instance, all played Little League games during the week and on Saturday. They then played a travel ball game or two on Sunday. Most of the kids on their Little League team did not play travel….rec ball was good enough. But the kids who wanted more got it without losing the Little League experience.

The hardcore travel parent will argue that the coaching their child gets at the rec level is inferior and that they are not learning the proper fundamentals. Then why not do something about it? Organize a coaches clinic with the local high school coach. I don’t know of one high school coach who would not do this for free. Not to insert a shameless plug, but buy CoachDecks for your coaches so that even those with no experience can run great practices. Volunteer yourself. But to run away from the problem instead of trying to solve it is unconscionable.

It’s a simple matter of math. Travel ball is not rec ball because it is not open to all skill levels (or income levels but I’ll get to that later). Therefore in a community where there may be, say, 100 kids who might form eight rec baseball or soccer teams, instead only 25 make up“A” and “B” team rosters of travel. Consequently, the remaining 75 kids often feel less worthy or embarrassed and choose not to play at all. If they do play, the league is diminished in size and quality, making the experience less attractive. The result? Kids play a year of rec and then don’t choose to come back for a follow-up season, and the participation numbers take a hit.

Why can’t competitive organizations scale back to allow for participation in recreational leagues and in other sports? One reason is money. The people running these leagues know that if they demand 100% commitment they can charge top dollar to participate. They say their mission is to help kids but often they are really more interested in their incomes. When my oldest son had finished with Little League, we had a little travel ball team made up of a dozen kids from our league who were friends. The cost was minimal. The parents only paid for uniforms and umpires. My friend, who also had a son on the team, and I coached for free. We played what I thought was a reasonable schedule of games.

Then a young guy who had played in college formed a new travel organization and recruited players from our team. Several of them left to play for him, leaving our team without enough to continue. The young coach had a brilliant strategy. He told all of the parents of 12 and 13 year-old kids that he’d make sure they all played in high school. That was all many of them needed to hear and they signed the check. I don’t know if anyone asked him how he was going to make sure they all made the high school team, but since not making the team in a few years was a big fear, he stoked it. At the time, this young coach was going to law school and said this travel club was just something he was doing until he became a lawyer. Thirteen years later he is still running what is now a huge competitive baseball organization as its CEO and has, to my knowledge, not bothered to finish his law degree.

Cost

Rising cost is another reason fewer kids are participating in sports and that is also related to the travel sports explosion. What is interesting is that years ago competitive organizations really were reserved only for those who exhibited the talent to be considered elite. Then, many of these clubs figured out that they could simply create “A”, “B”, “C”, even “D” teams at each age group so that they didn’t have to turn anyone away who was willing to pay. Parental egos are satisfied because they can say their child plays for (insert prestigious club name), and they can feel that they are giving them an advantage over others. This has often led to less than rec quality play at travel club prices. And it has hip-checked out of the way a lot of youngsters who may or may not be just as talented, but who can’t afford fees.

And even the cost of some rec sports like football and baseball are daunting. Any quality baseball bat now costs in the hundreds of dollars and if you don’t have your own, the parents of the kids who paid that much don’t want you borrowing theirs all season. Some families see soccer cleats as a luxury they can’t afford. Kids from households earning less than $25,000/year play sports at half the rate of kids from homes making at least $100,000. It is surely not because the poorer boys and girls are just not as interested. That greater resources provide greater advantages is a fact we all have to live with in business and real life. But should it now trickle down all the way to our youngsters?

Next: Parents and Coaches

Brian Gotta is a former youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com

Me First or Team First?

All four of my kids played recreational sports while also playing on club teams. That dynamic continued through high school. There were clearly pluses and minuses to both. But as youth sports trends toward more involvement in travel leagues, there is one important factor to consider.

It is likely that everyone reading this, to some degree, is involved in youth sports. And it is also likely that the lessons children acquire by participating are among the major reasons we want our kids to play. We love that they learn that hard work leads to success, that failure is temporary and can be overcome with effort and resilience. Both of these can be taught to players in recreational as well as competitive sports. So, if this is true, that the essentials of work ethic and bouncing back from adversity are learned in either environment, what difference does it make which path is chosen?

As I said, my kids played both. My daughter played rec and high school soccer, as well as club. It was the club soccer that got her a college scholarship. My three boys played Little League (with me as coach) and high school baseball, while simultaneously playing travel ball. Here was the big difference between the two: In competitive sports no one really cared about winning. In rec and high school, that is all they cared about.

I’ll start with my daughter: When her high school career came to an end with a playoff loss, she was inconsolable. Her school had never won a city girls soccer title and she wanted it more than I can describe. A championship would have been huge news to the entire school. There would be a banner hanging in the gym forever. Her regular league games against our bigger, rival school just a couple miles down the road were wars. She would have traded her best personal game ever for a team win.

Contrast that with her club team. It was a very good team which several times went to national playoffs with a chance to win a U.S. championship. And all the girls would have liked to have won. But winning was secondary. Because they all also knew that scouts from every major college were watching. Each of them would have rather scored a spectacular goal in a losing cause than play poorly and win. It was twenty individuals wearing the same jersey. And they knew that outside of themselves and their parents, no one else would know or care whether they finished as national champs or also-rans.

As I mentioned, I coached my three boys in Little League. We had a great league, and all of my sons’ friends also played. Every year the talk in the schoolyard was about who was going to win the championship. The players on the team that had won the previous season had bragging rights. It didn’t matter if you were a star or a part-time player, you wanted to be able to say, “we beat you.”

My oldest son, now a pro baseball player, has coached some travel baseball in the off-season and says he thinks travel ball is killing the sport. In his observation, none of the kids want to be out there. No one cares if they win or lose. When my second son, now also in the pro ranks, heard this he confided that he used to hate our travel ball games when he was young. He said he never would have admitted it then, but he always dreaded them. Why would this be? A Little League game on Saturday against his friends from school, the most fun he ever had. Then a club game on Sunday against guys he didn’t know, he wished he didn’t have to go. They were both baseball games. But they were different.

So my contention is this: While there are many benefits to travel sports, where it lacks is in the teaching of some of the most important lessons learned in athletics: Teamwork. Putting the good of the team ahead of yourself. And winning.

Now a cynic might say he doesn’t care about any of these things if his kid gets a scholarship to play in college. But are we shortchanging our youngsters in life by thinking short-term? Are we robbing them of valuable experience by taking them out of youth league baseball and softball in favor of travel, or by having them play Academy soccer instead of high school?

Are we raising a generation of kids who are going to learn that they should look out for themselves first and others later, if at all? Are we bringing up children who will never know what it is like to really be part of a team that is all pulling for a common goal instead of individual accomplishment? Teamwork isn’t just about sports. It’s about getting along with friends and family, about being successful in the workplace years after athletic careers are over. When will those lessons be learned if not on the youth play fields?

Years ago I read an article in the Los Angeles Times sports section about the number of kids opting for travel baseball instead of high school. There was a quote from the USC head baseball coach that I’ll paraphrase which was, ‘I like kids who play high school because they care about winning.’ Even the worst cynic who isn’t concerned about his children being taught teamwork and self sacrifice would probably want them to learn to win. Sports have always had an important place in our society, for good reason. But when team sports really just become individual sports being played by a bunch of youngsters at the same time, I wonder if what is gained isn’t outweighed by what we’ve lost.

Brian Gotta is a former youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com

You Get What You Pay For

By Brian Gotta

I received two emails in the same week that were related. The first was from a parent who was seeking advice on how to handle her daughter’s first-ever team sport experience in which the coaches only cared about winning and didn’t let everyone play. The second was from a coach who was removed from his soccer team for focusing more on player development than winning. In both cases, I had a similar response:

The parent who wrote me complained that her fifth grade daughter was trying basketball for the first time and, in the first game, didn’t get in to play at all. She said her daughter cried on the bench, after the game and all the way home. Of course, I felt sorry for the young girl. But something about the story didn’t sound right.

I replied back and asked if this was a competitive or a recreational team. The mother responded that it was a competitive team. She said she’d spoken with the coaches after the game, and they’d told her that they would be trying to win every game and that only the best girls were going to play unless they were way ahead or way behind. They recommended her daughter try recreational basketball.

I get these types of emails frequently, from parents who have put a child on a competitive team and now are upset over lack of playing time or what position their child is playing. I always wonder the same thing. Didn’t they think to ask before they signed up? Weren’t they informed that the objective on this team is to win, only the best will play, and time on the field or the court will have to be earned, not granted? Why then do they complain when their child doesn’t get equal playing time with others? They apparently want it both ways. The idea of playing on the best team seems great until it means their child will be sitting the bench. Then it isn’t fair.

If you want equal playing time, that’s what recreational sports are for. Most rec leagues have rules mandating a certain number of innings or time be given to each child regardless of ability so that everyone gets a chance. The emphasis is not supposed to be primarily on winning, but on player development and enjoyment. If your child isn’t ready for the more competitive environment, (as this mother’s daughter clearly was not as evidenced by the crying), then let them play Little League, or AYSO, or whatever other sport, in a recreational setting. While these types of recreational leagues can still be very competitive, they are designed for players of all skill levels, not just elite athletes.

The other email from the coach seemed like a sadder case to me. Judging by his writing, English was not his first language. He told me he’d played as a youngster, had invested his own time and money into coaching this team as well as in obtaining a coaching license. He didn’t even have a child on the team. He was doing it, as he said, ‘because he loved the game.’ I told him that it was unfortunate that the club had taken such a hard line stance because he seemed to be someone I’d like to have coaching my kids. And like in the previous example, the players were preteen. Still, if the club’s philosophy was only about winning and he wasn’t in line with that mindset, there was no advice I could give him other than to find a recreational soccer club and take his desire to teach youngsters there. Youth leagues are always looking for volunteers, I told him, and I even searched through our database of clubs and referred him to one nearby.

So yes, it is a good idea to know what you’re getting into before you sign up. Ask about playing time and positions before you write the check. If the team doesn’t guarantee that everyone will play and rotate to different positions and yet you still sign up, then don’t complain if it doesn’t work out for your child.

And with all of that said, what kind of 5th grade girls basketball team is SO competitive that some girls just are not going to get to play unless the team is ahead by 20 points? I’m not a basketball coach but I guarantee you I could win some games and still make sure everyone got in for a few minutes, no matter how unskilled they were. In fact, win or lose, I couldn’t imagine coaching both halves, making substitutions, and looking at little kids on the bench but never once putting them in. If everything this mom was telling me was accurate, competitive or rec, shame on those coaches.

And as for the young guy who just wants to coach soccer skills and isn’t as concerned with winning, I feel sorry for the club that decided they didn’t need him. Because based on the brief email correspondence I had with him, they lost a good man. It is amazing how often in youth sports we can’t see the forest for the trees.

Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at www.sportsbooks4kids.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com