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 2)

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck

Parents

I have no doubt that some parents are driving their kids away from youth sports. The “Crazy Sports Parent” has become less a caricature and more a phenomenon in the past decade. Why? One can only assume that the more competitive the environment, the more on-edge everyone gets. If Johnny is on the “C” team, his goal (or is it his parents’ goal?) is to move up to the “B” team. But, from his parents’ perspective, if he isn’t playing “as much as he should be”, then that’s perceived as the coach’s fault. Or if he doesn’t perform well, it’s the official’s fault. It might be that the other team’s fans are “out of control” and we have to match their obnoxious fervor.

Parents today are bombarded by sports 24/7, amplifying their significance in society. I wrote about how some are chasing scholarships but for most it’s about ego and status. After the game they pepper their youngster with questions about her performance saying things like, “It looked like you didn’t even want to be out there.” Maybe you’re right. But it could be the reason they don’t want to be out there is you.

Coaches

Unlike 25 years ago, there are now two common types of coaches in youth sports. The parent-volunteer and the paid professional. The parent volunteer usually has a child on the team and is generally more prevalent in rec sports. Just like with parents I discussed above, there are also crazy competitive, emotional, recreational coaches. Full disclosure, when coaching my first boy in Little League I had my moments too. By the time I coached my third son, I toned it way down. However, in all my years coaching in Little League Majors there was never a kid who played on my team who didn’t come back again the next season. I’m more proud of that than of any championships.

We’ve all seen the videos or heard the stories of the rec coaches who berate their players, the officials, or opponents. Yet the biggest complaints I hear about volunteer coaches are that they don’t know “the FUNDAMENTALS” and that they employ “DADDY BALL”. I’m sure there are many situations where both are true. It is likely that there are plenty of instances where the coaching staff’s kids get preferential treatment when it comes to playing time and position.

However, I also feel a lot of that can be perception. A parent whose child is not playing as much as or in the position in which that parent would like, is probably not going to blame the child. My experience, in the many emails I receive asking for advice, is that the parent always believes the child is being treated unfairly. They tell me theirs is every bit as talented as the coaches’ kid, but is just a victim of nepotism. Again, I’m sure this happens, but in all my years of coaching I can only think of a couple situations where the coach of an opposing team, in my opinion, gave his child unwarranted favoritism. With that said, I’ll bet many parents, looking through a less objective lens, would say it was happening much more frequently.

Which brings me to FUNDAMENTALS. Why do I capitalize this word? Because it seems to be such a big deal with sports parents these days. Their son or daughter is not being taught the proper fundamentals by their rec coach, so they say. Once again, I know that often this is true. However, I would also submit that to the average, unknowing parent, the same message will sound differently depending on who is delivering it. If the frazzled volunteer coach who showed up at practice straight from his job says something meant to be instructional, the parent bystander might figure he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But the same words coming from the mouth of the professional coach who played in college sound profound.

So if some rec coaches can be overzealous, fail to teach proper fundamentals and tend to give their own kids advantages over others, isn’t that a good argument for pulling your kids from the local rec league and putting them into travel clubs where they will be taught by impartial, knowledgeable coaches? There is some validity to that. But remember, in my many years of coaching I rarely witnessed “daddy ball”. The other dads I coached against mostly did a great job of teaching, and I never saw a YouTube meltdown on the field. So while poor volunteer coaching does exist, I don’t believe it is as rampant as some will have us think. And, as I maintained in Part One of this series, if the coaching is lacking, do something about it. Get involved as a volunteer. Organize clinics. Provide training materials (like our product). Everyone can be taught to improve.

But let’s look at the other side.

What I also witnessed in my years observing and participating in travel sports was that many of the paid coaches had an attitude that was not conducive to helping youngsters. They’d saunter onto the field wearing dark sunglasses, unfriendly; their demeanor a combination of boredom, arrogance and churlishness. I’d wonder, are they angry because their playing career is over and now they’re relegated to coaching kids? Or is this act borne of their feeling of superiority since they played at a higher level than anyone else at the field? And just like we can’t paint all rec coaches with the same brush, not all travel coaches fit this description. I coached alongside of and my daughter played for several paid coaches who were fun, approachable and great teachers to boot. But when it comes down to it, the former college or pro player who is now out of the game and coaching in the club may not be doing it so much because he loves it, but because it is his job. The rec coach, on the other hand, is more likely out there because he enjoys it and truly wants to be around the kids.

At an earlier and earlier age, today’s parents are wringing their hands about their child “falling behind.” My viewpoint is this: A kid who is not taught the “proper fundamentals” at age 6, 7, 8, even 12, is not going to be irrevocably damaged. If they keep playing, they will eventually run into good coaching that can maximize their potential. But if, on the other hand, they want to quit because they don’t like going to practices and games, they’ll never have that chance to develop. In terms of who is more likely to make kids want to come back because they just had fun out there, I’ll generally put my money on a volunteer coach over a pro.

Next: Specialization, Pressure and Electronics

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

Another voice in the crowd

We’ve opined on this topic many times. How travel sports can be rewarding, but can also eat away at a family’s structure. Debra Moffitt of Slate shares many of the same thoughts.

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

Are Youth Sports Chewing Up Kids and Parents?

According to this Dr. Andrew Jacobs in his article in the Washington Times they are.  What are your thoughts?

Great nutritional advice from TrueSport

Our partners at TrueSport have written a great article for the parents of athletes traveling to and from competitions. Some tremendous “food for thought!”