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Let's Eliminate Elite and Travel Teams for Pre-High-School Athletes

Elite or bust mentality isn't fair to the players.

I get dozens of emails each month from parents and coaches who are frustrated with the direction that a particular sport or youth league in their town has taken.

In 99 percent of these correspondences I’m asked to keep the specific details and the sender’s identity private. And I always do. You can bet Grandma’s inheritance on it.

Often, however, I will draw examples and situations from that info (as well as my own experiences) so that I can make a point based on actual events.

Here (based on an email and a conversation) is an example of why I think Select Teams (Travel Teams, Elite Teams, etc.) have no place among pre-high school athletes.

Jack didn’t try out for the 8th Grade Travel Basketball Team. There were a lot of reasons for his decision. He knew the coach from another sport and quite frankly thought he was a jerk. He was the kind of guy who coached by intimidation. And besides, the coach's son was always talking trash to Jack. It sounded like stuff that probably came from his father.

It also cost hundreds of dollars for the season and that didn’t even count sneakers. Jack knew things were tight in the household, so he was happy to play in the Rec league with most of the other kids.

Jack was having a fantastic season. The Monday after he’d won the game with a 3-point fade away jumper at the buzzer, most of his friends were talking about it.

The Travel Team kids began to say that since it was only a Rec League game, it didn’t really mean that much. Rec ball was just … rec ball.

During the week, Jack’s coach ran into one of the referees and was curious about some of the calls during the game — a little clarification to pass along to his players. The ref’s response was, “It’s just Rec ball. None of those kids are going to make the high school team anyway.”

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. At 13 years old, the word on the street is that unless you are on the Travel Team, your basketball career will end upon entering your freshman year of high school.

Whether that’s actually true is not at issue here. Can’t you see what is happening? Youth sports are turning into an elite or bust mentality. And what’s worse is that Coach Daddy and his buddies are often holding the sledge hammer.

Would you blame Jack for getting discouraged and not trying out for the freshman team next winter? And if I hear one more time how these “lessons” are going to prepare him for the less-than-perfect life that awaits him, I’m going to throw up my Greek yogurt.  

In some sports, such as soccer, 9- and 10-year-olds are trying out for the honor of being called elite. And if they are cut, they are not elite. This is usually decided by a group of parents with stakes in the decisions. And as a result we are turning these “special” kids into brats who won’t know how to handle the “failure” of not being elite at 11, 12, or 16. But the reality is that once you get a group of players together at such a young age, they end up staying together.

So even if Jack (Fred, Harry, or Steve) wanted to join the team at such a late stage of their careers, they’d have to displace some of the lifers. That would surely screw up the team chemistry. Then there’s the group of parents who have been sipping lattes together for three years. Do you dare break that up?

I believe adults create these teams out of a fear that their “talented” child is going to get smothered beneath the crush of the average player. If they travel, then the competition must be tougher. If they travel they must be getting better coaching. If they travel they will shine brighter and win championships and scholarships. 

OK, I can imagine how radical this is all sounding right about now. Put your kid in the pool with all those average kids? My goodness, he or she will waste away and eventually disappear in a cloud of obscurity!

Join Me

If you’ve been reading since Day One, you know my views on youth sports. I need parents, coaches, and league administrators interested in forming a coalition (if you will) to take back youth sports for our children. (I’ll think of a clever name.)

You know where I am so zip me an email and we’ll go from there (I’ll try to keep traveling down to a minimum.).

Ron Goralski September 11, 2012 at 04:09 PM
Hi Friends, I'm working on a column regarding one's youth sports legacy. Those who have passed away and left behind something for others to remember them by. Give me the person who comes to mind in your town and what their contribution was. Please send it to ron.goralski@snet.net. Put LEGACY as the title of the email please. Be sure to list your town. Thanks!
Nick Russo March 01, 2013 at 02:57 AM
In too many instances Club sports are destroying HS athletics with promises of better coaching, better competition and ultimately better scholarships to more prestigious universities. Loyalty to a school program too often takes a back seat to club loyalty. The movement has become a gimmick and a terrific $$$ maker.
WL native March 01, 2013 at 05:26 PM
Absolutely right. My daughter wanted to start playing AAU when she was nine years old and she did until she was 17. She left her mark on the court like I knew four years ago she would. She performed, succeeded and went to States all four years. She is part of the Hartford Courant' Fabulous 15 and made All Conference. What great memories she has and I as well and at her very last high school game sat her AAU coach on my left and one of her college scouts on my right. It couldn't have been any more perfect. She wanted to work hard and play at her level against others who wanted the same, succeeded and has fulfilled her dream of playing college hoops. Now, the ball is in her court when she decides between four colleges where she'll play.
Gary Druckenmiller March 01, 2013 at 05:33 PM
Brilliantly stated Nick!
Jerry O'Connor March 01, 2013 at 07:41 PM
There are lots of problems with youth sports programs at all levels. Lots. And in my twenty years of experience with them I can say that the vast majority are caused by human nature, not the structure of the programs. I agree with Andrew. Eliminating youth sports programs at ANY level is counterproductive. For it means that some kids will not get to play and will thus be denied the opportunity for important learning experiences in teamwork, sportsmanship, health and fitness, training, goals, etc. So please, continue to rail against over-competitive and egotistical coaches, myopic parents, and the all the other evils that are unfortunately so pervasive. And talk about how youth sports programs can be improved and these issues overcome. But don’t throw the baby out with bathwater. Our pre-teens and teens need organized social and sports activities now more than ever.

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