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How To Tackle The Stress Of Your Child Participating In A Traveling Sports Team

Ashley Robinson travels a lot. The 12-year-old resident of Cherokee, N.C., plays for the Amateur Athletic Union's (AAU) basketball team, the Lady Royals. She usually travels twice a week to practice, an hour away. She travels a greater distance for games. She likes playing basketball, but she doesn't like sitting through the traveling.

When asked the effect all this traveling has on her family, Robinson says, "Dad gets upset about all of the money we spend on basketball, and Mom, who is a teacher, gets behind on her schoolwork. She also gets behind on housework since we are gone many weekends. My sister gets bored and irritable during lengthy travels and from sitting in hot gyms."

Indeed, when preteens are involved with traveling sports teams, it affects every aspect of their lives. Their families are caught in the crossfire. Decisions such as who travels, how often and how to balance academic obligations are a few of many that parents have to make.

The Right Reasons

"Traveling team schedules rule family life, and the young athlete and his or her parents basically have little choice in the matter," says Susan Newman, a social psychologist at Rutgers University who is studying this topic in depth. "If they don't attend practices and games, however far away they may be, they are asked [or] told to give up the sport."

Clearly, participating in a traveling sport is a commitment. In order for parents to maintain a healthy balance, they need to be honest about what they hope to accomplish by enrolling their child in competitive athletics, says Gregg Heinzmann, director of the Youth Sports Research Council at Rutgers University. "Is it a college scholarship? A professional sports career?" Heinzmann says. "These goals are certainly commendable, but are they realistic?"

Seeing any kind of successful payoff later on isn't guaranteed. Heinzmann points out that only about 1 in 350 high school student athletes receive any kind of financial support to play sports at the collegiate level.

Heinzmann cites the philosophy the council promotes to help parents maintain a proper perspective: "Those who believe that youth sports can have a profound effect upon the youth of our nation must also realize that such influence depends heavily upon the quality of the adult leadership. Supportive adults need not only the knowledge and skills to conduct safe and enjoyable sports programs, but also the value systems that allow them to realize that healthy child development, not the outcome of the competition, is the most important indicator of success."

Common Questions

Once parents have done their research, and their child expresses a definite desire to participate in a traveling sport, certain questions need to be answered, like how often should preteen athletes travel?

For this particular question, there are no guidelines, says Pam Brill, a licensed psychologist who has dealt with these issues herself. "When the travel and stress of physical training and practice and competition time interfere with school work and normal socialization and with family bonding, including with other siblings, it is probably too much," she says.

The bottom line is, "too much" will be evident in lower grades, a lack of passion for the sport or by them expressing it directly, Brill says.

Another question is who travels when the preteen travels? This all depends on the family structure and any siblings. Many parents' experiences likely reflect that of Mary Evans of Asheville, N.C. She usually travels with her 13-year-old daughter Kate, who has been playing for the AAU since she was 9. Evans' husband stays home with their 9-year-old son. Sometimes they all go, and sometimes they meet grandparents at a town "in between" if they're heading in that direction.

If parents use this travel time to talk with their kids, it can be a good bonding time, Brill says. This is what Evans has found. Despite this "split" in her family, Evans says the face time she has with her daughter is invaluable. "[I have] great chances for conversation, teachable moments and a chance to interact with her as she meets and interacts with girls from very diverse socioeconomic backgrounds," she says.

Some Things to Think About

Surprisingly, traveling sports usually don't affect school since games are on the weekends. Kate only misses a day or half a day once or twice a year. Her mother says it's easy to make up; they just plan ahead with her teacher. Kate also has time to study and read on the road. And once again, all goes well as long as they plan ahead and don't leave everything to the last minute.

And while Kate is friends with her teammates, she does miss her close friends who don't travel with her. She also misses some parties and other social activities. To accommodate this, sometimes they take a friend along.

As for finances, it does get expensive, but there are things to do to help. Evans says they share rooms, carpool, eat in if possible and conduct fundraisers.

Ultimately, Evans feels the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. "Girls involved in athletics are statistically less likely to get pregnant, do drugs, drop out of school, etc.," she says. "At this level, [Kate] is busy," Evans says. And according to Evans, being busy lends itself to lots of advantages. Kate doesn't have much time for TV or the phone; she is learning time management and meeting girls from other walks of life; she is also building a healthy body image, focusing on eating right and taking care of herself.

"As long as [Kate] is making the effort and enjoying herself, we will make it happen," Evans says. "It does not matter if she's the last player off the bench. When her enthusiasm wanes and she is not having fun, then we'll know it is too much!"

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