Traveling Sports Teams for Girls
What do softball player Michele Smith and soccer player Mia Hamm have in common? Well, both are heroes to millions of little girls, both are world-class female athletes and both have represented the USA at the Olympic games, bringing home gold and silver medals in their respective sports.
One other thing the two women have in common is that as young girls they not only played for their community leagues but also participated in what are known as "travel" leagues. These leagues are formed as a sort of year-round, all-star team to allow girls who love sports to play beyond the few weeks of the regular season.
History of Travel Sports
Travel leagues are not unique to girls, although it's generally recognized that softball was one of the first sports to organize travel leagues on a regular basis. Bill Redmer, editor of Fast Pitch USA Online and an elite softball coach/consultant, says that year-round leagues probably started in the 1970s as girls started to become more involved in sports. California, with a climate that's conducive to outdoor sports almost all year, was in the vanguard of the movement. Now, virtually all sports have these travel teams for both boys and girls.
They are called travel teams simply because they often travel around their region playing other teams. What they actually are is a carefully handpicked team of some of the most dedicated and talented young athletes of their area.
The College Connection
According to Redmer, the ultimate and original goal of these teams is money – college money, that is. College coaches rarely attend high school sports events simply because they don't have time. Unless your child is such an incredible player that she is written up in USA Today, the chances are a college coach will never see her play. This is where travel sports come in. Many of these sports host local college showcase weekends or big national tournaments that are attended by college coaches. This allows them to see a lot of talent in a short period of time.
In addition, if your child really loves the sport and isn't just playing because Dad says he should, the physical activity is one of the best things your child can be doing. As he hones his skills and continues to love the sport, this may be a good route to a little college financial help.
Sarah Cook of Cheswick, Pa., hopes soccer gives her a financial kick for college. She started playing soccer in first grade, and eventually, she tried out for one of the easier travel teams in her area and made it. At that point she was just playing for fun and for the social benefits. When she got into middle school, she realized that she really was serious about the game and wanted to play at a higher level. She tried out for an elite travel team in her area and made it as a goalie. Now at 15, she's hoping that down the road she'll be offered at least a partial financial scholarship to a couple of her preferred colleges.
Pros and Cons
Cook's experiences with travel soccer have always been positive because of her parents' attitudes. They attend her games but only react in positive ways. They do not coach. They have never pushed her to "stick with it." If she ever wanted to quit, she knew she could walk away, and there would be no recriminations. She also has many other interests.
On the other hand, Abby* has been pushed since she was old enough to put on a softball mitt. As a young child she was a very good softball player, and at age 10, she tried out for a local, elite softball travel league and made the under-10 team. The following year she made the under-12 team. Unfortunately, when puberty hit, Abby became awkward and didn't make the under-14 team. It was devastating to Abby, and her father's reaction didn't help.
He pushed her to try out for other teams. She didn't make any of them. He assured her that she was a great athlete, and it was the shortsighted coaches that were at fault. Finally, the father organized his own team made up of other girls in the same situation so that Abby could play, but at the same time the family fell apart. Abby's mother, who told this story on the condition of anonymity for her family, couldn't take the way Abby's father's reaction didn't allow Abby to move on. He had become obsessed with Abby's "career" to the extent of their family's and Abby's emotional health.
"He couldn't accept the fact that Abby turned out to be just an average athlete," says Kathy*, Abby's mom. "Worst of all is that he has Abby convinced she's something she's not, and each rejection just crushes her a little more. She's already having problems with anorexia, and her attitude is so bad toward her school coaches – because her dad has convinced her that he knows best – that she's been virtually blacklisted from all teams, because no one wants to have to deal with her dad. He's the only one she can play for now, and he's the one she shouldn't play for."
Redmer has seen the situation from both sides – both as a father and as a coach. When parents take their child's athletic lives too seriously, it can become a heartbreaking situation. The facts are these, according to Redmer. Prior to puberty, girls and boys are roughly equal in the sports world, both physically and mentally. In fact, girls often have the edge, because they tend to be better coordinated.
"Up until puberty little girls are extremely competitive and athletic. In general, they outshine boys," Redmer says. "Dad sees this and thinks, 'Hey, my kid's a major leaguer!' In order to keep her interest, he starts a travel league and has more interest than he knows what to do with. The problem comes when the little girls get to be about 13 or so and decide sports aren't as important. A lot of times, they continue to stick with it to please Dad, or maybe Dad makes them stick with it, and it becomes a problem."
There are also other considerations. Playing for these travel teams, depending upon the sport, can be prohibitively expensive. Some cost thousands of dollars a year for equipment, field time, uniforms, travel expenses and insurance. Families can find every second of their spare time consumed with their child's sport. Less athletically-inclined siblings may resent the focus on one child. One parent may become obsessed with their child's "career" to the point that it causes strains in the marriage.
However, if these issues can be worked out and if the sport can be kept in perspective (in other words, it is only a game), this can be a fun period of a child's life – and it just might turn into more down the road.
* Last name withheld to protect privacy.