Family

Don’t Let Travel Sports Eat Your Life!

Escaping the time suck of youth athletics.

Parents sitting in the rain watching youth sports.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.

Hey, travel-sports parent, do you have a minute?

Just kidding, I know you don’t! I know you’re stretched thin as an Under Armour base layer. You’re buried in sports laundry and there’s another practice tonight, plus a tournament this weekend. Have you thought about freeing yourself from the vagabond travel-team lifestyle?

Weekends in roadside Hampton Inns and team dinners at Applebee’s. Long Saturday afternoons in anonymous malls, waiting for the rain to stop. Nighttime fun in the indoor pool, where kids crowd leisure travelers out of the hot tub while parents sip deserved cocktails. Meanwhile, at home, the basic requirements of running a household get overlooked. School projects get short shrift and you have to make a Sunday-night run to A.C. Moore, the parental walk of shame.

Unless your elite athlete is an only child, younger sibs get toted along like luggage and older kids grumble about going to yet another tournament. Leaving them behind can feel like abandonment; bringing them with can be tortuous and expensive. If you do drag them to a travel-sporting event: For your own safety, don’t let their electronic devices run out of charge.

Then there’s you, the grown-up, and the tender shoots of your own humble interests. Do you long to finally learn the guitar, refinish your kitchen cabinets, or plant that vegetable garden? Not likely with your jammed calendar, my friend. But hey, that’s what Pinterest is for. While you’re on there, throw another pin on your Date Night board, because that’s as close as you and your spouse are going to get to live music and menus that don’t include a kid’s section.

Look, before you freak, I’m one of you. You and I might have stood side by side at some soccer game in the rain, stamping our feet to keep them from going numb. Or maybe it was in a barnlike ice-hockey arena, where we put our quarters together to feed the overhead heater powered by toaster-oven coils. Had you checked inside my minivan, you would have found the remains of a half-eaten pizza. Dinner.

But I’ve stopped buying what hypercompetitive youth sports teams are selling. Should you?

Once a niche enterprise, the cozy travel team has kaboomed into the travel-team industrial complex. Today, these elite teams often must support salaries for experienced coaches and the maintenance of giant sports facilities, said John O’Sullivan, founder of the Changing the Game Project. Your kid’s travel team is a business, and a business needs customers. Time was, travel teams sought out a handful of older, exceptionally talented athletes so they could compete with other great players and get visibility. Today, the experience is becoming commonplace, the default way many kids experience team sports—and for lots of kids, the decision to join a travel team comes not at seventh grade, but as early as 7. That means the decision to join a travel team is most often made by well-meaning parents for their young children, rather than by ambitious teen athletes for themselves. Instead of a travel-team experience that lasts a handful of years, a parent who chooses travel sports for her 7-year-old may be signing up for a decadelong career.

The professionalization of youth sports makes many parents feel as though a travel team is a kind of insurance policy: If you want your kid to keep playing sports on evermore competitive school teams, you’d better sign up for travel. Others see travel teams as an entrée to their son or daughter playing sports in college, though only a slim percentage will do so.

How much are parents investing in the elite club-team experience? TD Ameritrade surveyed 1,001 such parents in 2016 and found that half were spending between $100 and $500 per month. Almost 20 percent said they spent $1,000 or more per month. Welcome to crazy town! And before you assume everyone in the survey had loads of disposable income, one-third of the participants said they were not contributing regularly to a retirement account. To afford elite sports, surveyed parents said they cut back on vacations, their own retirement funds, and their child’s college savings.

Besides the financial ramifications, elite sports also can expose kids to a harsh environment. Plenty of coaches, moms, and dads take a hard-nosed approach to athletic achievement, epitomized by a popular recent post on the Travel Ball Parents Facebook page: a meme featuring Chucky, the horror-movie doll come to life, and a caption reading, “ME WHEN MY KID SCREWS UP ON A BONEHEADED PLAY AND ANOTHER PARENT SAYS ‘THAT’S OKAY. NICE TRY!’ ”

Not all travel parents feel that way. Many set out simply to give their children a positive sports experience. But by spending so much time and energy on a child’s sporting career, we are still sending a message about values and priorities. It’s like screaming, “I’m putting all my eggs in your basket, kid.” I’m not arguing against the pursuit of excellence. I’m saying we’ve lost our way when we overemphasize the outcome of inconsequential games played by 10-year-olds.

Of course, the itinerant life of travel-team families has its positives. Parents and kids spend lots of time together. Plenty of travel-team parents also enjoy the social aspect and love being their children’s biggest fans. Youth sports, especially for kids who are practicing and playing a lot, offer undeniable health benefits. Young athletes also learn character-forming lessons about hard work, resilience, and team dynamics. Some extraordinarily talented players certainly receive training that helps refine their skills.

But not all travel-team parents are happy campers, and some resentment slumbers below the T-shirt slogan: “I can’t. My son has practice.” Having three sports-playing sons, I am now questioning the amount of time that youth sports command in my own family life and the free time they have taken from me—an adult who loves her children but has interests that stretch beyond the ballfield. I wonder about the work I might have done just with the hours I spent working in the concession stand.

Writing is my thing, but what about you? Is there a hobby or interest or ambition that you wish you had time to nurture? If so, it’s time to rethink the travel-team decision.

For parents just starting out, I recommend a long pause before signing up for a travel team, or any sports team. Read the chapter on the pros and cons of travel teams in Cal Ripken’s excellent book for sports parents. Find out how many practices are required and what the penalty is for missing a practice or game. High-level coaches may not take kindly to your child skipping a tournament to attend her piano recital or go on a family trip.

Ask where practices, games, and tournaments are held to calculate how much time and money you’ll spend on the road. Are long-distance trips planned? (I know a mom who ended up having to buy plane tickets to attend a tournament. No thanks!) Also get the bottom line about uniform costs, required equipment, additional tournament fees, and any fundraising responsibilities.

If you’re already in the soup, could you find a less time-consuming team for your child that would be acceptable? Might this adjustment free you up to follow your interests, alleviate some household chaos, or give you more time for varied activities as a family?

This kind of midgame shift may feel too radical if you have a child who is already ultradedicated to a sport. But perhaps you could adjust the amount of time you personally spend traveling to and attending youth-sporting events. My 12-year-old son isn’t on an official travel team, but his lacrosse games do sometimes take him to places an hour or so away. I don’t require myself to go to every single game. In fact, I didn’t go today, to a tournament in New Jersey on a day that it rained enough to warrant a flood warning. My husband took on the drive and the mud and texted me with updates.

I know this means I might miss something amazing. My sons will never be able to say, “Mom never missed a game.” I’m OK with that, in the same way that I was OK with finding child care so I could go to work. I could not be in two places at once and I made a choice.

What did I do instead?

I made two beds. I had a long phone chat with my sister and got advice from my niece about homemade slime. (My son needs to make slime for a school project that’s due Wednesday.) I made a healthy meal my husband and son could have when they got home. I cleaned the pollen off the picnic table on our back porch so we can eat out there if it ever stops raining. I changed a burned-out lightbulb in my laundry room. And I wrote this article.

What could you do if you escaped your child’s travel-team commitment? Where might your family go this weekend, if that tournament wasn’t on the calendar? Let’s not forget your young athlete. You’ve given her the travel-team experience, now give her something truly rare in middle- and upper-class American childhoods: a wide-open weekend. It’s 48 hours of pure possibility, including the gorgeous possibility of doing nothing at all.