It’s Not JUST a Game: The Travel Sports Journey — One Dad’s Perspective

By Paul Chanan

For the first 38 years of my life, whenever I heard the word “travel” — what would pop into my head was Florida in late December. Or Spring Break in Mexico. A weekend in Vegas. Maybe a car ride up to Lake Geneva. Basically, travel meant taking a vacation. But for the last 5 years, when I hear the word “travel”, it has taken on a completely different meaning: It means baseball. Youth baseball. 

If you are old enough to have kids of your own, you never actually played travel sports. You just played sports. Much of it wasn’t organized, like a pick-up game of hoops on the driveway, or two-hand touch football at recess. Some of it was organized. I played Little League baseball, organized basketball and soccer — all within 5 minutes of my house. I would ride my bike or get dropped off by my mom. Sometimes a handful of parents would stick around and watch us, and many times we played in front of a near empty house. I would go home, tell my parents about how I did, and get on with the rest of my day. With the risk of sounding older than I am, those were simpler times. But at some point after my “playing days” were behind me, but before my kids came of age, youth sports EXPLODED!

Gone are the after-school pick-up baseball games and the “call your own fouls” three-on-three hoops games in the driveway. These are relics from our past, just like how we used to just “hang out” in the neighborhood after school and then show up at home around dinner-time (or soon thereafter…).

Today, we know where our kids are every waking moment, and where they will be every waking moment for at least a week into the future. Social commentary aside, kids being scheduled is simply a sign of the times. And it’s not going away any time soon.

So naturally, with the increased scheduling of kids, youth sports became more organized and expansive. And with less time being devoted to just “hanging out”, there was more time to play. And a lot of kids and parents jumped on the opportunity to play more often, at a higher level of competition, and in cities outside their little neck of the woods. And instead of being on a field twice a week, it meant being on a field five times a week.

Sometimes it meant that not everybody made every team they wanted, and just signing up and playing sometimes was not part of the deal. Things like A and B teams, feeder and elite leagues, and the dreaded concept of making it or being cut became part of the vernacular.

And although there are more teams and more opportunities for kids of all skill levels to participate in travel each year, there will never be a travel organization that makes everyone happy all of the time. It’s just not possible.

As you can probably tell, I have some mixed feelings about this shift.

Part of me wishes we could go back in time, to show our kids how to turn a parking lot into a baseball field, or show up at the gym on Saturday just to watch the “team in green T-shirts” play the “team in orange T-shirts” in a rec league game that would be forgotten three minutes after it ended. That’s the same part of me that wishes people still communicated with one another face-to-face, not via emails, texts, Facebook, chat-rooms and Twitter.

But another part of me — a big part of me — loves every minute of this New Age of youth sports. I have watched as my son, and so many of his friends, have had absolutely the times of their lives suiting up and going at it like we never had the opportunity to do.

The key to travel is challenging themselves, taking instruction — truly becoming students of the game. Not to mention awesome car rides to and from Wherever-ville and Whatsitcalled-town. Playing great, competitive games and learning about winning, losing, and everything in-between.

Team meals. Team parties. Team spirit. The look in my son’s eyes when we won the North Shore League Championship game at 9 years old, and then a few years later, the look in his eyes as he wiped away tears after getting shell-shocked and slaughtered by the Long Island Breakers in Cooperstown at age 12.

Whether you are a fan or foe of travel sports, there is one thing that you can’t deny … they are a ‘production’ (if we were talking specifically about girls, this would be called ‘drama’). They bring out the best in some kids, and the worst in others.

There are some really great parents involved, and some that, let’s just say, maybe aren’t so great. For some, travel is an opportunity to watch their kids play more often and to foster a great parent-child bond. For others, it’s a vicarious way of gaining social status. And if you asked 100 people their definition of how a league should be run, a team should be coached, or a kid should be handled, you’d get 100 different answers. Maybe 105, because a few people would change their minds during the conversation …

And even what constitutes a travel team is changing yearly. Businesses have seen the demand and are seizing opportunities by forming their own teams and competing with the communities for kids. There are rules, regulations and constant changes. Sometimes there are more questions than answers, because when people are dealing with their own kids, even reasonable people can become a little crazy.

But travel sports should not be defined by the extremes, good or bad. Just like everything else, if done right, it can be a wonderful experience for both kids and their families. If done wrong, it can be a dissatisfying process and leave kids wishing they had done something else.

Here are some “Take-Aways”  based on my experience co-running a travel program, running house leagues, and managing and coaching both travel and house sports for years (as well as just being an involved but hopefully not Insane Dad):

1. Put the kids first. If you are not a kid, it’s not about you.

2. If you’re not sure if you’re making it about you, you probably are.

3. Ask your child if he or she really wants to play travel sports. Explain what it really means: Greater commitment. A bigger “stage”. Added pressure. Things that some kids love and thrive on, and others could do without. Do your very best to make sure they are not doing it because they don’t want YOU to be upset or disappointed in them.

4. Signs you might be taking it too seriously: a) You are the loudest parent at the games b) You spend more $$ on private lessons than anyone else c) Your kid cries when you talk to him on the ride home, even though you think your criticism is constructive d) Your entire relationship with your child is based on sports (i.e., you have trouble bonding on the occasional day-off) e) You think every league is horrible, every coach is worthless, and that you know how to do it better than all of these organizations, volunteers and coaches  f) You are sure that your 5’1″, 95-pound 11 year old is going pro because he’s better than most other 11 year olds.

5. Regarding “Crazy Parents” — if you don’t know who “that guy” is, then you’re “that guy”.

6) Always assess if your child is STILL having fun. If he no longer appears to be, then once the current commitment is finished, consider having him try something else that he’s interested in. You’re only young once.

7) Travel sports is not for everyone. It requires a significant time, financial and emotional commitment for both children and families. Talk with others whom you trust in the community, who have been through it, and then decide what’s best for your child.

8) No travel sports situation will be 100% perfect for you, so please understand that there are life lessons to be taught by allowing things to NOT be perfect for your child.

9) Bashing the coach, team, other players, etc. in front of your child sends a terrible message and makes it about YOU.


One last thing. No matter where your child falls on the youth sports spectrum; house, travel, feeder or recreational, please make sure you tell them one thing above all else: I love to watch you play.”

Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare: Paul Chanan (my new fave GUYrilla) lives in Riverwoods, Illinois, and is the father of two. He sits on the Board of Directors of DYBA (Deerfield Youth Baseball Association) as the Co-director of Travel Baseball, and is a past President of the DYBA Pony and Bronco House Leagues, as well as past Manager and Coach of several Travel and House baseball teams. He believes firmly that he is not a crazy sports dad, but he admits that by definition, if you are crazy you probably don’t know you are.

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