The topic of travel sports has been long debated in the United States. Travel sports have many pros and cons, but which outweighs the other? Where do we draw the line in deciding that travel sports have gone too far?
Many Lowry students have participated in a travel organization. There is no denying that traveling can be a rewarding and impactful experience for many young athletes.
“When playing in a travel league, you play at a higher competition level than you would in a city league,” said travel-ball and high school basketball coach, Lynnsey Johnson. “Practices are more intense, and the athletes can develop their skills at a higher level during competition and practices.”
It also provides kids with the opportunity to refine their skills that may not be available in city leagues.
“You get game time,” said Gold Rush and Lowry softball coach, Austin Mayo. “That’s the number one thing, right. You can’t simulate, no matter how hard you try. It doesn’t matter what sport it is, you can never simulate live game action.”
Travel sports can play a major role in preparing kids for high school level competition.
“A lot of the travel leagues have a coach from the high school involved in some type of capacity,” said Johnson. “With travel you see varied competition from good to bad. It helps with the ups and downs of league competition in high school.”
On top of athletic improvement, travel sports can also teach athletes important life skills.
“From being on a travel basketball team I gain teamwork,” said travel basketball player, Alexis Galarza.“Going to different states means not knowing how good someone is, by working as a team we all have to help each other figure everyone out.”
Travel sports have the ability to present kids with opportunities that they couldn’t get anywhere else. Freshman Giovani Sapien plans to go play on an American team at a soccer tournament this summer in Austria.
“I been on like travel teams in Reno, where I just go up there and practice and play,” said Sapien. “I’ve been down and played for a Vegas team before in a few tournaments, but nothing like this...They’ll be something different than just playing at a public school. It will be more professional, upbeat, quicker, just fast-paced and harder.”
Travel sports are time consuming, and many believe the worth of participation can be lost in this. Sapien’s own dedication to the sport has a huge impact on his life, but he regrets nothing.
“It has affected me a lot,” said Sapien. “All year round, I’m getting in shape to play soccer. I’m playing soccer to try to go to college, so it’s just affecting me in a lot of ways, and will probably affect me in many more later on...I haven’t had much to miss out on. Soccer has just always been there for me. I would say it's worth it, 100%.”
However, not every athlete can justify such benefits in the prospect of others. Parental pressure is becoming a large contributing factor in the argument against travel sports. As a parent wanting the best for his or her child, pushing kids to their full potential comes as part of the territory. When activities such as travel ball are concerned, it becomes evident how easy it is to shove too hard.
“There’s a fine line of competing and pushing the kids to far,” said Lowry football coach and parent of two young boys Taua Cabatbat. “Especially in today’s society… If you talk to old folks, the way they grew up, it was a foot to butt. It was their way or the highway, and that’s what you did. You went outside and played sports. There was a different mentality. Don’t get me wrong, it sucks that we need to take this into consideration, but we do need to think about how much we’re pushing this group. I fight with that myself. How hard do I wanna push my kid? I find that I’m raising soft kids too, and it's the truth.”
Students and parents are also beginning to view participation as a way to acquire college scholarships. Like every activity, such high stakes and constraint can eliminate the fun typically associated with travel ball.
“I think it has its place,” said Cababat. “Travel ball does give kids opportunities to continue on with athletics that aren’t offered at a certain time...but there are times where I feel like there is a little too much emphasis placed on those programs. The demands by the coach and the parents for these kids to play these things at times I feel like kind of it takes away from your childhood. Especially starting at such a young age...we’re starting to see a heavy push for a lot of these kids saying ‘you gotta do this,’ and ‘you gotta do that,’ and they’re losing interest, they’re getting burnt out when they get to the high school level. It’s a catch-22.”
High pressure presented in such situations isn’t something all kids are able to overcome.
“Kids have the pressure of trying to do the best they can so their parents can be happy and proud of them,” said travel swim coach, Amber Toland. “In my experience as a coach, it definitely seems to defeat a few kids, but I’ve also seen where it can motivate the child... too much pressure can cause a child to lose interest. If the kid isn’t enjoying the sport anymore, that is when it starts to affect the kid.”
Cababat also worries about the mental implications of age in relation to such pressure.
“There are times where I feel like maybe at the younger levels the emphasis of winning is more important to the coaches and to the parents than it is to the kids,” said Cabatbat. “It's a fine line whereas a parent or a coach, you want your kids to compete and be successful, but you don’t want to break them to where the demands of competition are too high too young.”
Such expectations are changing the face of travel ball, commonly presenting it in a negative manner.
“Travel ball is becoming its own beast,” said Mayo. “Every parent wants their kid to play it and be good at it. That’s not always going to be the case. There’s only so many spots on team USA. The odds of your kids getting one aren’t very high, so just let them enjoy it and have fun.”
Travel sports also present a financial burden to athletes and their families. Basketball averages $1,143 (is this per season or the typical 7 years?), with a maximum of $5,150. Soccer normally costs $1,472 and can reach $5,500. A typical price for football is $2,739 with a possibility of $9,500. Baseball and softball normally go around $4,044 and up to $9,900.
Between training, equipment, travel expenses, fees and camps, families can spend up to 10% of their income on a single athlete in a travel program.
“I definitely feel that travel league can be a lot more financial commitments, said Toland.“For high school, you have a pay to play fee to help pay for expenses where to travel, lodging for travel leagues are all out of pocket.”
However, travel sports wouldn’t exist if no one felt the benefits could outweigh the cost.
“Of course it’s worth it paying extra money and traveling to be in a bigger travel team,” said baseball player, Ridge Ricketts. “I think it makes you a way better player... I feel like the bigger the competition the more you learn from it.”
Even a rate of $2,000 a season for seven years of traveling for a sport could pay for a year’s tuition at some colleges. Only about 2% of high school athletes actually receive some form of sports scholarship to compete in colleges. The average scholarship is only $10,400. Excluding football and basketball, the average is lowered to $8,700. Neither can make up for the loss of funds and only four sports, in rare circumstances, actually offer full rides, negating the worth of pursuing scholarships.
In top-tier competition, travel ball can provide students with exposure to college. Some see this as free ticket to post-high school success. Such competition is at an extremely high level which most are unable to achieve and is especially unlikely in a small town.
“Here in Winnemucca, you don’t see it,” said Cabatbat. “We’ve been fortunate enough to have a few kids be successful at a collegiate level. As far as travel sports are concerned, as a reason why they were successful, I would say that they were destined to be successful either way, with or without travel sports.”
Winnemucca’s famous success story Jace Billingsley, whom Cababat had the opportunity to coach, had very little to do with travel ball.
“He had opportunities to travel,” said Cabatbat. “Jace was a three-sport athlete. He did football in the fall, wrestling in the winter, and did baseball in the spring. Summertime was kind of like his outlet to just hang out and relax and just prepare himself for his high school sports. He did do it when he was younger, but as far as his successes, I wouldn’t fully say that it was because of travel ball that he was successful. He was just one of those kids who was just destined to do great things.”
Even when scholarships are granted, participation, even excellence in travel ball alone, wouldn’t cut it. Acquiring such benefits requires just as much work in the classroom as on the court, field, or in the pool.
“Granted, the kid needs to put in the work ethic and time in the sport that is needed to obtain a scholarship,” said Toland. “You are a student before an athlete. Academics are also a big part of how big or how small of a scholarship the college or university offers an athlete. A college scholarship isn’t just handed over, it is earned by the student-athlete, nobody else.”
Participating in a travel sport is a huge time commitment, which can be tough for many kids. Year-round or club travel teams are becoming increasingly popular.
“We definitely would play a lot better if our season went year round because we wouldn’t have a bunch of time to rest,” said former travel baseball player, Levi Christopherson.
But they never end. It is always baseball season, soccer season, etc. People of all ages tire quickly of permanent endeavors. It is very easy for a sport to seem like a job to kids in this situation. The second it feels like work, travel sports aren’t fun anymore. More than anything, kids should enjoy sports, not loathe them in the way that year-round programs encourage.
The belief that a single sports hyper-focus being the way for an athlete to succeed past high school holds little credibility. In fact, many famous athletes grew up playing more than one sport. Collegiate football champion Kyler Murray, winner of the 2018 Heizman, is currently also a very accomplished baseball player. LeBron James was recruited by prestigious colleges such as Notre Dame and was inducted into the first team all-state in his sophomore year for football, not basketball. Chiefs and Buccaneers quarterbacks, Patrick Mahomes and Jameis Winston, were formidable pitchers in their college and high school days.
Sapien plays multiple other sports to improve his skill at soccer.
“I play basketball, I’ve played baseball in the past, and I’ve done wrestling,” said Sapien. “I’m always just constantly doing something. I’m always being active, so it’s always either getting me more conditioned or getting me stronger so that I can withstand older people pushing me around because soccer is a physical sport.”
Such single-sport focus also puts athletes in extreme risk of injury. In a study conducted by Dr. Neeru Jayanthi from Loyola University, young athletes specializing in a single sport were 70-93% more likely to be injured than athletes with a multi-sport focus. Some injuries have the ability to an athlete’s career, which goes to show the absurdity of putting yourself or your child in such a situation.