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Let's Eliminate Elite and Travel Teams for Pre-High-School Athletes

Elite or bust mentality isn't fair to the players.

I get dozens of emails each month from parents and coaches who are frustrated with the direction that a particular sport or youth league in their town has taken.

In 99 percent of these correspondences I’m asked to keep the specific details and the sender’s identity private. And I always do. You can bet Grandma’s inheritance on it.

Often, however, I will draw examples and situations from that info (as well as my own experiences) so that I can make a point based on actual events.

Here (based on an email and a conversation) is an example of why I think Select Teams (Travel Teams, Elite Teams, etc.) have no place among pre-high school athletes.

Jack didn’t try out for the 8th Grade Travel Basketball Team. There were a lot of reasons for his decision. He knew the coach from another sport and quite frankly thought he was a jerk. He was the kind of guy who coached by intimidation. And besides, the coach's son was always talking trash to Jack. It sounded like stuff that probably came from his father.

It also cost hundreds of dollars for the season and that didn’t even count sneakers. Jack knew things were tight in the household, so he was happy to play in the Rec league with most of the other kids.

Jack was having a fantastic season. The Monday after he’d won the game with a 3-point fade away jumper at the buzzer, most of his friends were talking about it.

The Travel Team kids began to say that since it was only a Rec League game, it didn’t really mean that much. Rec ball was just … rec ball.

During the week, Jack’s coach ran into one of the referees and was curious about some of the calls during the game — a little clarification to pass along to his players. The ref’s response was, “It’s just Rec ball. None of those kids are going to make the high school team anyway.”

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. At 13 years old, the word on the street is that unless you are on the Travel Team, your basketball career will end upon entering your freshman year of high school.

Whether that’s actually true is not at issue here. Can’t you see what is happening? Youth sports are turning into an elite or bust mentality. And what’s worse is that Coach Daddy and his buddies are often holding the sledge hammer.

Would you blame Jack for getting discouraged and not trying out for the freshman team next winter? And if I hear one more time how these “lessons” are going to prepare him for the less-than-perfect life that awaits him, I’m going to throw up my Greek yogurt.  

In some sports, such as soccer, 9- and 10-year-olds are trying out for the honor of being called elite. And if they are cut, they are not elite. This is usually decided by a group of parents with stakes in the decisions. And as a result we are turning these “special” kids into brats who won’t know how to handle the “failure” of not being elite at 11, 12, or 16. But the reality is that once you get a group of players together at such a young age, they end up staying together.

So even if Jack (Fred, Harry, or Steve) wanted to join the team at such a late stage of their careers, they’d have to displace some of the lifers. That would surely screw up the team chemistry. Then there’s the group of parents who have been sipping lattes together for three years. Do you dare break that up?

I believe adults create these teams out of a fear that their “talented” child is going to get smothered beneath the crush of the average player. If they travel, then the competition must be tougher. If they travel they must be getting better coaching. If they travel they will shine brighter and win championships and scholarships. 

OK, I can imagine how radical this is all sounding right about now. Put your kid in the pool with all those average kids? My goodness, he or she will waste away and eventually disappear in a cloud of obscurity!

Join Me

If you’ve been reading since Day One, you know my views on youth sports. I need parents, coaches, and league administrators interested in forming a coalition (if you will) to take back youth sports for our children. (I’ll think of a clever name.)

You know where I am so zip me an email and we’ll go from there (I’ll try to keep traveling down to a minimum.).

Ronni Newton February 23, 2012 at 07:03 PM
I'm glad you posted that, Beth. I got the same link in an email from my son's premier soccer coach yesterday and was going to send it along to Ron!
Beth Kintner February 23, 2012 at 07:18 PM
It is a really good article. I hope everyone takes a few minutes to read & reflect on it & what it means in their family. And it's not just about those rides home, although that one struck me b/c no one really talks about that much & it is difficult not to "discuss" the game, even for pretty laid-back parents like my husband & I.
chris moore February 23, 2012 at 07:33 PM
I never have read so much gibberish in my life about players' not being given a chance later if they don't play travel now. I have never experienced coaches that want to win at the travel level (and they all do) turning very skilled players away because of where they have been. Are we saying a stud kid moves to town and doesn't get to play because they didn't come up "in the system?" Please. Coaches will take the best players at the travel level period. What no one wants to acknowledge is that good players want to play against other good players and get better as a result. The best players at 10 are often not the best players at 16 and vice versa, but so what? It is the determination of the player that determines his or her future, in piano, in science, in sports. If the twelve year old kid peaks at twelve, is that his fault? Why can't he enjoy that moment competing against other players who have peaked early as well? Life is about enjoying the moment as well as the journey toward goals. For the passionate player, being cut early can be used as fuel to work that much harder.
Jim G. February 23, 2012 at 07:40 PM
But everyone knows that if you don't get into the right pre-preschool play group, you'll never get into Yale. :D
Ron Goralski February 23, 2012 at 08:28 PM
Ron Goralski 3:26 pm on Thursday, February 23, 2012 C'mon Chris - So let's say super stud moves to town. He's going to get a roster spot alright. But Coach John and his wife Mary just had dinner and drinks at Max on Main with little Joe's mommy and daddy. Little Joe is the weakest kid on the team. The second weakest kid is Coach John's son. Someone is going to get squeezed out of the back end but it won't be one of those two. Not when Joe's daddy sprung for Shrek tickets at the Bushnell for everyone the week before. someone is not going to make the team. But for what reason? Because he's not good enough? The same crap goes on each year with these LL All-Star teams. My goodness it's so obviously blatant at times. Do the best 12 kids make these teams? "Oh we chose Tommy for the chemistry that he has with the rest of the infield that's been together since they were 9." Yeah I know many leagues have steps in place to avoid such situations. But c'mon - the cream can rise but can it stay afloat long enough to get skimmed off the top? And again with the good players playing against each other. We think they come out better at the end. But do they really? And at what cost to the system as a whole? It's too random of a system.
Ron Goralski February 24, 2012 at 02:32 PM
grotuva11, you live a charmed life!
Larry Griffiths February 24, 2012 at 03:49 PM
There are plenty of horror stories around youth sports, travel/elite teams as well as rec sports teams. There are also many fantastic (volunteer) coaches, board members etc, involved for all the right reasons in travel teams as well as rec teams. If you see something you don't like, get involved and work to change it. I'm not disagreeing with you that there are problems, I'm disagreeing that the solution is to eliminate pre-high school travel teams.
Mark Willson February 24, 2012 at 05:23 PM
Just because you get cut does not mean a coach is calling you inferior. Furthermore not every kid out there will interpret that message as such. I was cut by a number of teams but i had the support at home to understand that could be used as a motivating factor...perhaps i was not inferior. My basic skills were not at the same level as others. I took it upon myself to improve. Become smarter, faster, and better...wait i forgot if I was talking about sports or classes. That comparrisson is not that far fetched. I developed my reading skills just as i did my basketball and baseball skills as a kid. Why punish those who are at a more advanced level? Why not use these types of scenarios of getting cut or placed on the B squad as a motivating tool, life lesson whatever you want to call it. Life is not about everyone having the same skill set or level. I do not agree with you calling someone's opinion ridiculous. especially since it could potentially be valid. I am fine with your opinion on elite teams etc. however just because you choose to dislike them and what you feel they represent should not result in the disbandment of travel teams. I have learned many a life lesson through sports. Rec ball and travel alike. The sledgehammer toting travel coach is a different issue in itself.
Melanie Westerberg February 24, 2012 at 07:39 PM
I don't have a problem with there being travel or elite teams. True most of those kids have been playing since pre K and the teams seem to always stick together through the years. Sure it's discouraging for many but you get used to it. But I also think it's great that they play other towns and not just our own. My son did not start playing soccer until second grade and even then played baseball in spring. He doesn't go to clinics all year and plays because he enjoys it. He is on travel but not on the A team. Fine he is obviously not as good as the A team but he is enjoying every minute of it. What I do have a problem with is his team having to play against all elite teams for indoor and they are getting shut out most of their games. By a lot. Luckily we have a great group of boys who fight to the finish and don't get too discouraged. They play their hearts out and think of it as practice and try to learn from their opponents. Our coach is great and is always trying to make our players better. Much like academics, you wouldn't stick a child with a learning disability in a college level course. Why would you make a C team play against only elite teams.
Ron Goralski February 26, 2012 at 05:31 AM
grotuva11 - Can you read this excellent article from ESPN the Magazine please? I'm not the only crazy person... http://espn.go.com/espn/commentary/story/_/page/keown-110823/elite-travel-baseball-basketball-teams-make-youth-sports-industrial-complex 
Ron Goralski February 26, 2012 at 05:57 AM
I have no issues with traveling to other towns. Your son's teams shouldn't have to take constant beatings like that. That is so much of the issue as well. Now we are back to the first square that so many parents are screaming about - mismatches. It's because SOME parents want to build a super team and leave the rest as sacrificial lambs when they have to play someone else's super team. And just seeing the words that your son didn't start playing until 2nd grade... Does that mean the leaders of the super team look at him and the other "late bloomers" as missing the boat for the A-team? Please just do me a favor and read Bob Bigelow's book. He is so much better than I am at explaining the effects that the entire elite/select team system has on us all. Thanks for your comments Melanie.
Ron Goralski February 26, 2012 at 08:39 PM
This is the book that will enlighten you on the negative effects of elite/select teams on youth sports. It is a MUST READ! Just Let the Kids Play: How to Stop Other Adults from Ruining Your Child's Fun and Success in Youth Sports by Bob Bigalow
Thomas February 29, 2012 at 02:41 PM
Get serious Ron, "interesting"? Lets do baseball 6-10 year old's. 7 kids is the answer! Start with 8 little league teams, 15 on each, 120 kids. 90% of these six year old's want to play Professional Baseball for a living, the other 10% want to be a doctor, police or fireman, astronaut, etc. One thing is clear at this age, they all love the game. Then they start to grow, physically, mentally and emotionally. Some over the years leading up to high school start to develop other interests, and leave the game, some still enjoy it and move on to Babe Ruth 13 & 14, down to about 50. Out of these 50, 30 decide to tryout for the high school teams. 15 for the freshman squad, 2 @ JV and 1 straight to Varsity. That's 18, and 12 get "cut". During the next 4 years many of these players will compete for 15-16 spots on the Varsity team. Again, a majority of these remaining students will move on to other aspects of life, another sport, work, school club, studies, etc. So, how many of these six year old's, that we started with are left? An average of 7, or less than 10%! What do you find interesting about this? What would you do, tell all the kids, don't worry there will always be a place for you on a baseball team somewhere, even if you not good enough! Or how about the kids who found something else they liked better? Please. What you should find interesting is, if asked, how many would still like to be a Baseball player? Of the starting 120 what would that percentage be?
Thomas February 29, 2012 at 05:25 PM
Hey Jack "R", you have to have a real name to play with Ron!!!
Melanie Westerberg March 01, 2012 at 04:58 PM
I'll have to check out that book. I actually had a mom tell me that it was a bad idea to let my son start playing at second grade because all these other kids have been playing since pre K. There's one of "those" parents. I'm glad I didn't listen to her because my son is loving soccer even though they aren't winning. The other problem I have during indoor season is that we are only allowed a certain amount of players. So where my son's team has maybe up to three subs, these other towns are subbing their entire team about every ten minutes. Our boys just get exhausted and have no break. So they end up shutting out our team. We actually played against another town in session 1 and they were beating us probably like 8 to nothing. Their coach actually told them they weren't allowed to score from here on out unless they used their heads. Talk about an outrage! I think it's a big slap in the face for our kids.
Ron Goralski March 02, 2012 at 09:55 PM
There is a wonderful chapter in Bob Bigelow's book where he uses something as simple as a kid's game of tag as an example of how Elite teams have ruined the youth experience as a whole. That is really what concerns me the most. Not that your child should not be allowed to play with the other little superstars in your area. Parents such as me are looking at a much bigger picture. And what I have done with these links is to try and encourage further exploration into the subject. If you can read Bob Bigelow’s book as well as the studies regarding how a youth athlete matures – and then honestly tell me that I’m crazy for writing these last two columns – I will crawl back into my hole and write only feel good stories about ice fishing with my son and Senior Citizens bowling with their grandkids.
Ron Goralski March 02, 2012 at 09:57 PM
The book makes you realize that in the long run a child does not benefit from being on an Select team. I believe the number is 75% of them that won't play in HS. Check out the link in the article for the NAYS. The whole theory here is that by the age of 11 most of the better kids get filtered to Select teams while leaving the others behind. Many of those left behind will quit or play another sport. (Please don’t give me the dumb rhetoric regarding it making them tougher for the job market, blah, blah, and blah!) No big deal so far right? Except statistics show that many of those 11 year old “studs of the month” will not be your 14 year old studs. Hopefully we don’t lose a good chunk of the future studs because they became discouraged, distracted (as pre-teens often do), victims of poor coaching, or to other sports and activities. I believe the elite/select teams take away from the entire system as a whole by robbing it of the best players (at that particular age) and lowering the level of competition for those left behind (many of which will or would have surpassed those "studs of the month").
Ron Goralski March 02, 2012 at 09:58 PM
Knock the age down to the 8 and 9 year olds now. We are channeling the studs into the premier programs and taking them out of the pool that they will most likely return to down the road IF they continue to play. On the other end is the 9 year old future super stud now playing in a league stripped of the best players. It makes it harder for them to improve without playing against the removed “superstars”. (And please – again – I don’t care to hear how not making the Select team will make them work harder next time. You may not even recognize that same kid next year and he very well could be blowing away the others due to nothing more than natural causes. And the coach’s kid who was on the Select team last hasn’t gotten better at all. In fact he along with three others shouldn’t be on the team the following year – but they will because Dad is the coach and his buddies kids are like his own sons. Such a shame because now there are other kids that deserve the spot but won’t get it. HOW CAN YOU TELL ME THAT THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN ALL OF THE TIME?)
Ron Goralski March 02, 2012 at 09:58 PM
Those kids should all be in the same pool! Distribute the studs of the month evenly among the teams and let the entire group benefit. We are segregating and dividing at too early of an age and it takes a toll on the entire program. I don't understand why it's so hard for some to understand. I think it's a selfish attitude quite frankly. I know I'll take flack for that by being told it's selfish not letting a talented 9 year old play on a select team. But again - statistics and numbers don't lie. Are there exceptions to the rule? Without a doubt. But is it worth alienating the kids that will grow to be some of the real studs of the future (or not if they are told they are not good enough for the Select team and give the sport up)? Is it really fair to do this at such a young age? I’m not sure how you cannot agree with some of this logic.
Bob Town April 24, 2012 at 02:38 AM
May I suggest golf (First Tee). It is all on you. No politics, no teammates, parents can't help. Kids have a great sense of ownership. My son will complete F tee this year and loves it. BTW way my son started travel bb the fall prior to his last year of LL. We still play for the same guy (former 7 year ML pitcher). He plays basketball(some travel). He is on his school's JV lax team because it's fun. (He's in the 8th grade). And he is playing in a rec bb league because it's fun and they understand he will miss 1 or 2 games for other sports. And yes we have some kids who are really bad. But we crack only on the ones with a bad attitude b/c we all make mistakes. My son & I are still friends and that is what matters. If he decides to give it all up to be the best bass drum player in the marching band we are cool. He just has to try his best.
Ted Glanzer (Editor) June 05, 2012 at 12:41 AM
Please keep your language civil and appropriate when commenting. Thank you.
Robbie Tangreti June 05, 2012 at 01:14 AM
Little late for intervention, don't you think there Ted?
Ron Goralski June 05, 2012 at 02:24 AM
Dear Sashi Govin, I would love to have an intelligent conversation on this subject. There's a lot more to it than being told by a coach that you are one of the better players. Please read, Bob Bigelow's Just Let The Kids Play. He discusses issues that most of the commentors here have never thought of. After you've read it, contact me and we can meet to discuss. I think you'll be surprised by what you learn. Take care.
John Fitts (Editor) June 05, 2012 at 02:32 AM
Ron, We are quite certain Sashi is not the one making those comments and are working on correcting the situation.
Ron Goralski June 05, 2012 at 04:34 PM
Oh jeez - I didn't know the name. Well then of course it's not her. I guess we won't be meeting to discuss elite teams then : )
Ron Goralski September 11, 2012 at 04:09 PM
Hi Friends, I'm working on a column regarding one's youth sports legacy. Those who have passed away and left behind something for others to remember them by. Give me the person who comes to mind in your town and what their contribution was. Please send it to ron.goralski@snet.net. Put LEGACY as the title of the email please. Be sure to list your town. Thanks!
Nick Russo March 01, 2013 at 02:57 AM
In too many instances Club sports are destroying HS athletics with promises of better coaching, better competition and ultimately better scholarships to more prestigious universities. Loyalty to a school program too often takes a back seat to club loyalty. The movement has become a gimmick and a terrific $$$ maker.
WL native March 01, 2013 at 05:26 PM
Absolutely right. My daughter wanted to start playing AAU when she was nine years old and she did until she was 17. She left her mark on the court like I knew four years ago she would. She performed, succeeded and went to States all four years. She is part of the Hartford Courant' Fabulous 15 and made All Conference. What great memories she has and I as well and at her very last high school game sat her AAU coach on my left and one of her college scouts on my right. It couldn't have been any more perfect. She wanted to work hard and play at her level against others who wanted the same, succeeded and has fulfilled her dream of playing college hoops. Now, the ball is in her court when she decides between four colleges where she'll play.
Gary Druckenmiller March 01, 2013 at 05:33 PM
Brilliantly stated Nick!
Jerry O'Connor March 01, 2013 at 07:41 PM
There are lots of problems with youth sports programs at all levels. Lots. And in my twenty years of experience with them I can say that the vast majority are caused by human nature, not the structure of the programs. I agree with Andrew. Eliminating youth sports programs at ANY level is counterproductive. For it means that some kids will not get to play and will thus be denied the opportunity for important learning experiences in teamwork, sportsmanship, health and fitness, training, goals, etc. So please, continue to rail against over-competitive and egotistical coaches, myopic parents, and the all the other evils that are unfortunately so pervasive. And talk about how youth sports programs can be improved and these issues overcome. But don’t throw the baby out with bathwater. Our pre-teens and teens need organized social and sports activities now more than ever.

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