Grandparents lament: Those damn travel sports teams!
BY KAREN L. RANCOURT
Of late, I am hearing from more and more grandparents who are finding that travel sports teams are cutting into their time with their grandchildren, be it a Sunday family dinner, a holiday gathering, or a road trip. They are curious about how other grandparents feel about these teams and how this phenomenon is affecting other families.
Facts about travel teams
Travel teams, sometimes called elite teams, select teams, club teams, or tournament teams — or, as some grandparents refer to them, “Those damn travel sports teams!” — have mushroomed into a $17 billion market. This youth-sports industry has grown by 55% since 2010, with most of the growth in golf, gymnastics, ice hockey, and track and field.
Unlike recreational youth-sports teams that are open to all, are free or inexpensive, and are affiliated with a school or community with a guarantee that all kids will get some playtime, travel teams typically require try-outs in searches for kids with actual or potential talent and skill. In fact, kids as young as seven years old being enlisted. Travel teams are all about leagues, competing, winning, and profit. Participation in these teams requires significant investments of time and money, which explains why these travel teams often become a top priority activity for many families.
And there is a good reason they are called travel teams, as they typically require travel of long distances to out-of-state destinations on weekends, and in some cases, on weekdays, which necessitates kids missing school and parents taking time off from work.
The finances required to fund a child on a travel team are significant, with parents reporting annual expenditures ranging from $6,000 to $12,000 per child, excluding the additional costs of sending a child to an affiliated summer program. Because these are out-of-pocket expenses, participation is generally limited to children who come from affluent or wealthy families; for less well off families, a child’s participation can require significant financial sacrifices. For example, a new TD Ameritrade survey conducted by Harris Poll found that youth sports expenses impinge on 74% of American parents’ ability to save and invest for retirement.
Interpersonal and social implications
My research and interviews I conducted highlight these additional points about travel teams:
- Because volunteer parents are no longer coaching kids’ teams, there is less “drama,” especially on the sidelines among parents. Rather, the kids have coaches who really know the sport and how to coach and develop kids’ skills and are not intimidated by pushy parents.
- Parents report that the one-on-one time with their kids on the road trips is invaluable. An extra benefit is listening in on the kids’ conversations when driving other players, too.
- Tight and close bonds develop between the kids on the teams, as well as between the parents. They are united by common goals and situations.
- There is greater chance for overuse injuries when a child plays one sport, year-round.
- Many families forego family vacations because of the expenses of the travel teams. For those siblings not on travel teams, care has to be given that they don’t feel like second-class members of the family with so much time and attention on the sibling(s) on the travel teams.
- Sports coaches at public and private schools explain that students who are on travel teams are less likely to go out for the school sports; this can lower the skill level of the overall teams and affect a school’s competitive potential.
Dos and don’ts for grandparents
Because there are both advantages and disadvantages to traveling sports teams, grandparents should understand these and not focus exclusively on resenting how they are missing out on time with their grandchildren. Some suggestions:
- Educate yourself about the advantages and disadvantages of travel sports teams. Based on my research, I highly recommend these two articles: (1) “The Pros and Cons of Youth Travel Teams,” by Catherine Holecko; (2) “How Kids’ Sports Became a $15 Billion Industry,” by Sean Gregory.
- Don’t make your grandchildren’s parents be defensive or feel guilty about their decision to do travel team sports. If you are invited to give your opinion about your grandchildren’s travel team activities, try to make your points by showing that you understand differing points of view.
For example, if a parent says, “Well, we think it’s worth all the sacrifices required because [your grandchild] has shown such exceptional skill that we’re hoping she can get a college sports scholarship,” acknowledge that such a scholarship would indeed be a wonderful thing! Then follow that up with the fact that you read [reference the specific source, e.g., the articles above] that “Alas, only 2% of high school athletes go on to play at the top level of college sports, the NCAA’s Division I. I wish those odds weren’t such a long shot, but, alas, those are the facts.”
- Don’t pout or make your hurt feelings known when your invitations are turned down. Just say something like, “Oh, too bad. I hope the games go well. We’ll get together another time.”
- Do be helpful and supportive, regardless of your personal opinions. If your grandchildren are on travel teams, approach their parents and offer to:
- Drive your grandchildren to their local practices and/or destinations and stay with them.
- Take care of siblings who aren’t on travel teams (and show them a good time!).
- Contribute financially, if possible.
- Donate your credit card points or airline miles to help out with travel, hotels, and other expenses.
Because travel sports teams are growing in popularity, I hope my suggestions help grandparents be better informed about them, as well as provide some ideas for how they might help out and show their support for all the family members impacted. That is, how to be a good member of the family team!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – KAREN L. RANCOURT, PHD
Karen L. Rancourt, Ph.D., writes an advice column for parents and grandparents at Mommybites.com. Her most recent book is, It’s All About Relationships: New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work.