Don’t Play Travel Ball: Stay in the Rec League

I have friends I respect whose kids have played (and some who do play) travel ball, and I mean no offense to them by this post. Nor am I categorically condemning their decisions and choices. I am offering these thoughts for parents who are considering whether to put their kids on a “competitive” team, or a “travel-ball” team, or a “tournament” team, or whatever it may be called in your sport and locale.

Don’t get me wrong: I love competition. I love excellence. And I want to provide the best competitive opportunities I can for my own kids.

I played two years of major college baseball at the University of Arkansas, and I’ve been coaching my sons in baseball and basketball for the last 7 years or so. These reflections grow out of my own experience playing and coaching and watching other families. My thoughts will be mainly applied to baseball, but I think they are valid for basketball, volleyball, soccer, lacrosse, swimming, and whatever else.

Here are 10 reasons I think you should keep your kid in the rec league rather than quitting it for travel ball. These are presented in the order in which I suspect most dads think about them, not in the order of importance I would rank them (#6 would be #1, and #4 would be #2).

  1. Kids should play not work.

Growing up I loved baseball. I wanted to play all the time, until I got to college and had to do so. When I walked on and made the Razorbacks, the sport I loved to play became a year-round job. A job is not a game. We practiced a lot, doing as much as the NCAA allowed, all year long, in season and out.

That’s fine for an 18 year old on the cusp of adulthood, but there’s no reason to put a 7–14 year old through that kind of rigor.

After my first year of it in college, I found that what had been so fun because I had the opportunity to look forward to it in the off season, or even on days between practice or games, began to feel like a dreaded obligation that consumed a significant portion of every day.

The daily grind not only sapped the joy of the game, it was physically punishing. My arm hurt all the time, and I wasn’t a pitcher. The journey the Lord had me on led to me being cut from the team after I did not play summer ball following my sophomore year. I had played non-stop from the summer before my freshman year, through fall ball, winter weights, the spring season, then summer ball before it started all over in my sophomore year. I needed a break, and I wanted to be a counselor at a Christian camp that summer (Kanakuk).

The gods of baseball punished me for my lack of devotion. I was sad when the team cut me from the roster, but I was also relieved. I had my schedule back. So much time was freed up by not having to go to practice. I could now study what I wanted to study, and my classes were no longer determined by baseball practice. I could rest.

I’ve heard of travel ball teams that play 60 games in a summer—for kids under 10!—and then they practice at least once a week through the winter.

I’ve also heard more than one parent tell me that after a few years of travel ball, in some cases only one year of it, their son decided he didn’t want to play baseball anymore. I never felt that way until I got to college, but looking at the demands of travel ball, I totally understand how the kid feels.

That’s why I’m writing this post. I want your son to love baseball, to have the opportunity to be a kid, and to play the game as a kid. Baseball should be a fun game for him not a demanding job.

Keep him in rec ball, where he won’t get burnt out because he’s a kid facing the demands of a profession.

  1. Your kid isn’t going pro (and that’s a good thing).

The percentages are outrageous. So many kids grow up dreaming, so few put on a big league uniform. No one should expect to make the show.

I grew up wanting to be a major league baseball player, and I’m so glad I never even got drafted. I spent my 20s laying the foundation for what I’m doing with the rest of my life, not bouncing around in the minor leagues. I got an education, got married, we started having children, and now I get to coach my kids.

If I was in the big leagues, my summers (and falls, and springs) would be dominated by an unrelenting schedule leaving no opportunity to coach my kids’ teams. Travel is not glamorous but grueling. How does a big leaguer have a family? And at best a professional athlete might play into his late 30s or early 40s, then what?

I submit that even with all the excitement of the game, and the money and fame that come with it, the life of a professional athlete is not one to be envied.

Don’t sacrifice your son’s childhood on the altar of the hope that he’s the next Derek Jeter. Have fun with sports, and use it to build character, not dream-castles in the skies.

Give your kid the chance to be a great person and cultivate that through sports.

  1. If your kid does go pro, rec ball is the likelier path.

On the off-chance that your kid is a freak athlete with the arm strength, foot speed, power, stamina, and character, who gets all the right breaks at just the right time, chances are he’ll rise up through the ranks of rec ball rather than being groomed on the travel ball circuit.

Small towns breed professional athletes, and the reason seems to be that kids in small towns aren’t over-coached, over-organized, and over-specialized by the travel ball opportunities found in larger cities. Small town kids grow up playing lots of sports not getting burnt out playing the same one all year round.

  1. Your family doesn’t need travel ball.

This is the one your wife wants you to care about. And you should. Your marriage matters a lot more than some sport your kid plays. What will travel ball mean for your marriage? What will travel ball mean for your other kids? If you’re coaching your 12 year old’s travel ball team, what does that mean for the rec league opportunities your 7 year old has? Do you want to miss the younger kid’s games and practices?

If you are traveling every weekend, or most of them, for a Friday, Saturday, Sunday tournament, what happens to non-sport family time? If you’re exalting baseball over all these other things, are you serving a false god, an idol, that is going to use you and then throw you away?

Is the travel ball opportunity your 7–14 year old kid has more important than Friday nights and Saturday mornings at home with the family? Is it more important than being at church on Sunday morning? (on which more below).

  1. Your wallet will thank you.

I don’t even want to think about how much parents pay for their 7–14 year old kids to travel to tournaments, to stay in hotels, to pay the tournament entry fees, and whatever else all this costs. I am confident that there are better ways to steward those thousands of dollars.

You may be betting on the kid getting a scholarship. I’m betting you would be better off saving your money to help him with college expenses. Consider D1 baseball: each team is allowed a maximum of 11.7 scholarships, and those scholarships can be divided up between players. The roster includes 35 players, 27 of whom can receive scholarship money.

When I was playing at Arkansas, none of my teammates had a full ride from the baseball program. Not one. The only kind of baseball scholarship D1 programs offer is a partial one. That means that even if your kid is the best thing since Babe Ruth, if he goes off to play major college baseball, the baseball team isn’t paying all the expenses. And given the number of kids playing and the number of available spots, even a partial baseball scholarship is terribly unlikely.

  1. You should be in church.

As a follower of Jesus, this consideration is the most important one for me.

I talked to a dad who was committed to having his family in church even when they were on the road—and he said they traveled as a family as often as they could—for tournaments. That’s commendable, but I suspect that those tournaments don’t always start the Sunday games at times that make finding a worship service possible.

More important than that, you and your family don’t need a summer long break from the life and fellowship of your local church. Christians need to be gathering with the same group of people every week to worship the risen Lord Jesus, to hear his word, and to fellowship with each other.

Kids need to see that Jesus and his church are more important to their parents even than baseball. Jesus is God not baseball.

You need the church, and the church needs you.

If you’re a non-Christian reading this post, don’t you want to live for something more than baseball? I would urge you to consider how trustworthy Jesus is, how he can reconcile you to God, how he has paid for your sin, and how his Spirit can enable you to love others and enjoy life with them in a gathering of people joined together at a local church. Baseball can’t raise the dead, but Jesus will do just that when he returns to make this world into the new heavens and new earth.

If you’re in Louisville, come check us out at www.KenwoodBaptistChurch.com.

  1. Better to play more than one sport.

I’ve alluded to this somewhat above. Kids need to play more than one sport so their rotator cuffs can recover, so their elbows can rest, so they don’t have to have Tommy John surgery at 17. They need to run and jump and exercise other muscles than the ones required by baseball. They don’t need to have baseball practice every week all year long, and you don’t need to be their taxi for that every week all year long either.

  1. Don’t dilute the talent pool in the rec league.

Part of the argument for travel ball is the appeal of better competition. As more and more kids get involved in travel ball, the best players are taken out of the rec league. It’s a vicious cycle. The best coaches and the best players stop playing rec ball in favor of travel ball, leading to fewer teams and a lower level of competition in the rec league.

  1. Don’t cause the rec league to dry up.

This is related to the previous: the best players leave the rec league for travel ball, and then the mediocre players get tempted to do so, and then all the kids get burnt out and stop playing baseball. Thus the rec league dries up. Was it really worth it?

  1. Don’t get seduced.

As I’ve talked to people about this dilemma, one friend proposed this to me: he said that I should start my own travel ball team, and I should commit myself to being “low-key” about it. Sound familiar? It did to me. Several dads had told me that they were leaving rec ball for a “low-key” travel ball team, or that they were adding a “low-key” travel ball team on top of the rec ball their son was playing.

But my friend who suggested that I do this also told me what was going to happen: he said I needed to understand that the other travel ball teams weren’t going to be low-key, so we would get pummeled at tournaments and probably lose every game. That would inevitably awaken the competitive impulse, leading to more practices, more effort expended, and the gradual creep to a higher key. He said he had seen it happen. Dads get into it for a little better competition not meaning for it to take over their lives, and the next thing they know their schedule and wallet are dominated by travel ball.

So I’m writing in the hope that you’ll see that rec ball is a better route. It’s better to honor God than to win, and it’s better for your kid to enjoy the game than for him to play at the highest possible level.

Conclusion

Do I think you are sinning if your kid plays travel ball? Not necessarily, but if your kid is in the 7–14 age range, I will suspect that you might not be pursuing the wisest course. I could be wrong. There may be instances in which it’s the right thing, and when a kid gets to be 15 to 16 years old, it’s understandable that commitment levels and demands are going to rise and choices are going to have to be made.

But I say be wise. Be a parent. And for the good of rec ball leagues everywhere, for the good of your family, and for the good of your kids, I would urge you to avoid travel ball until the kid is old enough to commit to a more demanding regimen. It seems to me that time comes in the mid to late teens, but that’s going to be a judgment call . . .

Bottom line: give your kids a childhood they’ll want to replicate with their own children not one they’ll react against.

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