From the Coaches Corner: Travel Teams Aug 1, 2013

Tom Curry

While playing on a travel team or summer league is great, real improvement only comes with repetition and practice... Game experience is fine, but game experience alone will not be enough. Time must also be spent practicing the skills necessary to improve.

(From EP Magazine – August 2013)

By Tom Curry

Each month as I think about what would be an interesting topic to write about, a number of things occur that make me realize that the world of youth sports is a baffling, confusing universe for all involved. A friend of mine approached me with a dilemma. His twin daughters are nine years old. By his admission, one is a good pitcher in softball and really likes and enjoys and works at the game. The other plays because her sister plays and she just likes to have fun. Both girls recently tried out for their town's summer "travel team." My friend is a former head football coach and was dismayed about what had happened to his daughters. The better softball player and pitcher did not make the travel team, while the other daughter who just likes to have fun did! I took a guess on what had happened during the tryouts. I guessed (correctly) that the coach had a daughter that was a pitcher and of course did not want two pitchers on the team. That would mean his daughter would pitch less. My friend was disheartened that this had happened. When he told me that 24 girls had tried out and that only 12 had made the team, I told him that I had a simple solution. Start another team and volunteer to coach! "You already have a pitcher and I am sure those other kids would be thrilled to play," I said.

You probably already know the end of the story. The recreation department would not let him start another team and told him that one team was enough. Though he tried to persuade them otherwise, they would not give in. Now think about that for a minute. Instead of 24 nine year olds playing softball, there were only 12 girls playing. In a town not known for softball prowess on the high school level, it's easy to see why.

Here is one more story to illustrate my point in this month's column. My cousin has a seven-year-old son who plays in a town little league program. He has a better understanding than most boys that age about baseball, since his dad takes him to Yankee and Met games, watches games on television with him and takes him with him when he plays softball in a men's league. While not particularly gifted, the son tries hard and his knowledge of the game and what to do led him to be selected for the travel team consisting of seven -year-olds. That's right, I said, a travel team of sevenyear- olds. I went to one of the practices recently and while I know that the coaches are well-meaning dads who try their best, I shook my head and wondered what in the world seven-year-olds were doing traveling anywhere to play baseball. Keeping their attention focused at practice was hard enough, let alone in a game. In an hour and 45 minutes, my cousin's son got one turn at batting practice and fielded a few grounders and a few fly balls. I found out later that the team had played three games during which my cousin's son got up two times each game.

My point with these two stories is simple. Both my cousin and friend's children were on travel teams... happy to make the team and ready to go. In my cousin's case, her son got up to bat less than 12 times between games and practices. That's hardly enough to change any bad batting habits or improve any fielding skills. In my friend's case, 12 kids were left out altogether, while the chances at bat and in the field for his daughter were about the same in number as they were for my cousin's son.


Now, please don't think that I am always criticizing all-star teams, travel teams and programs like that. My concern is that overemphasis on these types of programs may give people a false sense of accomplishment. In addition, could time be better spent giving kids more repetitions in the field and at bat? Could a town and children benefit from two teams and 24 kids practicing and playing instead of only 12? As a parent, before planning on joining these types of programs, it might be a good idea to do a little research. Are practices organized or slipshod? Do the kids all play in every game? How many times does the child really get a playing experience or is this about winning some type of championship?

When I was coaching basketball, I would run open gyms, clinics and a summer camp. My team also played in a summer league. I hoped that the players would do as much as they could to improve their skills because they wanted to. Some did the minimum, some did the maximum. One year, I had a player who only played in the summer basketball league. That summer, league season was 10 games in length. Since the kids all played about half the game, this young man's total effort during the off season was about 20 quarters of basketball. That calculates to approximately 160 minutes of basketball. Needless to say that when the season rolled around, his lack of improvement, combined with the other players' improvement, led to him not making the team.

The message here is clear. While playing on a travel team or summer league is great, real improvement only comes with repetition and practice. Time must be spent improving skills whether hitting a baseball, perfecting shooting a basketball, hitting golf balls at the driving range or working at whatever sport your child plays. Game experience is fine, but game experience alone will not be enough. Time must also be spent practicing the skills necessary to improve. That time, whether with you the parent or with a skills instructor or tutor, will not be wasted. Instead it will help the knowledge and game experiences that your child will have. In some cases, it may give you, the parent, opportunities to be with your child doing something you both like together. That may be the best experience of all!


Tom Curry has been an Athletic Director in Bergen County, New Jersey, as well as an adjunct professor in the Wellness and Exercise Science Department at Bergen Community College for 24 years. He has coached high school basketball and golf and was voted Bergen County Basketball Coach of the Year in 2002. He has spoken at the New Jersey Medical Society Sports Symposium and to parent groups on various issues pertaining to youth sports. He was inducted into the NJ Coaches Hall of Fame in 2012.

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