Kids Sports: They Ain’t What They Used to Be

I was naive enough to think this day might not ever come — not for me, you see, because I’m semi-quasi-young(ish) and hip and I get this parenting gig — but the day is here. It’s so here.

It’s the day when I officially start sounding like an old dude.

When I was nine, I tried out for my first travel soccer team. It was the Bonanza travel league, owned by the now-defunct Bonanza steakhouse. Why travel soccer and low-grade steak-ish meat ever became conjoined as a marketing effort I’ll never know, but in my day (there’s the old man coming out!), if you played Bonanza, you were a legitimately good player.

I went through my first tryout, played pretty well, and four hours later gathered around one of the goals to get the results. One of the coaches, a gruff Italian guy who a couple years later kicked my foot very hard because I messed up an easy goal in a playoff game, read the names off the list. “Ventura” was not on it. At the end of the list the coach said, “If you were not called, you didn’t make the travel team. Thanks for coming out and you can try again next year.” Then he just got up and left.

Three-quarters of us didn’t get called. Some kids may or may not have started to cry — I can’t remember because I was busy being a bawling sissy. But aside from slightly-saddened kids, there was no pomp and circumstance, no apologetics, no helicopter coddling: you tried to make an elite team, you didn’t, time to go home and play outside. That was it. No meddling parents trying to politicize the issue, no lobbying to the coaches. Cut and dry.

Today it’s different. It’s so different.

In many cities, today’s travel soccer programs are broken into two or even three divisions: the ‘real’ travel team, the B division, and maybe even a C division. Inside each of these divisions are one or more teams, stack-ranked according to skill. So inside the top division you’ll have one or two ‘serious teams’, and maybe a B team. Ditto for the other divisions.

Before you know it, you have two or three divisions of ‘select’ soccer with two or three teams per. This happens in pretty much every city, so the scam is widespread. Everywhere you go, parents are paying over $2,000 per year to have their kids play in a vaunted ‘travel’ league when, in fact, their kid wouldn’t have sniffed travel if he tried back in my day. (There I go again, being all old and crunchy.)

This, folks, is one of the greatest scams foisted upon parents today — travel sports for kids who aren’t good enough for travel. And it’s not just soccer; it’s baseball, hockey, lacrosse, football, you name it. I have personally witnessed kids who absolutely, positively have the athleticism of a cat with tinfoil booties playing ‘travel’ sports because there’s $2K on the line and a set of hopeful, slightly desperate parents.

What travel organization is going to turn that money away? None are. That’s who.

I consider myself progressive. I know things change, and I keep an open mind and try not to hold on to what I knew during my day at the expense of learning something new today. But man, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if travel sports, in 75% of cases, just aren’t the biggest money-grab going.

(By the way, all this reminds me of an article I just read entitled, Hey Parents…Your Kid Sucks. I recommend it.)

A year after I failed to make the Bonanza travel team, I tried out again and made it. Again, there was no, “Congratulations, Jeff! We’ve been watching you and we’re proud you worked so hard over the past year and all that has PAID OFF BIG TIME and now you are on the Bonanza team! Let us blare out a trumpet fanfare for you while some F–16s do a flyby!”

Nope. There was the Italian coach once again reading names off a list. This time, “Ventura” was called. So were other names. At the end of the reading, he grabbed his bag of soccer balls and left.

I’m 44 and I remember all this because when I didn’t make the team, it hurt. It made me go and play harder and better for the next year. When I did make the team, even at 10 years old, I felt like I accomplished something.

I wonder if all these young ‘travel’ athletes today will learn the same lessons.

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