Eventually, some parents have to decide whether to sign their kids up for travel teams, where the seasons generally become longer and the uniforms spiffier. The stakes are higher too -- some travel teams expect players to hone their skills year round. And though these leagues have been in existence only since the 1970s, they're now available in most communities. Many cater to children 12 and over, but as travel leagues gain acceptance, the age of entry has sunk to 7 or 8.
Marty and Richard Justice, who live in a suburb of Houston, expect to spend at least a few upcoming weekends on the road. Their daughters, Katy, 15, and Lizzie, 11, are swimmers for a community club that has made its mark in the Southwest. But staying with the program requires dedication: Katy spends as many as 18 hours in the pool each week. And it's not cheap. Marty estimates that between team fees and travel bills, her family will rack up charges of $5,000 to $7,000 this year.
Unfortunately, some parents expect payback for this kind of investment. "I've seen a mother berate her child because she didn't get a time the mother was hoping for," says Marty. "We've told our girls, 'When you're tired and don't feel like doing it anymore, you quit. This is for you, not for us.'"
Betty Symington, mother of Arthur, 11, a soccer player, agrees -- she doesn't even consider travel teams. "At this age, it's too intense and too competitive," says Symington, of Upperco, MD. "And it takes away from family time on weekends."
Looking for a guiding principle? Just as every child is different, no two leagues are alike. Do the research. Above all, keep your child's life in balance. Take her to the movies once a month. Encourage her to volunteer at a soup kitchen. And make sure schoolwork always comes first.
Spotting a Quality Coach
Who are the people running children's sports teams? The answer is often as simple as looking in the mirror: You are. Of the 2.5 million adult volunteers involved in kids' leagues, more than half have kids playing in the same league.
In some ways, that's reassuring news. "Parents mean well. They want their children to have a positive experience, and the overwhelming majority really are trying to do the right things," says Dr. Burton. Unfortunately, coaches often take the job with a less-than-perfect résumé. In fact, few have even been exposed to formal coach training, though programs of this type have been gaining popularity. (To find a program near you, contact the National Alliance for Youth Sports at 561-684-1141 or visit www.nays.org/) Other coaches aren't equipped to teach the fundamentals of the game. And a minority of them may run their teams with the old Vince Lombardi bromide "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing" ringing in their ears.