Youth Soccer

Youth soccer travel madness

This week, my son’s team lost a player. The family was not happy we were not playing in two leagues nor was the one league that we play in “good enough.” Right after tryouts, we lost another player because we weren’t going to enough premier tournaments.

My kid is on a B team. He plays because he likes the game and hanging out with his friends. He is not getting a college scholarship, nor will he play in high school (his decision).

What the hell is going on here?

I’m going there – I think this is about the parents. As a parent of two boys, I get it. I want the best for my kids, too. We have offered soccer camps, voice lessons, whatever they need to get better at what they want to do, but I am under no delusion that either of my children are getting a college scholarship for sports or theater.

The stories are out there – children playing soccer 7 days a week, for multiple teams. Traveling up and down the east coast to play premier level teams. Yes, I know there are a few players who welcome this complete devotion to the sport, but what is the toll it takes on the not just the parents, but also the siblings? And what about the player that is just doing because it is expected of them?

I just finished reading a Time article about the multi-billion (yes, billion) dollar industry that is youth sports. It has gone beyond private coaches, elite teams, and weekends traveling hours to play. An HBO video looks at towns trying to reinvent themselves by spending millions to build huge sports complexes to lure tournaments. These tournaments then bring in millions of dollars to these towns when families come to stay, eat and shop.

Both the article and the video ask to what purpose are these families spending $15,000 a year for their child to play a sport?  It was very telling in the video when parents were asked, after 10 years, do you think you are going to get a return on your investment, and they both said yes. Let’s say their child is one of the elite that get a college scholarship – that’s $150,000 they spent taking a chance that their child will get a scholarship – which depending on the school, might not be worth $150,000.

The other item that struck me is that the number of children playing organized youth sports is decreasing. As costs increase, parents and children who can’t afford the travel fees are left on the sidelines. As time commitments increase, working parents can’t afford the time to drive players where they need to go.

As my son plays for our local club, we will do five or so local tournaments and one weekend that we have to stay in a hotel. When all is said and done – including uniforms, cleats, team fees, hotel, gas and food – we probably spend over $2,500 a year on soccer. All for a kid who just loves to play the game with his friends. I am thankful that we are able to provide that for our son.

It is a balancing act – providing the right level of challenge, development and training while maintaining some form of sanity. I am very thankful that my children are not superstars.

37 Comments

  1. Many parents are so deluded. It would be hard to pick a worse sport to pursue as a route to a college scholarship than men’s soccer. A sport played by every high school in the country (and the world) but a small number of D1 programs (that continues to shrink) and the programs that remain have relatively few scholarships.

    • This will probably change some during the next decade with more families deciding not to let their kids play football. Smaller colleges around the nation are already dropping their football programs.

  2. My 13 year old plays in two leagues, practices twice a week with club team, everyday with middle school team. He will get a scholarship, or grant money to college and hopefully highschool…but it wont be on soccer. It will be on acacemics because we hold his passion (soccer) over his head to get the grades we want. He is fit and going through adolescense as a fit kid. And THAT was my goal. He plays basketball and golf. He doesn’t have the time to travel for hoops, and his golf game is a hobby. I travel every weekend and spend countless hours watching his games and coordinating life around my kids schedules. I dont mind, because fitness and school are my targets. My 10 year old is in one league, has practice 1-2 times per week like normal kids. He doesnt go to premier tournaments and only plays on 1 team. He will get pushed over the next two years for the same purpose as my older. If my kid gets to 15 and is fit….I won the soccer game.

  3. What is the alternative? My 8 year old daughter’s club had only 4 teams with 6-8 girls on it for intramural last spring. The travel teams started luring them away at age 8! “My daughter got asked to try out,” said the parents… yet every girl who tried out made the team (eye roll). I feel like next year there will be no choice if she wants to keep playing we will be forced to go travel. It’s a business that lures in delusional parents. I would love it to stay local and recreational.

    • I’ve been running the oldest division of my local soccer club’s youth program for a few years now. I just became the longest serving commissioner for intramural for our club (that just means parents are leaving for travel soccer).
      .
      .
      I’ve had two articles on here posted about youth soccer in the past. Parents in America have turned youth sports into adult sports, or a job for kids.
      .
      .
      There is a movement out there that rejects the currently accepted model of youth soccer. Like anything, it will take a generation for it to really take effect. In a few years the culture will change again. It is just going to take time.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    Intramural.
    .
    Academy.
    .
    The madness ends.
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    Take the money out of the business that is US Sports. Neuter it. Take the money spent on travel athletics and put it in a 529 for 15 years. Best advice.
    .

    • Hehe…when I saw the title of this post, I thought that El Pachy would have something to say. Welcome back, hope the sabbatical was refreshing.

    • Poor advise: always keep a balance.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Actually it’s not poor advise. It’s just advise you choose not to agree with which is perfectly understandable.
        .
        It’s so ingrained and ruthless now….families are required to stay in hotels and certain hotels to boot- cause clubs and coaches are setting up side deals for driving business to the hotel.

    • I’m so glad you are still here!!!!

  5. Have 2 boys who played travel all thru their youth. Had games and tournaments from Orlando to Rochester NY. Eldest played in a D3 College, graduated and is working and playing soccer in LA. Youngest is playing for a D3 College right now. Both ‘found’ their colleges thru soccer (the coaches approached them) and it has worked out really well for them. Thru soccer they thrived in College and have become great leaders and really well balanced boys and they have made many tight friends for life. I never spent as much as the Times article indicated; just a little bit more than what you, Staci, are spending. For that to happen you need a GREAT team manager.

    • Agreed. If the return on investment (ROI) parents seek from youth soccer is a college scholarship, they are likely to be disappointed. If the ROI parents seek from youth sports is a combination of things like making lifelong friendships, learning how to win, learning how to deal with losing, becoming a leader, becoming a team player, learning to take care of their body and spending time doing a healthy activity, the money can be well spent.

  6. Scott of Nazareth says:

    ALWAYS appreciate your contributions Staci!

    For now, Soccer is still a predominantly suburban sport, but we all know that the #1 suburban sport is… “Keeping up with the Joneses”.

    The minute the first U7 player stops coming to the local rec club team games/practices to go to the “Elite” club across town, the clock starts ticking. Other parents notice Tommy or Suzie isn’t there anymore and immediately know that their child isn’t getting “The Best” soccer experience.

    I do think there is a place AND need for Elite programs. What annoys me is them starting at earlier and earlier ages. Couple that with them fielding B, C and even D teams and it’s just what it looks like, a blatant money grab, not that I can blame them if they have parents happily forking over a couple mortgage payments each year so they can say their kid plays for “FC McCoolpants United”.

    • Nail on head!

    • What’s wrong with B, C and D teams? If a club has fifty parents bring their eight-year olds to tryouts, why shouldn’t all of those kids be afforded the chance to play travel soccer? Should little Suzie or Tommy not be kept from playing travel soccer because (s)he is not one of the best players at age 8? Kids don’t improve in a linear fashion, so the U9 D team player might well be starting for the A team by U12.
      .

      The well-run clubs with (as Guido notes above) GREAT team managers make sure the budgets for their B, C and D teams are commensurate with the level of play. The money grab tournaments are only money grabs if your team signs up to play in them. B, C and D teams should avoid them. Frankly, even A teams should avoid them until they become showcases for prospective college players, but that’s another story altogether.

      • What’s wrong with B, C and D teams? Too much money and too much travel for the level of play.
        .
        If a club has fifty parents bring their eight-year olds to tryouts, why shouldn’t all of those kids be afforded the chance to play travel soccer?
        Because they’re not good enough.
        .
        Should little Suzie or Tommy not be kept from playing travel soccer because (s)he is not one of the best players at age 8?
        Exactly. Suzie and Tommy can play intramural ball and work on their skills and try out next year.
        .
        Kids don’t improve in a linear fashion, so the U9 D team player might well be starting for the A team by U12.
        The intramural player this year might well make the travel team next year. Fine.
        .

        The well-run clubs with (as Guido notes above) GREAT team managers make sure the budgets for their B, C and D teams are commensurate with the level of play.
        Not my experience. YMMV.
        .
        The money grab tournaments are only money grabs if your team signs up to play in them. B, C and D teams should avoid them. Frankly, even A teams should avoid them until they become showcases for prospective college players, but that’s another story altogether.
        Excellent points. If you had been managing my son’s travel team this way, it would have been super amazingly awesome. I think Staci’s article and the majority of comments combine to show that there are very few well-run clubs, if by “well-run” we hold them to your, and my, standards.

      • Too much money and too much travel for the level of play. Again, an informed team manager should be able to keep the costs down to a reasonable level (read: avoid out of town, overnight money grab tournaments).
        .
        Because they’re not good enough. Not good enough for what? To be the best at age 8? Who cares? The best at age 8 aren’t always the best at age 10 and are rarely the best at age 15.
        .
        Exactly. Suzie and Tommy can play intramural ball and work on their skills and try out next year. Part of the additional cost of travel should be better and more frequent training. Therefore, being on a D or C or B team gives Suzie and Tommy a better chance to improve.
        .
        Not my experience. YMMV. My mileage does vary.
        .
        In summary, as I mentioned in other comments earlier today, I think a lot of this depends on educating the parents on having proper expectations for their kids. With proper expectations of the potential return on their investment, more parents may eventually realize that taking off from work early on Friday, driving to Northern Virginia and staying in a hotel for two nights and watching Tommy or Suzie only get 40 touches on the ball in 4 games over the weekend is not an ideal allocation of their time and money…not to mention most likely being detrimental to Tommy’s or Suzie’s development.

      • Let me be specific about the travel: I do not mean “money grab” tournaments. I am talking about the regular fall league, the heart of boys travel soccer. Delco U9 boys division 10 sent our “D” team to Elkton Maryland for a league match, then sent us back there for a playoff. Delco U12 boys division 7 had us travel to Stroudsburg for a league match. 80 miles. Division 7. Ridiculous.

      • Fair enough…Elkton, MD and Stroudsberg is more than a bit ridiculous for what is supposed to be a Delaware County league. It’s been 7 or so years since my son was on his club’s D team and back then, there was one team in Delaware, but the rest of the away games were ~15 minute rides.

  7. pragmatist says:

    We all want the best for our kids, but pushing them through these systems is not necessarily what is best. I’ve talked to many kids who are stressed about their club teams. I coach a non-club team and I always have kids ask if they can play on the opposite side of the field from the parents. They don’t want to hear them.
    .
    When I was younger (in the 1980’s), I played on every team I could find because it was fun. We played tournaments up and down the East Coast, and even occasionally out West or in the Midwest. But at 12-17 years old, I had no idea about the cost. I don’t even want to ask my parents how much they paid.
    .
    But we also knew that there was no endgame – this all ended with high school. Maybe the rare kid would play at college, but that was it. Times have changed, and not necessarily for the better.
    .
    And if we’re wondering why we can’t catch up with the rest of the world, just simply ask yourself: How many kids don’t play the sport purely because of the cost? I know that parents are paying 2,000-5,000/year for different teams. I love this sport, and there is no way in hell I’m paying that much for my kid to play.
    .
    The system is broken, and it is broken badly.
    .
    Sorry, that was a rambling hodgepodge of topics in there, but it just feels like something has gotten off the tracks.

    • It is sad to hear that many kids want to be positioned on the side opposite the parents. I think parent education on issues like appropriate sideline behavior and what are realistic expectations for their kid is significantly lacking and is an area which, if addressed properly, might improve the experience for all involved (players, coaches and parents…and referees). I don’t coach, but if I did, I would prepare a memo for the parents on appropriate sideline behavior and hold a session with the parents before the season started to review the memo. I would also have the parents sign a contract committing to following such behavior. Reel in and educate the parents a little and the system might right itself a little.

      • Lessons were learned early on and I do address this before every season now. I let them know that I have no problem clearing the sideline if their behavior becomes inappropriate. They can watch from their cars.
        .
        However, the main reason they want to play away from the parents is because of the pressure they feel. Some parents become very emotionally involved, and suddenly the kid is hearing shouted instructions from all over.
        .
        It puts the emphasis on the coach to try to get to the player to block that out. The coach will give you instructions rationally when you come off the field at half, or as a sub. But human nature gets in the way in that entire equation.
        .
        My experiences haven’t been bad. I just see the stress on kids’ faces. At that age, they don’t need it. So one of the goals is try to make sure they are having as much fun as possible while growing in the game.

  8. Carlos Martinez says:

    Excellent article, well written.
    Great job Staci!

  9. We’ve never met, but I can tell we have similar parenting philosophies. I agree 100% with what you have written. I also read the article in Time. Yours is better.
    I’m mostly with The Elephant on this one. How about this: Travel soccer? fine. But stop once you have an A team.
    My son was on D and C teams. Fun? Sure. Worth more than a 30 minute drive? No. Way.

  10. Another great article Stacy. Its been a few years since my son played travel soccer. I always felt it was a money grab! Long drives,limited playing time. The coach didn’t know the game. Took the job because his son wanted to do travel. Fortunately my son decided to take on high school marching band. By the way,not as much money,but what a time suck!! I really hope the money machine that is US soccer begins to change!

  11. I used to resent my parents for not pushing me in youth sports. Now as an adult I understand it was a money problem and their apathy was calculated. Thankfully I never lost my love of the game b/c I was never pressured by coaches or peers. My two young cousins (9 & 14) travel for hockey, lacrosse, and basketball tournaments and have been for years. At this point it’s offensively obvious my aunt and uncle get more out of it than they do.
    Ultimately I think it comes down to recognizing who or what you want your child to become — someone who stresses over a ball game or someone who loves it.

  12. Chris Gibbons says:

    When I left the game senior year of high school (the year after I was captain of the team, mind you), I did it because there was no room for multi-sport athletes (I was asked to be the trainer/last man on the bench for the basketball team after missing a summer’s worth of “optional” training sessions… because I was playing soccer!), no room for players who also wanted to be musicians, scientists, actors, mathletes, etc… It was either all in (which included winter and spring travel teams) or all out (which included, if you made the team, riding the bench for every match, all season).

    • This happen with my son. By the end of his freshman season he was done. Moved on to other activites. He also saw no path to scholarship money through soccer. So he knuckled down for academic money!

    • I’ve heard too much of this. This is massively wrong. It’s amazing how much adults have lost perspective of the fact that they are coaching kids…even in high school.
      .
      I hope somehow this trend reverts back to allowing, and even promoting multi-sport athletes. It’s unhealthy on so many levels to be singularly focused. It would take about 2 seconds on Google to find a library of medical articles pointing out the negative side of this. But, the adults don’t care as long as their team/school is winning and collecting trophies…

  13. In the end, the parents have a say on the direction of the team. Most teams put out an expectation sheet for the coming season. It is at that time one should review and ask questions for the coming season. A little dialog goes a long way. The expectation sheet should serve as the basic understanding between the coach/manager and the player/parents. You would be surprised how much sway the parents as a group can have. The team plan should serve for the majority of players not the six sigma player. If the plan is too much for you after the discussions, drop down a level and keep a love of the sport.

    Our club has been pushing our team to do more after the fact. Has all to do with Club optics. We took a poll, not enough interest and we said no. In the end it is your team and your money. Communication is a two way street. One can always say no.

    • I agree. I suspect a great deal of parent dissatisfaction comes from a lack of desire or willingness to question the team’s plans and direction before the season begins.

  14. I don’t see the point in travel teams in any sport until high school age. It’s appalling quite frankly that the only choice you have these days is the intramural route which costs way too much money, for what is basically an organized pick up game. Or you go the travel route spend even more money and have to deal with absurdity of trainers and parents who think little Jimmy is going to be the next Pulsic.
    In my day we had one league that everyone played in, you only traveled if you made the select / All-Star team. The competition was better, the players were friends off the field and the exact same percentage of us went on to turn pro. Oh and it cost about $25 to play.

    • If you are opposed to both the intramural route and the travel route, what do you propose for kids who want to play organized soccer before high school age?

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