Featured / Youth Soccer

To play or not to play travel soccer

Photo: Alison Mickel

EDITOR’S NOTE: PSP is pleased to welcome Alison Mickel, who will be writing about youth soccer.

I’ve found through personal experience as well as conversations with other soccer parents that it’s not always an easy decision as to when and if to move your child from recreational to travel team soccer. It seems that there is not as clearly defined of a path in soccer as there are in other sports as to when to make this transition. Some sports have strict age minimums that must be met in order to progress which are typically higher ages than allowable by soccer.

Many soccer leagues have travel teams that begin at age 9, and with most kids only having a few years of playing experience by that age, the inevitable question becomes when to transition your child from recreational to competitive soccer. Typically, a select number of players stand out during the course of an intramural season, and the parents of those select few may be approached to consider moving their child to a travel team. That’s where the dilemma begins. Of course, as a parent it is normal to feel immense pride when your child is singled out as having talent above and beyond the rest of her teammates, but is it enough talent to compete at the travel team level? And, if the answer is “yes,” will your child thrive in that environment?

Here are some pros and cons I’ve observed in joining a travel team. Of course, this is not an all inclusive list; however, I think these are all important points to consider when struggling with the decision of when to move your child to a competitive team.


“What do you mean I’m not starting?”

One of the downsides of joining a travel team can be that your child experiences much less playing time than when they were the “star” of their recreational team. It’s the old adage of going from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a big pond. The level of play is more intense and more competitive. When your kid is just starting out, regardless of skill level, it may take some time to become a starting player. When players spend a majority of the time on the sidelines and only go in occasionally as a sub, this can create a negative first experience and potentially deter them from continuing the following season.

“Hey, that kid tripped me!!”

Speaking of being more competitive, travel play can be more physical as well. Typically in recreational soccer, players are learning the fundamentals of the game while enhancing their own skills, but, for the most part, they all play nice. Be prepared that when your child moves to travel league to see a lot more physicality: tripping, pushing, slide tackling (you get the idea). This increased level of physical play can also cause your child to be intimated. In some cases they can become even less aggressive then they were on their recreational team.

“But I just played yesterdaaaaay.”

Travel teams in general require a much greater commitment by players and their parents. There will be both home and away games which can sometimes result in driving an hour each way for a 90-minute game (and don’t forget about getting there 30 minutes early for warm-ups). An away soccer game in the travel league could take 4-5 hours out of your day, and there are also typically all-day tournaments in your future towards the end of the season. As I said, this is a big adjustment for the kids and parents. If your child is playing recreational and travel soccer simultaneously—or doing another activity in addition to travel soccer—you and your child could be boarding the train to burnout city.


In almost all cases, travel team soccer has significantly higher associated costs then recreational soccer. These fees include uniform costs, tournament fees, indoor training during the offseason, seasonal registration, etc., and it can quickly become a large financial investment, depending on the club. Keep in mind though that most clubs will not turn a player away if they cannot afford the fees and typically will work out something with parents on a case-by-case basis. If your child is capable of playing soccer competitively, but you can’t afford the costs associated with travel league, reach out to the coach to see if there is financial assistance available for that team/league.


Those are just a few things you may want to consider before encouraging your child to take the next step towards competitive play.

On the plus side, if your child is truly passionate about soccer and eats, sleeps, and breathes the game, then there are many benefits to moving up to a travel league. Below are just a few of the great things that can happen when advancing to the next level.

“Wow, that’s cool!”

The coaches in competitive soccer are typically more knowledgeable and skilled, and that will give your child an opportunity to learn the game in ways they may not experience through recreational soccer. They will learn to move the ball, read the field and strategize in ways they never have before. They will also learn a myriad of drills to enhance their own skills and start to gravitate (through observation and guidance from their coach) towards the position they are most suited for. Typically, this is the position they will play for the remainder of their soccer career.

“Competition can be a great thing.”

If your child was running circles around the kids in their recreational league, travel will most likely be a perfect environment for them. Here they can truly give their all, matching skills and wit, amongst the best players in the region. This is a welcomed change for skilled players who, although they may have enjoyed being the star of their team, became bored in not experiencing the challenges that they will encounter in a more competitive league.

“Discipline, discipline, discipline.”

Playing for a travel team certainly requires more discipline than recreational teams, which are mostly instructional. In rec leagues, kids get only what they put into it. Some just play because their parents are trying to keep them busy, some play because its fun and they can see their school friends a couple times a week outside of school, and some just really love the sport. Once a child moves up to travel, it requires much more work outside of the normal practices and games to allow their skill level to increase and improve. There is endless value for kids to learn that hard work, commitment, and discipline are required to excel in anything they do and this discipline can help them both on and off the field in all areas of their lives.

There are pros and cons to anything and advancing to competitive soccer is no different. I think the most important thing is to use your knowledge of your child (no one knows your child like you do) and determine if this is really going to benefit him or her. If you believe that they have gotten all they can out of recreational soccer, still never tire of practice or games and exceed most of their teammates and competitors’ talent levels, then it may be time to move to the next level. If you’re still on the fence, take your time to make the right decision for you and your child.

Remember, there’s always next year.


  1. Nice article. I’d like to add that just as the children develop and improve, the parents also improve. Meaning, they chill out a bit as the years go by. U9 parents can be a bit intense.

  2. Alison Mickel says:

    Thanks for the nice comment and I agree with you!

  3. Kensington Josh says:

    I think the final paragraph is what it comes down to. If the kid is ambitious to be better, then travel is the only route. If they are happy just running around and playing, stay in rec. I’m a recent father (got a 2 month old) and want soccer to be a fun family activity that my children can take as far as they want.

  4. The best part of playing competitve travel soccer was getting to travel to different places to play in tournaments. We would treat them as vacations. As a kid i could not have asked for a better thing. I got to play a game that i loved, hang out with my friends and family at the same time, and see new places that we probably never would have traveled to if it were not for soccer.

    Competitive travel soccer does eventually take over every bit of free time that you do and don’t have. so be ready for it.

  5. Thank you for this article. I have searched for similar ones in the past and found them to be few and far between. I have 2 sons aged 3 & 6 so I’ll be making a decision on travel soccer in the next couple years. My only concern is in your last sentence about “next year”. When I was a child I played rec soccer for many years. When my family and I decided I should try out for a travel team – we found that the try outs were really just a show. They had no intention of bumping kids off the team for a new kid, so I never made it. I don’t want that to happen to my sons so I’m hoping to get them in younger if they are truly interested and able.
    Thanks again for the article!

    • Well remember Jesse, you aren’t limited to just the travel team in your town. Neighboring towns also field travel teams and just about every possible level on the spectrum is covered, and most allow out of town players too. Pretty much anybody who truly wants to participate in travel soccer will get the chance to do so.

      Best of luck to you and your sons.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      We’re hoping for more like this. Alison has some good insights, and we’re hoping to significantly increase PSP’s coverage of youth soccer.

    • I have 2 boys, ages 7 and 9. By the time my oldest was 7 it was evident that he had outgrown the recreation league (I coached both rec and now travel and have 30+ years of experience with the game). His skill level had exceeded that of kids in Rec however we felt that he was still not emotionally and psychologically mature enough to compete at the travel level so we held him back from trying out for the new u8 boys team. We were also concerned that the parents of other children would be too overbearing and aggressive on the sidelines and did not want to expose our son to that kind of torment at such a young age. A few months later one of the parents of his Rec teammates convinced us to have him try out but the “A” Team was full so he joined the “B” Team. I am glad that we did because it has been a positive experience for my son. His skill level and maturity have developed significantly and he has made new friends that I am sure will last a lifetime. I also could not be more pleased with the amount of support that we receive from the parents and community. Because of the experience with my oldest, we did not hesitate to have my youngest son, now 7, tryout for the U7 Boys travel team last fall (then 6 years old). My youngest is big for his age, skilled beyond his years (athletic super-freak), very physical and aggressive so I sometimes worry that his lack of maturity and lack of fear will get him hurt. Having said that, we are lucky that he has a very good head coach who’s main focus (outside of winning) is to enforce the basics of the game, as well as disciplined and respectful behavior on the field.
      I encourage those who are thinking about moving their child to travel soccer to do their research. If you have the chance, go watch a game and be honest about your child’s ability to compete, both physically and emotionally. Also, see if the coach is a good fit for your child. Travel Soccer Clubs do their best to find the good coaches for our children but sometimes you will run into that one parent/coach who has a “win at all costs” attitude. I’ve seen such behavior and it only serves to encourage kids to go play something other than soccer. Good Luck!!

  6. As Jason mentioned my sons love the travel: staying in different hotels and having a blast with the team, not just in their rooms but also going to the Cinema during long breaks inbetween games, going to many team dinners, during the long car journeys, etc.
    Then there are several key issues not mentioned:
    – When a child with an Elite travel team wins a State Cup, the Regionals, or even the Nationals then they get such a boost from that that their confidence grows ten-fold. Travel soccer can be a tremendous confidence builder and when you are a Captain for your travel team (or High School team; most travel players are Captains of their HS team) it teaches you leadership qualities as well.
    – Being a good travel player opens doors and gets you money you will never get playing recreational. With that I mean good travel players get into Colleges they possibly otherwise will not get into, and they get scholarships (or Grants) they would never get had they only played recreational. If they get none of these at least they should have coaches come knocking on their door which is also a great confidence builder.
    – Being on a diverse travel team is also a good lesson for kids who grow up in a non-diverse environments. It makes then understand how kids (who are much different to themselves) tick and how they live.
    – On recreational teams everyone seems to get a trophy. On travel teams you have to fight and play well to really win them. This teaches the kids that things need to be earned in life.
    The issue for us was never so much whether to play travel or recreational. The main issue is when you play travel whether you should stick with the A, B or C team your child is picked for, or whether you should try out for a different travel club where the child may get picked for a higher team. Then there is the issue that not all A-teams are the same; so should the kid try out for the best possible A-team that is 1hr away from home? Then there is the issue with travel coaches, who may not be the right fit for the team, or he/she may be right for couple of years and then suddenly no more. Then you have the issue now whether to play Academy or not…
    To summarize: if a kid has many other strengths and interests which potentially will build his/her confidence as he/she grows old, and if you have enough moeny to pay for College, then let them play recreational, otherwise steer them towards the travel teams, and start early since some U-8 travel teams in the area play already at a very high level.

  7. Don’t for get to mention the benefits of traveling. Back in the day on my team we went all over the country from DC to Florida and even a trip to Ireland. The opportunity of joining a travel in great for kids

    • Alison Mickel says:

      Great dialogue on travel soccer and some really good points made by all. I think there are so many benefits to playing travel team soccer and a lot of them have been highlighted through comments here…I still question how young is too young to play competitively now that travel teams are available to much younger age groups than in years past, but its great to hear everyone’s perspectives and personal experiences!

  8. Pahotspur says:

    Having spent many years coaching travel soccer and seeing the way it has developed my advise to any parent is find a club that does not encourage travel soccer at the younger ages but rather has a development program that plays 3v3 and up as the child develops.
    A number of really good organizations locally have academy programs that concentrate on skills and touches at the younger ages. No tryout programs but groups that play each other. These clubs also play festervals against and with each other. This makes for better skills and also allows the child to develop and choose whether they want to move to the next level of competition. As a bonus the parents are kept well under control at the younger ages. A couple of clubs that come to mind are Lower Merion and YMS but there are becoming more and more of these as people realize the problems of playing kids in 8v8 when they are too young. Small sided = lots os touches which = more skill and more enjoyment. This applies right through the skills spectrum.
    Forget scholarships etc. if they come they are a bonus for a few, play because it is enjoyable, your brain will earn far more in scholarship money anyway.

  9. George McIntosh says:

    Great article with some really good insight.

  10. This is a great article. As a second year travel coach and parent, I really had no idea what I was getting in to. I have watched the kids on my team progress and seen their personalities change. This article hits the nail on the head. Some have fallen off and realized travel soccer is not for them while others have thrived and become really good players. There are still struggles with their play, but they are also 10 years old. Parents, and coaches, have to be patient. Good job!!!

  11. WOW! Well written and funny article. Thank you for the information and insight. Well done.


  12. Alice Bennett says:

    Wow! Great article. Has really spiked interest with parents, coaches, and kids. Keep it up.

  13. Gerhardus van Wilgen says:

    The most important question you have to ask is, what do you want?

    Unfortunately, too many parents will answer: I want to win. This means that development will be sacrificed for results. I have seen it with my own eyes over and over again. Coaches will take kids just because they have one specific skill the excel in. Also, at a younger age size, speed and physical strength can determine the outcome of games. In other words, many coaches don’t really care about development, they care about the standings.

    Comes Middle School you will see that those kids who never have learned any soccer skills (incl. tactical) have no idea what they are doing after they get through puberty. I think this is a huge problem.

    I hate to say, you have to go to an expensive academy to play good soccer, but unfortunately that’s where it comes down to, unless you find a good coach, either in rec or on travel.

    The best way to develop is just being able to play a lot. There is a player in the Dutch national team, Jetro Williams (18) who was still playing on the street only a few years ago.

  14. Pretty part of content. I simply stumbled upon your web site and in accession capital to say that I get in fact enjoyed account your weblog posts.

  15. I think Guido pretty much nailed it down from parents perspective. You have to have something to get into a good college. And commitment to soccer, even if a B or C team, is still something. The games for me are also a few hours of away from reality and I enjoy it immensely.

  16. As a parent of a child new to travel soccer, I’d say this article is spot on! I’d also suggest that the team you choose should try its best to schedule games against similarly balanced teams. It’s no fun for kids in their first year of travel soccer to get drubbed by the state champs. There are different levels of travel soccer and finding the right level of competition is important.

  17. Great article! However, I disagree with the opinion that players will find a position on the field and stay there for the rest of their career. As a high school coach of ten years, we regularly place players in various positions at that level. And sometimes, it is their first exposure to that particular position. College players need to be versatile enough to plug into many positions

  18. I am considering taking my 7 year old comp (U9) next season. She is very skilled for a REC player, and that can actually COST her game time, at least on offense. The coach will often pull her or place her on defense to avoid running up the score.

    My big motivation is I want to encourage team work, but when my daughter passes to less skilled players, they tend to miss the pass or lose possession. This results in her being a “ball hog” and simply dribbling and scoring herself. I don’t want to tame this aggression, but don’t want her to be a ball hog either. My thinking is if she is surrounded by players of similar skill, unselfish play will be rewarded.

    I’m not rich, but a little extra money and travel will not be a problem

    I would welcome any thoughts as for some reason everyone I know says going comp or select at this age is a mistake, but I can’t see the downside for the life of me.

  19. Costs vary significantly. In my area, travel for 11 yr olds is just under $3,000/year, not including transportation, hotel and indoor fees. Soccer is awesome fun, but not worth that expense to us. In our Rec league, they develop skills (we have a good coach) and have a blast on the field. There is no pressure, just a stress relief from school, and a great way to play a fun game with friends. Instead, we spend on extra academic and cultural travel opportunities.

    Some kids should play travel because, as someone else mentioned, they live breathe and eat soccer. If I had that kid, I’d pay the fee.

    You get into most colleges with your grades, not your sports ability. Some great scholar athletes do both, but they are not the primary target of most excellent colleges. They love the nerds. It is not hard to get into college at all when you have good grades. My eldest has a nice scholarship and he never played a sport in his life.

  20. Where we live, there is rec, county, and travel soccer. My son’s county team is moving up to U9 travel next fall. He will have to try out but he is very coachable and will likely make the travel team. Our dilemma is this. He wanted to play both baseball and soccer this spring but we made him chose. He chose soccer (his team has played year round since last July). All spring he has been sad about missing out on baseball (which he had played since he was 5). He would like to play fall baseball so he can be ready for baseball next spring but still wants to play soccer. Other kids are planning to play travel soccer and continue to play baseball but I can’t see how that would work for our family (two working parents and a 5 year old who is playing t-ball). We would love to continue to encourage our son to play at the highest level and stick with his coach but I feel like we are on this crazy soccer treadmill and we’re having trouble stepping off.

  21. Neonconfused says:

    My daughter told me playing soccer was un fun when we were pushing her to hard, but she was playing lazy. How do I encourage her in travel soccer, we pay slot of money for travel soccer. What do I do if she wants to go play with her school friends on a wreck team? How to I respond. And what should my child think?

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