Time Out: June 13, 2012

I have to admit, I’m a bit leery over “Travel Ball” – sport specialization that limits participation to one sport where students practice, train, and compete in only that sport.

Sport specialization is exploding across America. The growth of Travel Ball teams coincides with drops in participation on high school athletic teams. When high school athletes limit participation to one sport, the overall percentage of youngsters playing on teams is bound to drop, sometimes at alarming rates. Participation on school teams has diminishing value when high school students’ play for corporately sponsored specialized teams using air travel to play at venues that sometime dwarf their local school facilities.

Example close to home
You don’t have to look far to see the impact. Our route to Cooperstown’s Double Day Field was a showcase venue for travel baseball teams. Field after field of pristine baseball diamonds is a magnet luring parents and their sons from all over the country to play in Cooperstown. It’s doubtful those boys are engaging in other sporting activities for their local high schools.

At Margaretville, where boys’ soccer is king, nearly two-dozen guys play soccer after school each night late into the fall and all spring while the basketball and baseball teams are threatened with extinction.

I have firsthand experience with sport specialization. For the past three springs I have coached a local AAU boys’ basketball team with a roster of players from Margaretville and the small rural schools nearby. The goal is to provide the guys with increased game playing experience.

My team does not specialize on basketball. Almost exclusively, every guy on the roster plays a spring sport. We hold very few AAU practices and once spring sports contests begin almost never practice. For the most part, participating on my team involves playing in selected weekend tournaments. Our standing rule: if you have a conflict involving your local high school spring sports team and our AAU team, the high school commitment always comes first.

Many elite teams compete
Those norms are not the norm with many of the teams we face in tournaments. Many are elite or all-star teams that specialize in basketball. One team went by its area code, attracting the best players in the age group in that locale. A note from the tournament director of an event in Binghamton, informed coaches the team from Kansas received first scheduling considerations due to flight commitments. Another 16-and-under team used an aerial game highlighting several spectacular dunks. Sounds like “Travel Ball’ to me.

There are many reasons why high school students participate in sports. Topping the list are having fun, doing something they are good at, staying in shape, improving skills or learning new skills, and playing as part of a team. They are all noble pursuits.

And, many benefits come with participating in school activities, including athletics. Students with broad activity participation generally have higher grades, better attendance, experience less discipline problems and are less likely to drop out of school than students who avoid extracurricular activities.

Research is proving multiple sport participation has multiple benefits, too. Athletes playing two or three sports improve their health and wellness and reduce risk of injury from overuse. In fact, cross training in varying sports actually improves performance as athletes use different skills and muscles.

Multiple sport participation encourages mental development, too, which accelerates the acquisition of new skills in every sport. Socialization improves as youngsters move in and out of different peer groups. Stars in one sport develop character learning to play varying roles, play as a teammate and take a slice of humble pie playing in a second sport where they might not be the star.
Playing for school coaches has benefits, too. High school coaches understand where athletics fit into the total school program and value the life lessons that come with sports participation. Citizenship and sportsmanship count. Coaches on specialized teams have other motivations and sometimes do not share the same goals as high school sports.

The jury is still out on the benefits of team specialization. There is no question that specialization provides increased competitive opportunities for youngsters who excel in one sport. Truly elite athletes may benefit from playing on Travel Ball teams. Even so, many of the greatest names in sport; Hakeen Olajuwon, Carl Crawford, John Elway, Dave Winfield, Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, Babe Didrikson, Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson, Jim Thorpe, Tom Brady, Dan Marino, Terrell Owens, Joe Mauer, LeBron James, Roger Federer, and Alex Rodriquez, were all multiple sport athletes.

Parents should exercise caution when advising their child about playing on a specialized team. The motivation should arise from the athlete, not the parent. Make efforts to clarify the goals and purposes of the Travel Team. Do your homework and remember when your son or daughter specializes it’s not only about what they gain. What they lose, the socialization that comes with different peer groups, different coaching models, less chance of burnout, and so on, all carry equal weight.