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On Travel Sports

Friday November 8, 2013

Nowadays it seems that participation in travel sports is almost ubiquitous among a certain group of parents and children in high income communities.  Everyone is driving their children to practices and games seven days a week.  Moreover, many of these travel sports seem to require participation for most of the year, if not all year long.  Children go to hockey camp in the summer.  Children play indoor soccer leagues during the winter.  The concept of seasonal sports in the travel sports world seems to have all but disappeared.


There are certainly many benefits to sports participation, not least of which is physical health and general fitness.  Sports participation also helps develop and reinforce character traits such as perseverance and endurance, as well as sportsmanship and team building. But given that these benefits can be acquired in house leagues and school sports, it’s worth considering some of the costs of travel sports.

For one thing, it’s virtually impossible for any child doing multiple travel sports to get enough sleep, much less have time for other interests or even doing their homework properly.  If your goal is to get your child into a better college, you may want to start with homework.  More ominously, excessive training in a single sport has caused a large increase in overuse injuries.  If your eleven year old requires orthopedic surgery you should probably rethink his training schedule.

But most importantly, for me, is the impact on family life.  Family life is sublimated to the needs of each individual family member.  Mothers, fathers, and caregivers spend their time ferrying each child to their required sports appointments, and family dinners, outings and overall togetherness as a family are discounted.  As one of my many cousins said, “Family dinner? I don’t think we have had a dinner as a family in over a month.”  Between the father traveling on the week-end to take one child to squash tournaments, another child playing hockey most days of the week and the youngest children on the normal whirlwind of activities, there was literally almost never a time that this family could get together for a meal, much less a full day together. On the other hand, in families where the children can play the same travel sports, and the whole family is invested in the the traveling, the tournaments, the team dinners, the social life of the parents and the children, then the travel sports can be a unifying theme that brings families closer together.  I think it also matters immensely if the drive and the desire comes from the child, and not from the parent.

Early on we made the decision that we were not going to allow our children to participate in team sports that have games on Sundays.  As a family of four children, it would be difficult to have a family day if one or two children were doing something every Sunday.  Saturdays are frantic enough with four different sports over a period of six hours.  I have always liked the story of Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner in the movie “Chariots of Fire”, who refused to run the heat for the 100 metre race on a Sunday in the 1924 Olympics, despite strong pressure, because it went against his Christian beliefs of breaking the Sabbath.  I can’t say that I have been as thoroughly devout as Eric Liddell, but the fact that we don’t have to be at any team games on Sunday has meant that we go to church, we spend the day together as a family, and we rest, as much as possible.

The irony about travel team sports, at least in the early years before high school, is that it does not feel like there is a lot of team spirit. The focus is entirely on individual success.   This may be why parents feel the need to have their children participate in travel sports, because they think the competition will help their children get ahead later in life.  As for me, I think I would miss all the time I get to spend with them now.  They are still so very young -- even my big twelve year old.

About the Author
Caroline Pillsbury Oliver is married to Drew Oliver, and is the mother of four children.  Caroline and her family live in Greenwich, Connecticut.  When not driving her children around, supervising homework, tracking down lost articles of clothing, grocery shopping and making dinner, Caroline works part time as a trusts and estates attorney.

Caroline is a graduate of the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut, Brown University and Columbia Law School.  Caroline grew up living abroad as the daughter of an American Foreign Service Officer, and was born in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo.



0 Amory Armstrong 11-11-2013 22:43
I agree with many of your points but have a coment that would rule in favor of travel sports. If the child is the one who truly wants to dedicate himself/herself to one sport (even at a young age) and understands the sacrifices but still wants to do it at that level and the family is of the means to fund the program he/she should not be denied the opportunity. When it is the parent who vicarously lives through the child then I feel the parents are doing an overall disservice to that particular child and the family. I am a mom of three who, as the author knows, has one 11 year old who has dedicated hiself to tennis and his twin brother who has dedicated himself to squash. The way we balance it is to listen to each of them and not play in every tournament so they can go to birthday parties, sleepovers, family events etc. It is a hard call but a very interesting topic. Great article!
0 Caroline Oliver 12-01-2013 15:18
Dear Amory,
Thank you for commenting! The best part about writing this blog, and of course I am still in the infant stages of developing my themes, is that it has made me appreciate the different point of view. Just before posting, I did talk to a recent graduate of Harvard who now holds an excellent job. He had played hockey seriously (as did his brother) from
8, 9 years old. He talked about long car rides with his father, being on the ice with his brother, hockey being the center of their family and social life, and that the travel hockey made him who he is. I almost rewrote the blog! Excellence, dedication, hard work, personal sacrifice, these are all good attributes that carry over to other life pursuits even if and when the playing of the sport ends. Please keep reading!!

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