From the age of 5 to 16 years old, I quite literally lived and breathed soccer. It’s the only sport I played for 11 years, and I started to take it pretty seriously from a very young age once I realized that I absolutely loved it. Low-stakes neighborhood leagues and passing the ball around with my dad in our backyard quickly turned into nearly a decade of my life being dedicated to practices, tryouts, clinics, and tournaments. While it was a little intense at times, overall, I wouldn’t have changed any of it for the world. However, competitive travel sports definitely have both their pros and cons that are worth acknowledging.
All in all, there’s no definitive right or wrong answer to if your child should do it or not. Every kid is so different (so is every sport), and there are a ton of different factors to consider while deciding if it’s a good fit for them. As someone who was basically the poster child of travel sports myself, I’m here to offer some widely applicable points to think about while deciding on what the right decision for you and your little one might be. Here’s the 411:
Friendship and community
I would probably say that this point is the most important one of all. The majority of my closest friends growing up were girls that I met on my club soccer teams, and I still keep in touch with many of them to this day. Being surrounded by other kids who shared my biggest passion created a super strong sense of community and belonging, and it made the days when I really didn’t feel like practicing or playing totally worth it. Aside from my fellow players, my coaches became role models who I trusted, admired, and felt understood by.
When you’re with a group of people all of the time who see you at your best and at your worst, it starts to feel almost more like a family than a team (cheesy, but true). Travel sports, if you stick to them for long enough, really do bring you very special bonds and friendships that can be hard to come by in other extracurriculars. Looking back now, having that kind of support and camaraderie from a young age was a really important part of my most formative years.
For my entire childhood, I was doing something active almost every day thanks to soccer. Obviously, you can still be active without committing to travel sports, but it does make it a whole lot easier and more enjoyable. Consistent movement and exercise is a key part of staying healthy, and when you’re doing it in the form of an organized sport, it never feels like a chore—it makes it fun! I truly miss the days when I didn’t dread exercising, and I definitely took the fact that it came in the form of a hobby for granted.
Learned valuable life lessons at a very young age
The importance of perseverance, staying committed to my promises, knowing how to work with others, and being able to stand up for myself are all tools I use in my everyday life—and guess where I learned them from? Soccer! But, being dedicated to any sport has the ability to teach your child important lessons and habits that they can apply to every area of their life.
If I wanted to master a skill or get better at using my left foot, I had to keep trying even when it got hard. If I made a commitment to go to all practices and games, I had to stand by that. If we wanted to win games, I had to learn to work with, rely on, and listen to my teammates. If I knew I needed a break because I was in pain or exhausted, I had to use my own voice to ask for the rest I knew I needed. All in all, there are a lot of tools I learned sooner rather than later that have helped me so much in my adult life.
The potential for college scholarships
College is expensive, and a great way to lessen the financial burden is to receive an athletic scholarship. A common misconception is that you have to be an absolute prodigy in your sport to receive a college scholarship—that is definitely not the case! Division II and Division III schools also offer amazing scholarships to students they recruit. It’s important to note that getting recruited is not an easy or overly common scenario, but with a lot of hard work, it can definitely pay off.
I made my favorite childhood memories
From late-night games of tag in hotel hallways to the unforgettable excitement of winning huge tournaments, some of my favorite childhood memories came from being a part of travel sports. When I reflect on that period of my life, the main thing that I remember is just how fun it was. As an adult, soccer itself isn’t what I think about the most. Obviously, I love the sport and still miss playing it! But, it’s the endless amount of memories with friends, family, and coaches that make me confident in saying that because of playing competitively, I feel like I had the best childhood I could’ve asked for (once again cheesy but true). Yes, the cons existed, but how happy it made me made it one million times worth it.
It took up the majority of my time… almost all of it
Even though I personally didn’t mind that playing a travel sport took up a ton of my time, there’s no denying the fact that it did. It definitely became more of a problem as I got older, though, when schoolwork became more time-consuming and I wanted to hang out with my non-soccer friends more often. A typical week in my life consisted of long practices 3-5 nights per week, a 2-3 day away tournament almost every weekend, and a couple of clinics or scrimmages on non-tournament weekends. And when I did have any free time, I was usually too tired or too busy catching up on schoolwork to really be social or spend time trying out other hobbies and activities. You can 100% find a balance in it all, but it’s challenging to do so.
It can be hard on your body
This isn’t applicable to everyone, but I still feel like it’s worth pointing out based on my own experiences. I first started having knee problems when I was about 12 years old, and doing strenuous exercise on it almost every day for 4 more years was not a great idea. I had developed Osgood-Schlatter disease, which is a fancy name for a bone bump in your lower knee caused by overuse. Now in my early 20s, my knee will still start to flare up if I go on a longer run, or even just land on it the wrong way. Basically, I didn’t rest it as a kid, so I still feel the pain almost 10 years later.
Even if you don’t play sports often, there’s always a possibility of a one-off injury, including concussions. But, playing consistently and frequently heightens the chances of developing long-term injuries that are not fun to deal with. Plus, going against other kids who are very competitive and are good at what they do can increase the likeliness of getting hurt, either because it’s a physical sport, or you’re just pushing yourself too hard to keep up with the competition. It’s important to teach kids to take care of themselves and listen to their bodies.
Between hotel expenses, uniforms, new gear, paying for flights or road-trip gas, and a ton of other costs, travel sports can be quite a pricey hobby. A lot of teams and clubs offer scholarships to players or hold fundraisers in order to help cover some of the costs, but there are many personal expenses that aren’t included in that that can add up over time.
This wasn’t necessarily something I was aware of as a kid, but it’s a huge factor to think about when deciding if this is something families are able to fully commit to. However, as I said, most competitive travel teams will help as much as they can with any financial concerns.
It asked a lot of my parents
Sure, playing competitive travel soccer was a time commitment on my end. However, it was my parents who had to drive me to and from practice almost every night in weeknight traffic, wake up at 6 a.m. on the weekends to take me to tournaments, and overall just spend countless hours of their time getting me everywhere I needed to be.
As a kid, I obviously didn’t think anything of this. But from a parent’s perspective, it’s not an easy feat, and it essentially controls your life. If your family isn’t in the position to dedicate a giant chunk of your time in the way that travel sports require, then it’s definitely a huge factor to consider.
I eventually burnt out
Burnout is real. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it hit me like a truck. No matter how much fun I was having with my teammates, my motivation slowly began to dwindle. I was exhausted, and I knew I just wanted to explore other things. During my last 6 months of playing, I was really sad that I became resentful towards something I had dedicated my whole life to. I went from wanting to be a professional soccer player for years to never wanting to touch a ball again, which was hard to grapple with. Once I quit, I felt a bit lost for a while. As time went on, I discovered new hobbies and was grateful for my whole experience, but I realized that I had really put myself through the wringer for almost 11 years.
Like I said, this won’t happen to everyone! But, it’s very possible, and it’s definitely not an easy thing to come to terms with. Making sure your kid has balance in their life is a key role you can play to help keep this from happening in a harmful way, but be aware of the fact that it’s both common and tricky to handle.
Bonus Pro Tip
At the end of the day, participating in competitive travel sports is your kid’s decision. Listen to them!
All you can do is make sure their choices are well-informed, and be there to support them in any way possible. It’s important to know the difference between pushing and controlling them versus encouraging them to keep going even when things feel tough. Overall, it’s a non-linear learning journey for everyone involved, so as long as there’s communication and balance throughout it all, the right decision for your family will prove itself soon enough.