I remember learning about my first travel program, Tri-State Lacrosse, run by Hall of Fame Coach Bob Turco. Bob is a wonderful coach; I had the pleasure of competing. against him on many occasions while at West Windsor-Plainsboro South and North. But Bob also had his detractors, for many people were ill at ease with his somewhat gruff demeanor and sometimes overly demanding nature. Regardless of how one felt, what one can definitely say is that Bob had a strong sense of the future in youth athletics. His travel program was the result of that vision, and over time Tri-State grew into a powerhouse in New Jersey.
Each year Tri-State hosts a national tournament, bringing in teams from as far away as California. I officiated at several of these events, giving me a unique opportunity to get an "up close" look at scores of travel programs and their coaches. And what I learned quite quickly is that there is a great variety in the quality and nature of the teams, from the coaching to the parents to the culture of the programs they play for. From this observation it became clear that parents and players need to be very circumspect in their choice of a program; their choice will clearly have consequences for the families and their experiences in the years they participate.
Lacrosse is certainly not alone in having travel programs. Soccer with its ODP programs, and basketball with its AAU teams, are by far the most well known sports for travel programs, but you can find travel teams in ice hockey, baseball, softball, wrestling, and swimming as well. There is considerable debate in the "youth sports community" regarding the utility of these programs, where oftentimes families find themselves making a year long commitment, and the young players oftentimes find themselves, whether by fate or by choice, becoming specialists in one sport atyounger and younger ages. The consequences of this commitment, whether it be physical, emotional, financial, or academic, must be considered by all involved.
The choice of a program becomes, as I mentioned, an important decision, and it is critical that parents and their young athletes make a sound choice. For these families, I suggest looking into 6 areas when considering what program to become associated with. I'll expand on each of these in future posts, but for the time being it will suffice to introduce you to these domains.
First, you should considered how well the program is administrated and organized, because whether in terms of making travel plans, getting timely feedback, having regular meetings, or running a practice, the organization and administration of the program will greatly affect the level of enjoyment or frustration you will encounter. Second, you must look at the financial issues and determine whether the program is producing value for your investment. Are the costs clearly laid out, or do you regularly run into greater and greater demands for your money? Are your children getting enough opportunities to compete relative to the money you lay out? And is the money you are spending being used to create a great experience for you and your children, or does too much of it seem to be going into the pockets of those in charge?
Families should also consider the overall "culture" of the program. Is it "hypercompetitive," with parents and players seemingly in competition as much with each other as with your opponents? Is sportsmanship being promoted by the program, or is there a "win at all costs" attitude permeating the culture? And does the program believe in having fun and empowering players, or is it a very "top down" program that seems to take the fun out of athletics and seem to limit the ability of players to think for themselves and make decisions on the field?
The integrity of the program is another consideration. Having a sense of fairness and honesty help define the integrity of a program and its leaders. Does the program make claims about what it can do for your child, and does it try to live up to those claims? Is there transparency in the selection process and throughout the operation of the teams? A lack of integrity will lead to distrust and dissent, creating a possible ripple effect impacting the overall culture of the program.
The final two areas, training and participation, relate directly to the team(s) that you are directly involved in with the program. If there is more than one team at a particular age level, how are those teams "divided up?" Are there too many players on a squad, and is your child getting enough playing time to enjoy the experience and improve his or her athletic skill and IQ? And what kind of instruction is your child receiving? Is there noticeable improvement in performance, and is your child ever receiving individual, or at the very least small group instruction? Does the program make use of videotape as an instructional tool? And when evaluations are made, how committed are the coaches to providing thorough and "real" feedback and assessment?
By using these six domains as the lenses through which you evaluate travel programs in your area, I believe you will be able to do your "due diligence" and make a sound decision for your child, a decision that feels more like an investment rather than a sunk cost. To help families in this process, I am at the initial stages of creating an online presence similar to Angie's List or HomeAdvisor.com; it is a website that will gather and provide detailed information for you to use when a choice needs to be made. You can find it at nlbrwn15.wix.com/travelprogramratings. As a matter of fact you can help other families make these decisions by providing feedback of your own experiences with youth travel programs, regardless of the sport. I encourage you to share your thoughts; it is only through making informed decisions that we can support travel programs that are truly committed to providing a wonderful experience, and we can send a message to those programs that "have some work to do" if they want to earn a reputation as a quality program.