Update: The Expense, Rewards, Challenges and Dysfunction of Youth Sports

publication date: May 25, 2013

When gasoline prices first broke $4 per gallon into 2008 and there was widespread discussion about energy conservation and alternative energy sources, I jokingly said to a friend that I had a solution: eliminate travel sports - or at the least the traveling part of it! It is simply amazing the number of travel sports and amount of travel involved in youth sports today.

Everyone with children wants to see their kids succeed and do their best. But with that good desire, unfortunately, comes behavior and attitudes that lead us astray. And, parents of youth athletes are led off course by the worst of self-serving paid coaches and instructors.  

To protect your family and your wallet, here are the key insights and tips I have to offer:

Focus on the long-term benefits of sports and teams

For most kids, playing on youth sports' teams teaches positive physical fitness and health habits that can last a lifetime. It's also a great way to make friends. So, your kids don't have to be on an elite travel team to derive these perks.

Just as they can with academic disciplines like algebra or a foreign language, kids derive happiness mastering sports' skills and individual and team accomplishments says Dr. Edward Hallowell, author of the Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness (Ballantine).

Young athletes also learn that different people have different strengths and weaknesses and see the value in being a contributing member of a team -- something larger than just themselves.

Ball to the grass! by chemisti.

Be mindful of expenses and set budgets

Spending on youth sports can quickly escalate out of control, especially if you have multiple children who play on travel sports' teams throughout much if not all of the year. "One of the biggest reasons why the current generation of sport's parents find themselves in this situation is if the kid shows some talent at a young age, they could be asked to join an elite team like an Olympic Development Team. Parents of younger kids don't realize the costs involved," says Rick Wolff, long-time host of the Sports Edge radio show on WFAN. Wolff gave me an example of a 7-year old youth hockey program that runs from labor day through the end of March and costs $3,000 to $5,000, which doesn't include the cost of driving kids everywhere and staying in hotels during out of state tournaments. In high cost of living areas, I've seen and heard about a travel sport not covering nearly as many months (e.g. spring/summer baseball) costing $5,000! 

Recreation sports programs don't cost anywhere near that much and often cost less than $200 for a season. Travel sport program costs vary tremendously so it pays to shop around. Travel programs can cost just a few hundred dollars.

Beware the agendas of "professional" (a.k.a. paid) coaches

The biggest driver behind the explosion of travel sports and teams as well as their escalating costs are paid coaches. Often these coaches played the sport through high school and college and perhaps beyond. Wolff, who is also the author of "Coaching Kids for Dummies" (Wiley) gets lots of complaints about travel team coaches. "Anyone can hang out a shingle and be a professional coach, there is no credentialing. Parents must perform due diligence...go discretely and talk to parents of kids on the team from last year. Ask if the coach is a yeller/screamer and how playing time is handled? On many travel teams, only the best players play. Make sure it's a good fit for your child. It's not that important that the coach played at a high level of the game. The coach may not be able to teach or have sensitivity to work with kids," says Wolff.

No doubt, just as a tutor can help a child academically, hired sports instructors or coaches may be able to do the same with your kids and sports. But hired coaches have an agenda to push kids to train more and play a sport year-round. I saw this repeatedly with hired soccer coaches. Some of the coaches push kids to play year-round because that's what they grew up with, for example, in Europe. But one coach simply said to me that he's got to make money year-round off of soccer and can't exist simply with his earnings from coaching fall soccer teams.

Good parents can make good coaches

"I do urge parents to do it yourself or be an assistant coach," says Wolff. Of course, other parents may be concerned about a parent coach favoring his own child(ren) on the team and a parent coach needs to be clear with everyone, including his own kids, that everyone must abide by the same team rules and guidelines.

Involving parents to help with coaching also has a financial benefit - it can dramatically lower the cost of a travel sports program. Some money can be spent bringing in instructors from time to time to work with the team on particular skills.

Simply let the kids play and understand the value of pick-up games

Just a generation ago, there weren't anywhere near as many travel sports programs as there are today. And, you know what? The best athletes were able to find their way. How did they do that? The answer can be found in reading Derek Jeter's life story in his book, co-written by Jack Curry, "The Life You Imagine: Life Lessons for Achieving Your Dreams" (Three Rivers Press). Jeter, the all-star shortstop for the New York Yankees talks extensively about playing pick-up baseball with friends. Of course, he played on organized baseball teams but he played other sports too (e.g. basketball) in addition to a lot of pick up baseball games with friends and neighbors.

Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., co-author along with Rick Wolff of "Parenting Young Athletes the Ripken Way: Ensuring the Best Experience for Your Kids in Any Sport" (Gotham) also talks about the importance of letting kids experiment which they can do without adult interference when playing pick-up games and playing different sports. Like Jeter, Ripken played multiple sports growing up and points to the complementary skills kids acquire playing different sports rather than just one, which can lead to other problems: injuries (and my next point).

Learn about the increased risk of overuse and serious injuries

Orthopedic doctors and physical therapists offices are booming in business with young athletes who have overuse injuries from excessive training and playing the same sport year-round. In the worst cases, kids end up needing costly surgery to repair damage (e.g. pitchers having surgery on their throwing arms) and having long-term recovery time along with extensive rehabilitation.  

While all sports come with risk of injuries, understand the specific risks and dangers you child's chosen sport has and what you can do to minimize those risks. The National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found, for example, that by far, cheerleading was the most dangerous sport for girls due to the increasingly dangerous tosses and associated head and neck injuries and fatalities.

Learn the facts about scholarships

Some parents believe that an accomplished youth athlete will have better college options and access to full athletic scholarships. The facts show otherwise.

"Most schools only give a handful of scholarships and these get sliced and diced," says Wolff. He gave me an example of a nice, private division I university in the northeast where with baseball, they might give two scholarships a year (the school costs $40K per year). The team's coach recruits players and gives ½ and ¼ scholarships to the best players. Some are getting much less. "This scenario happens everywhere. The chance of getting a full scholarship is close to zero...parents are dreaming if they think that's what their child will get," says Wolff. 

College sports without big attendance simply don't have that much money to spread around. "Football and men's basketball are about the only sports generating revenue for some colleges," says Wolff. There are exceptions, of course, such as hockey at the University of Vermont. Wolff also says most parents aren't aware of the NCAA statistics showing that less than 5 percent of today's high school varsity athletes ever make a team in college (Division I through III). And the odds of playing professionally are that less than one percent of college players go onto the professional level.

Tribe Basketball by College of William & Mary.

If a youth athlete does get a scholarship, Wolff warns that the sport's program dictates the kid's schedule and academics take a back seat. (There are no athletic scholarships at Ivy League schools.) To maintain eligibility, athletes end up in easy majors that don't prepare them for the post-graduation world or desired careers, according to a USA Today study. Also, sports scholarships are only offered year-to-year and there's no guarantee you'll get it for four years.

Consider the opportunity cost of sports' time and expenses

Youth travel sports not only can cost a lot of money but they can also take an enormous amount of time. This can create strains and stress on an entire family.

As discussed earlier, there clearly are benefits for young athletes to playing sports but the impact of those programs on the rest of family members should be considered before committing to any team.

Be wary of the winning addiction

We all want to be winners and be on the winning side. Competition can challenge and develop many good values in kids but it can go too far. Some youth sports team get addicted to and obsessed with winning which can bring out the worst behavior and reinforce excessive spending by parents.

"When a parent shells out thousands of dollars, the parent feels emotionally and financially invested. If kid isn't a star or doing as well as expected, emotions can really bubble over," says Wolff.

Teams that recruit players from a wide area and attend a lot of tournaments are more likely to be too focused on winning at any cost as opposed to developing all of the players and teaching good values and life lessons. Be especially wary of teams claiming undefeated status or those that win excessively.

Also, don't buy into the nonsense when teams crow about winning a "National Championship." In many cases, teams simply qualify to play in a larger tournament after winning a smaller local one. One middle-school age football team I was familiar with went to a Florida tournament which was only attended by just three other teams in their age group and so after winning, got "national champion" status. And, the kids had to miss a full week of school because the tournament was held on weekdays. The winning team simply won against the few other teams whose parents were willing to spend the money to fly to an out of state tournament, live in a hotel for a week and have their kids miss school. What kind of message is that sending to the kids?

Sports can be a wonderful experience for children. But, even the best athletes should be putting their education first. Every sport has extraordinary athletes who flamed out in college or early in the professional career. Without a solid education and career to fall back upon, young athletes who have made sports their first priority will be poorly positioned for their adult working lives.


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Copyright Eric Tyson, 2008 - 2023 all rights reserved.

Eric Tyson is the only best-selling personal finance author who has an extensive background as an hourly-based financial advisor and who does not accept speaking fees, endorsement deals or fees of any type from companies in the financial services industry or product or service providers recommended in his articles, books and his publications.