Kennedy: Why kids play travel sports

"Club" or "select" teams in sports like lacrosse, above, or soccer or baseball aren't so much about landing college scholarships as they are about community.
"Club" or "select" teams in sports like lacrosse, above, or soccer or baseball aren't so much about landing college scholarships as they are about community.

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Driving up Interstate 75 after a weekend lacrosse tournament near Atlanta last Sunday, both my sons were asleep in the car. The radio was off, the air conditioning was turned on "max," and I was suddenly alone with my thoughts.

"Wow," I thought, shifting my weight in the seat to wake up my backside, "I'm really tired."

It had been a steamy weekend in Gainesville, Ga. We had left our home near Chattanooga before sundown on Friday night and would arrive back home just in time to cook a frozen pizza for Sunday dinner. The Monday-morning alarm would come too quickly.

My wife and I have become used to these 48-hour whirlwind trips. We often take turns chaperoning. Both our sons, ages 14 and 9, play travel sports. Once or twice a month we find ourselves in a Hampton Inn in Duluth, Ga., or a Hilton Garden Inn in Asheville, N.C., spending a weekend at a soccer (or this summer, lacrosse) tournament. Our kids are two of the 53 million American youngsters who play on travel teams, a $7 billion-a-year industry.

Chattanooga is a magnet for these youth sports tournaments. A quick check of the calendar of the Chattanooga Sports Committee shows major youth tournaments here this summer in lacrosse, soccer, softball, baseball and tennis. All will involve hundreds of families spending, collectively, millions of dollars in the Scenic City.

Travel teams - also called "club" or "select" teams - involve heavy investments in time and money. Some sports, like soccer, are year-round endeavors with paid coaches, intense practices and a slate of weekend tournaments. Kids typically try out for the teams, as opposed to recreational leagues which welcome all comers.

If you have more than one child participating in travel sports it becomes a lifestyle. Your family calendar will be ruled by practices and games. Family vacations often get edged out or relegated to small breaks in the sports schedule.

There is a fair amount of criticism of the travel sports activity because some people think it's a high-risk gamble to position kids for college athletic scholarships. That might be true for a small number of zealous parents, but most moms and dads I know are under no such illusions. In fact, most travel-sports parents would be satisfied if their kids have fun and maybe gain a small advantage in making their middle school or high school sports teams.

Travel sports are not an investment in anything but family togetherness. Unless children enjoy the sport, parents would be crazy to force the issue.

The return on investment is almost entirely social. Friendships are forged in travel sports, much as they were in neighborhoods and church youth groups when I was a kid. There are some select soccer teams, for example, that stay together from third grade through high school.

I got a text on my birthday from the father of one of my older son's former teammates. He said he misses seeing our family and enjoys keeping up the boys through my columns. All these years later we both feel connected to, and invested in, each other's families.

In our highly fractured, overscheduled society, that's called community.

And that - not college scholarships and not championship medals - is what makes all those Sunday-afternoon car rides worth the effort.

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