Photo: Alison Mickel
EDITOR’S NOTE: PSP is pleased to welcome Alison Mickel, who will be writing about youth soccer.
I’ve found through personal experience as well as conversations with other soccer parents that it’s not always an easy decision as to when and if to move your child from recreational to travel team soccer. It seems that there is not as clearly defined of a path in soccer as there are in other sports as to when to make this transition. Some sports have strict age minimums that must be met in order to progress which are typically higher ages than allowable by soccer.
Many soccer leagues have travel teams that begin at age 9, and with most kids only having a few years of playing experience by that age, the inevitable question becomes when to transition your child from recreational to competitive soccer. Typically, a select number of players stand out during the course of an intramural season, and the parents of those select few may be approached to consider moving their child to a travel team. That’s where the dilemma begins. Of course, as a parent it is normal to feel immense pride when your child is singled out as having talent above and beyond the rest of her teammates, but is it enough talent to compete at the travel team level? And, if the answer is “yes,” will your child thrive in that environment?
Here are some pros and cons I’ve observed in joining a travel team. Of course, this is not an all inclusive list; however, I think these are all important points to consider when struggling with the decision of when to move your child to a competitive team.
“What do you mean I’m not starting?”
One of the downsides of joining a travel team can be that your child experiences much less playing time than when they were the “star” of their recreational team. It’s the old adage of going from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a big pond. The level of play is more intense and more competitive. When your kid is just starting out, regardless of skill level, it may take some time to become a starting player. When players spend a majority of the time on the sidelines and only go in occasionally as a sub, this can create a negative first experience and potentially deter them from continuing the following season.
“Hey, that kid tripped me!!”
Speaking of being more competitive, travel play can be more physical as well. Typically in recreational soccer, players are learning the fundamentals of the game while enhancing their own skills, but, for the most part, they all play nice. Be prepared that when your child moves to travel league to see a lot more physicality: tripping, pushing, slide tackling (you get the idea). This increased level of physical play can also cause your child to be intimated. In some cases they can become even less aggressive then they were on their recreational team.
“But I just played yesterdaaaaay.”
Travel teams in general require a much greater commitment by players and their parents. There will be both home and away games which can sometimes result in driving an hour each way for a 90-minute game (and don’t forget about getting there 30 minutes early for warm-ups). An away soccer game in the travel league could take 4-5 hours out of your day, and there are also typically all-day tournaments in your future towards the end of the season. As I said, this is a big adjustment for the kids and parents. If your child is playing recreational and travel soccer simultaneously—or doing another activity in addition to travel soccer—you and your child could be boarding the train to burnout city.
In almost all cases, travel team soccer has significantly higher associated costs then recreational soccer. These fees include uniform costs, tournament fees, indoor training during the offseason, seasonal registration, etc., and it can quickly become a large financial investment, depending on the club. Keep in mind though that most clubs will not turn a player away if they cannot afford the fees and typically will work out something with parents on a case-by-case basis. If your child is capable of playing soccer competitively, but you can’t afford the costs associated with travel league, reach out to the coach to see if there is financial assistance available for that team/league.
Those are just a few things you may want to consider before encouraging your child to take the next step towards competitive play.
On the plus side, if your child is truly passionate about soccer and eats, sleeps, and breathes the game, then there are many benefits to moving up to a travel league. Below are just a few of the great things that can happen when advancing to the next level.
“Wow, that’s cool!”
The coaches in competitive soccer are typically more knowledgeable and skilled, and that will give your child an opportunity to learn the game in ways they may not experience through recreational soccer. They will learn to move the ball, read the field and strategize in ways they never have before. They will also learn a myriad of drills to enhance their own skills and start to gravitate (through observation and guidance from their coach) towards the position they are most suited for. Typically, this is the position they will play for the remainder of their soccer career.
“Competition can be a great thing.”
If your child was running circles around the kids in their recreational league, travel will most likely be a perfect environment for them. Here they can truly give their all, matching skills and wit, amongst the best players in the region. This is a welcomed change for skilled players who, although they may have enjoyed being the star of their team, became bored in not experiencing the challenges that they will encounter in a more competitive league.
“Discipline, discipline, discipline.”
Playing for a travel team certainly requires more discipline than recreational teams, which are mostly instructional. In rec leagues, kids get only what they put into it. Some just play because their parents are trying to keep them busy, some play because its fun and they can see their school friends a couple times a week outside of school, and some just really love the sport. Once a child moves up to travel, it requires much more work outside of the normal practices and games to allow their skill level to increase and improve. There is endless value for kids to learn that hard work, commitment, and discipline are required to excel in anything they do and this discipline can help them both on and off the field in all areas of their lives.
There are pros and cons to anything and advancing to competitive soccer is no different. I think the most important thing is to use your knowledge of your child (no one knows your child like you do) and determine if this is really going to benefit him or her. If you believe that they have gotten all they can out of recreational soccer, still never tire of practice or games and exceed most of their teammates and competitors’ talent levels, then it may be time to move to the next level. If you’re still on the fence, take your time to make the right decision for you and your child.
Remember, there’s always next year.