Elite Sports Leagues and the Machine of Youth Travel Sports

There is a storm brewing on the horizon and I am doing all I can to prepare myself for it.  My son loves sports and has shown a true love for baseball in particular.  To this point, we have enjoyed our summers at the baseball fields in our local Westerville recreational league.  This summer should be especially fun as it proves to be the “peak” season for the local league with the league fielding more teams for the 8 – 10 year-old kid-pitch league than any of the other age groups.  However, the storms clouds have already begun to form as I see looming questions about the best way to navigate the future of our son’s youth sports experience.

The fact that my son is entering the most popular level of play in the local recreation league comes as no surprise.  Across the country, elite leagues and travel teams begin plucking kids out of local leagues by this age group (a trend that is becoming younger, not the other way around) and older recreation leagues are all but drying up for children interested in playing for fun (imagine that!)

This has not been foreign to me as my years in youth ministry have already familiarized me with the world of travel and elite sports.  I have seen families devote their summer vacations, countless thousands of dollars, and all of their free time to the development of their teenage athletes.  For some its the pursuit of college scholarships while for others it’s simply the obsession with being the best – but whatever the case, there is plenty of fuel to supply the burgeoning beast.  Even though I am a huge sports fan and am excited about my children playing sports, ever since I have been exposed to the world of travel and elite sports it has left a poor impression on me.  Particularly the way I’ve seen families obsess over these leagues to the detriment of their attention to their children’s faith development and spiritual formation has led me to believe this is a major crisis for the American church.

Until very recently, I had never heard any Christian who had been critical of sports – ever.  Sure, there may have been an occasional prude who complained about Wednesday night practice forcing athletes to miss Bible study at church, but when it came to Christians and their participation with sports – everyone I knew was “all in.”  Then I had a kid.  Then I started watching how sports consumed the lives of the teenagers I worked with.  Then I started asking their parents hard questions.  Then the you know what hit the fan.  Turns out, I had stumbled upon a sacred cow.  “Just wait until your kids are that age . . . ”

Well, they are getting close now, and I’ve decided to dedicate an entire dissertation to the subject because I have come to realize no one is talking about this.  The percentage of children in churches (particularly suburban mega churches) who are participating in elite and travel leagues is staggering (I have no statistical evidence of this – just the obvious eye test), and yet walk into a Christian book store or peruse the Christian ministry and youth ministry sections at Amazon and you’ll find no guides, no Bible studies, no suggestions for navigating an incredibly taxing time of life and an expensive and crucial developmental stage of life.  Almost all the treatments you’ll find there are limited to a subtle dose of the prosperity gospel.  Why is no one talking about this?  Why does it appear the church’s critique of sports is that it is pretty much neutral?

And all along the way, my son is getting older and closer to the age where travel baseball (and all other sports) becomes an presupposition.  As Tom Farrey acknowledges, “Travel teams are no longer an add-on to the youth sports landscape, like the post-season all-star teams of previous generations.  In many communities, after the age of 9 or 10, they effectively are youth sports.”   (From: Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions out of our Children p. 183)

I don’t have an answer to all of this.  I don’t think that the idea of travel leagues and elite youth sports organizations has to be bad . . . but I think the current manifestation of it is bad – really bad.  I believe it is harming the social fabric of small towns and larger communities and is helping contribute to the inactivity of children – statistics show that when children try out for teams and don’t make them, they are very likely to give up on the sport for good.  In any places, elite travel teams are the only option and if you don’t make them . . . there just aren’t many pick-up games happening in backyards anymore and . . . their extension cords just don’t reach quite that far.  Additionally, these leagues and teams are taking shape before children are even developmentally prepared for competition.  Winning national championships and attaining high state and national rankings are for parents, not children (inspiring this classic on the topic: Just Let the Kids Play.)

I plan to post a great deal on this topic in the coming months.  As we make difficult decisions about where our son plays and when and how often and the lot, I’ll be reading, studying, and researching this topic hoping to find insight and wisdom that can help us navigate these challenging areas of life.  What I hope doesn’t get lost in this is that my son have fun (my daughters too – but they’re still a few years away from the mouth of the machine).  I hope that Christians will begin to have more frank and honest discussions regarding their love affair with sports.  I’m a huge fan of sports and believe they play a crucial (and healthy) role in culture . . . but I am equally convinced that we often allow them to become these monsters that they have become and they take on a life of their own.


6 thoughts on “Elite Sports Leagues and the Machine of Youth Travel Sports

  1. Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. This post is spot on, and it’s something my wife and I have observed and discussed for some time, as well.

    It’s been frustrating to hear over the years of parents complaining that their kid(s) strayed upon leaving the home for college or whatever. It has not been uncommon, in fact it has been downright common, for many of these scenarios to be born of a kid that was only prioritizing that which his/her parents told him/her was important while growing up. Kids aren’t stupid. When they observe from their parents’ behavior that personal and spiritual development, exercised through family/worship/youth group/church time, is less important that making it to Sunday morning practice (“That’s the only time the field is available to us…”), at what other conclusion would a teenager arrive?

    And how much of this is *not* being addressed for fear that churches will upset a growing portion of their membership? In any event, avoiding these types of questions means we never have to answer them, right?

    I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how this topic plays out on these pages of your blog, and with your dissertation, as well.

  2. Perhaps the church should not put so much weight on Sunday morning. Where do we see in Scripture the holding up of Sunday morning as the sacred time of the week? Perhaps if we met more often, and in more ways (Sunday night, at least) it wouldn’t create such a perception. Look at Acts- they met daily!

  3. I have always admired my grandparents for making the call to not allow my mom to participate in competitive water-skiing (which she would have easily excelled in) because the competitions were all held on Sundays. They, like you, we’re pro active in deciding where their priorities were and they stuck their guns. Sure, that was many moons ago and times have changed, but I still think it is of most importance to know where you want your family….and children headed…..and to make decisions that support that. Sports are a big temptation, but I also see that education/academics also become an idol to many. Whether it is the pressure to be in the right private preschool or the idea to push back marriage, etc for the sake of perusing further education or anything in between, it is easy to place more emphasis in education than you intend to. I look forward to seeing what other insights you gain on this subject.

    • Tyler,

      Thanks for the note. I did finish it about a year ago. ametz@alumcreek.org. I’d be happy to email it to you. I’ve thrown it out to a few publishers, so hopefully it may get a revision for wider audience. Stay tuned – and thanks for your interest!

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