As a proud mom of two boys who play travel baseball, it has been an amazing journey to watch them develop invaluable skills that will reap lifelong rewards. Even though travel sports programs can be all consuming for the entire family, I am a huge fan! The list of benefits is endless but here are my Top 10 in no particular order:
Travel sports have demanding schedules and require hard core training which I liken to boot camp! Depending on the sport, the hours can be extreme. For example, our neighbors are up at 4 am to have their sons at the rink at 5 am for ice hockey practice. Our boys are often up at 5:30 am for early practices or double-header games Saturday and Sunday and have multiple games/practices on school nights. And travel means travel! The boys play in tournaments all over the East Coast from Virginia to Connecticut, often in unforgiving weather. Pouring rain and cold, whipping winds have been the norm this year and they play right through it. Committing to grueling schedules on top of long days at school and hours of homework takes tremendous dedication and discipline. Doing well in school comes first and this message is constantly reinforced by the coaches and parents. If grades slip, the child doesn't play, period. The kids carry a great deal on their shoulders and learn to juggle a lot in order to excel in school and play a competitive sport.
2. Spirit of Competition
Travel programs mandate a much higher level of play than in-town recreation programs and therefore, require competitive try-outs. Besides physical ability, coaches look for mental focus and understanding of the game as well as a "can do", "I will give it my all" attitude. Kids learn quickly that it takes all three attributes to be a valuable contributor to the team. They understand that a great athlete who is lazy will be cut from the team without hesitation. There are too many other kids right behind him/her who will fight hard to earn and keep a spot on the team.
3. Never Give Up - Believe in Yourself
There is no better feeling in the world than coming from behind and giving it your all to be the best you can be! I imagine that all parents of children who play travel sports have seen their kids compete against some exceptional teams. One game comes to mind immediately. It was a double-header and our team lost quite badly in the first game to a powerhouse championship team due to multiple field errors. The coach was so disgusted with the team's poor performance, he told them in between games, "You are beating yourselves and are so much better than this. Go figure it out on your own; I have nothing more to say!" The entire team huddled together for a few minutes and then stepped onto the field with such an impressive air of confidence and determination on their faces. The second game was electric! Our team fought hard and smart like they knew they could and the game went into extra innings. It was the battle of the season and we won by a single run! The players, coaches and even the parents of the opposing team gave our team a standing ovation for such incredible effort. Every player walked off that field with their head held high!
The above example also speaks volumes about the meaning of TEAM. You win and lose together; no one is an island. The kids struggle together through the bumps and bruises, learn to play smart together and be dependable to cover each other's back. Each player has a purpose and position to field for every play: fielders need to back up the pitcher, the outfield needs to back up the infield, the pitcher needs to back up the catcher, etc. Everyone needs to be in sync with each other. If someone strikes out or makes an error, it's wonderful to hear the kids offer encouragement and not criticize. The mutual respect and friendships that develop will continue to flourish as the team bonds and plays together through multiple seasons.
5. Decision-Making Skills
It takes years of practice and live game play to learn the strategy of the sport, and to know what to do in any situation no matter how little time or how much pressure. It truly is fascinating to see the evolution of these skills which will become more instinctive over time translate into seamless execution on the field.
The level of play on travel teams requires unbiased coaching and focused kids without distraction from parents, and therefore, we are directed to keep our distance. The players learn quickly that they need to be responsible for themselves including their gear, arriving early, "If you are on time, you are late!", and proper hydration and share in the greater responsibilities of the team, including their role in their positions (and some play multiple positions), understanding the numerous offensive and defensive signals for different plays, their place in the batting order, respectful behavior, and great effort. Rewards come with demonstrated responsibility such as more playing time and team leadership opportunities. Likewise, if players are irresponsible on or off the field, there is a good chance they will be benched.
Baseball is a game of failure and it's easy to become frustrated. Practicing patience is difficult for all of us and even more challenging for children. The competitive nature of travel sports and the seriousness of the coaching places tremendous pressure on the players to perform. They are tough on themselves to begin with and need to take a deep breath and learn not to expect precision or anything close until they have years of experience under their belts. Even then, in the game of baseball as in life, the quest for excellence is like a roller coaster ride. While we should always strive to be the best we can be, there are always going to be highs and lows and we need to believe that the highs will come with time and perseverance.
8. Self-Assessment, Humility and Diversity of Thought
Travel programs recruit players from all over to amass the strongest pool of talent available to compete on a multi-state and sometimes national level. Players come from different backgrounds and bring diverse thinking, experience and talent to the team. This is a great opportunity for players to develop peer relationships with multi-cultural teammates, embrace others and build a cohesive team. This experience has humbled our boys, helping them to assess their strengths and weaknesses as individuals, as well as baseball players, and encouraging them to continue to grow and develop.
Teaching kids the value of good sportsmanship goes a long way in shaping their characters on and off the field. Our team's players and parents must read and sign a good sportsmanship policy contract with the following requirements: play fair and by the rules of the game, do your best to avoid arguments and accept the rulings of the officials, listen to your coach, win without boasting, lose with grace, and treat your teammates, coaches, officials and opponents with respect. If you make a mistake, don't pout or make excuses. Learn from it and be ready to continue to play with a positive attitude.
10. Developing a Healthy Body, Mind and Soul
The coach dedicated an entire afternoon for the team to attend a seminar on the importance of physical and mental fitness in optimizing athletic potential. Topics included performance training, injury prevention, nutrition, speed and agility as well as strength and conditioning for the body and mind. The young athletes understood that hard work, exercise and eating right yield measurable results. The more complex concepts addressed developing mental toughness: how to handle pressure, maintain focus, keep emotions in check and not burn out. Given the level of competition and rigorous demands placed on today's travel athlete, developing a healthy mind, body, and soul will reap long-term benefits.
I can't imagine a better forum than travel sports programs to teach children such valuable life skills. With the combined efforts of the players, parents and coaches, our future leaders are well on their way!