One of the big topics being discussed today in the world of sports is the true value of ‘travel’ ball for young athletes – both male and female. On the surface, ‘travel’ ball makes all the sense in the world as it gives up-and-coming youngsters more coaching, more training, more practice, and more competitive opportunities in their sport of choice which can only improve their overall skill set….and their chances of playing ball at the collegiate level, with the possibility of a scholarship, thereby making the total collegiate experience possible and affordable. On the other hand, as the old saying goes, too much of a good thing can be bad thing — simply because it’s not good for the human body to continue to do the same thing and make the same repetitive motion time and time and time again.

“You have to enjoy what you do. So, find your passion and be the best that you can be at it. That’s something that my dad instilled in me at a young age.”- Jennie Finch

It can result in physical and mental burnout. And, this can take place while any given athlete is still a teenager – well before graduating from high school. During the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 3rd Annual Industry Leaders Summit in New Orleans (September 10-11, 2015), three individuals with a track record of experience in the world of sports were asked to participate in a unique panel discussion to discuss the issues which are impacting the world of youth sports. You might recognize their names — former U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning softball pitcher Jennie Finch, recognized sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews, and National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell.

As was pointed out by SFIA President/CEO Tom Cove, who was the moderator of the panel, while sports may be more popular now than ever before, the overall statistics on ‘core’ sports participation for children are down in nearly every sport. In the last few years, the only two sports which have shown any increase in ‘core’ participation are lacrosse and gymnastics. And, those gains have been minimal.

“The bottom line is that the number of children who used to spend lots of time every year being physically active playing sports is dropping,” adds Jim Baugh, founder of PHIT America, a national non-profit group which is working to reverse America’s ‘Inactivity Pandemic.’ “With a growing U.S. population, the participation figures in team sports should be going in the other direction. Instead, the exact opposite is happening.”

Why is that the case? There are many reasons why fewer children are playing sports now than as recently as five or six years ago. One of the biggest reasons is the growing popularity of ‘travel’ or ‘club’ ball which encourages youngsters to focus on just one sport throughout the year, rather than playing a variety of sports. As a result of ‘travel’ (or ‘club’) ball, fewer and fewer athletes are playing two or three sports.

The health and welfare of the young, single-sport athlete is at risk.

“The tail is wagging the dog, in this case,” adds Dr. Andrews. “Parents have no idea that their kids can get injured playing just one sport.”

The NFL Commissioner says children, their parents, and coaches are getting too serious too soon.

“I worry so much about putting pressure on kids that if you don’t commit to a sport by fourth or fifth grade, you’re out of luck,” adds Goodell. “There’s a lot of pressure we’re putting on our kids whether it’s coming from coaches, leagues, or parents.”

During the panel discussion, Dr. Andrews discussed the dropout rate (of children in sports) and declining participation levels that result from specialization and emphasized the need to make sports more inclusive.

“We need to open the doors and make sure everybody has an opportunity to participate at whatever level they can,” says Dr. Andrews.

Finch, a three-sport athlete growing up in southern California, believes diversity in sports is great for children.

“Let kids play as many sports as they want to,” declares Finch.

Finch’s point of view is backed up by U.S. Olympic softball outfielder Jessica Mendoza, who won a gold medal in 2004 and a silver medal in 2008.

“I think, hands down, that you need to play as many sports as possible,” advises Mendoza, now a baseball and softball analyst for ESPN. “For me, I would have picked basketball at an early age. That was my favorite sport. If I would have got specialized, even in junior high, that’s the sport I would have picked. Obviously, that would not have worked out the way it did. Softball ended up being the sport that was for me.”

Finch feels that when young athletes play multiple team sports, they learn significant values that help form and build their character. But, by getting too serious too soon about one sport, that specialization negatively impacts those takeaways.

“The focus should be on those life lessons which are learned in sports — building character, building self-confidence, determination, and benefitting from all those things you get from team sports,” adds Finch. “Everyone has a passion and that’s my main message to young kids. You have to enjoy what you do. So, find your passion and be the best that you can be at it. That’s something that my dad instilled in me at a young age.”

Mendoza feels the mind and body need a break from playing just one sport.

“I think it’s important to kind of shut it down in one sport, as well,” recalls Mendoza. “For me, not playing softball year round allowed me to love and appreciate the season that I had for softball because I would be snowboarding in the winter, playing basketball, playing soccer, and doing other sports. It was perfect cross training. I was still staying in shape, but it allowed me to mentally get a break from the sport that I was serious about.”

It’s worth noting that current Masters and U.S. Open golf champion Jordan Spieth grew up in Texas playing football and baseball, where he played quarterback on the gridiron and as a pitcher on the diamond. For years, he just played golf in the summers. And, now, in his early 20s, he’s a two-time major golf champion and the winner of the 2015 Fed Ex Cup on the PGA Tour. You can look at Spieth and see that he’s hungry to play, compete, and win. And, he’s not burned out – physically or mentally.

While one of the goals in any given sport or game is to win, there are benefits from losing.

“I think we have to expose them to failing,” adds Finch. “As hard as it is, it’s a hard balance between letting my son fail and letting him grow and be confident. Some of my greatest life lessons through sports have been in those moments where I have failed and come up short. If you constantly win and get a trophy, there’s no hard work in there. You have to experience failure in order to appreciate victory and winning. It’s helped light that fire within me. It’s that whole accountability factor of being on your toes and knowing that there’s always more that you can give and more that you can do to get better.”

One of the primary benefits of playing ‘travel’ ball is skill development. The goal of winning a game or a tournament should always be a secondary concern, but that is sometimes forgotten by coaches and parents when it comes to ‘crunch time’ at the end of a game.

Finally, Finch feels that in order for youngsters to succeed in sports, they must play hard and play smart. And it’s nice to have a parent in your life who can give you the proper guidance and advice.

“Everyone has a passion and that’s my main message to young kids,” concludes Finch. “You have to enjoy what you do. So, find your passion and be the best that you can be at it. That’s something that my dad instilled in me at a young age.”

Michelle Smith is an ESPN analyst and two-time Olympic softball gold medalist. Mike May is a sports writer and administrator for the Baseball/Softball Council of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. He also serves as communications consultant for PHIT America.

Contact Us

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.