Youth Club Sports: pros and cons
For the sake of clarity, the type of “club sports” discussed in this article are pre-college, year-round, single-sport, traveling teams. They may be referred to as a travel-team, select-team, premier-team, etc.
Participation in club sports has sky-rocketed over the past decade. In fact, many parents and athletes alike believe that club participation is required in order to advance in the sport. The perks and negatives are reviewed below.
Club Sports Pros:
1. You get better faster
When you dedicate numerous hours each week to practicing and competing in a sport, you are bound to improve at a faster rate than a peer who participates seasonally. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the club-sport athlete will obtain a long-term advantage. However, if a player improves at a faster rate than their peers, they may develop more confidence in their ability. A confident athlete typically finds more enjoyment in the sport.
Whether it’s sports, music, or mathematics, the more a (sub-elite) person practices, the better they will get. In addition to the time component, a club-sport athlete may get better faster due to higher quality coaching. Coaching a club team is a big-time commitment, so the coaches are usually very passionate about the sport. Recreational youth coaches (seasonal coaches) oftentimes are a parent or a volunteer.
While both care about their athletes, the club coach has a much greater commitment and typically has some type of expertise related to the sport. This is not always the case, as many exceptional coaches choose to remain in the recreational system. As one advances to high school sports, the gap between club coaches and high school coaches may be negligible.
Finally, athletes in the club-system typically get better at a faster rate because they are surrounded by more advanced players. Their teammates are making equal time commitments and reaping the same advantage of higher-level coaching.
Similarly, their opponents have also dedicated higher amounts of time to the sport. Therefore, the level of play is amplified on the practice field and the competition field. Recreational players, on the other hand, maybe surrounded by great and not-so-great players. In general, demand is less because the range of talent is widespread.
2. Develop deep relationships
Assuming the club team is a positive environment, the athlete will develop long-term friendships. Again, thanks to the time requirements, teammates will often become quite close. Club sports take up a huge chunk of one’s social time, so your teammates become the people you “hang-out” with on a regular basis. Not only are the athletes united by the common goal of the team, but they often share common interests and experiences. Parents may experience the same phenomenon.
An athlete will also spend a lot of time around the coach. The coach may become an important adult-figure in the athlete’s life. Recreational athletes will not spend as much time around their coach and will probably not have the opportunity to relate as deeply.
Club-teams compete frequently. They travel to tournaments and join different leagues. Depending on the sport, they may even participate in college showcases. The more you compete, the more opportunities scouts have to observe your talent. The importance of this depends on your sport and location. In Pennsylvania, playing for a club soccer team was more valuable in the recruiting process. For track and field, it didn’t matter whether it was high school or club.
Some may view travel as a positive, while others see travel as a con. Having an opportunity to travel is a good life experience. Club sports often give an athlete the opportunity to do so.
As a soccer team, we would go up and down the east coast for tournaments. I really enjoyed the bonding time with my dad and my teammates on these trips. We got to see museums, beaches, and different cultures. One summer, my team took a trip to California, which was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many. The athlete may or may not remember the competition, but they will certainly remember the experience.
Club Sports Cons:
1. Early specialization
Significant research has revealed the detrimental effects of early specialization. Although the athlete may jump ahead of their peers for the time being, they tend to miss out on overall athletic development. When an athlete dedicates their time to one sport, they only develop that particular sport’s subset of athletic skills.
Soccer and basketball require different skills. In one sport, the athlete may develop great foot-eye coordination while the other leads to advanced jumping abilities. For long-term athletic success, it’s best to have spent time developing both.
In fact, the coaching world has split opinions on this subject. Some coaches require their athletes to focus solely on their specialty sport. Meanwhile, other coaches require their athletes to participate in other sports for the sake of advanced physical ability. If there is an athletic advantage to being multi-sport, why do some coaches require complete dedication?
Mainly, the issue is time. The coaches requiring singular focus suggest that time spent in another athletic endeavor is time away from the main sport. Those coaches aren’t willing to make that “sacrifice”.
Even if the coach is open to the multi-sport athlete, at some point there will be conflicts. I often had to choose between soccer tournaments and track meets. Either decision hurts one team. Reoccurring conflicts lead to many frustrations for the coach. Additionally, the body can only handle so much before it breaks down. Parents, or whoever is driving the athlete, can become completely consumed by youth sports.
2. Conflict with the high school team
It’s not atypical for club coaches and high school coaches to butt heads with each other. When high school season rolls around, sometimes the club coach continues trying to control the athlete’s training or competition schedule. Unless the two coaches have a plan in place, this can be quite dangerous for the athlete.
Participating in two separate practices on a regular basis is a recipe for injury. If both coaches demand priority, the athlete needs to make a choice between teams.
My club soccer team would take a break during the few months of high school soccer. The club team would host optional practices once or twice a week. This was a good set-up.
As a high school track coach, I had some club athletes request to do their other coach’s training during our practice time. In that particular situation, I would suggest the athlete solely stick to their club team. My theory was that if you are part of the high school team, you will train with the high school team. Attempting to do both practices would counteract both training plans.
College track coaches love recruiting soccer players. The athletes that follow the soccer club path develop many athletic components conducive to track. By the time they leave high school, the athlete is so burnt out from years of non-stop soccer that they prefer another sport.
The point is that many club sports athletes will either be sick of the sport or overwhelmed by the pressure at an earlier age. Parents frequently push club sports participation with hopes of their child getting a scholarship. Unfortunately, the plan often backfires. They can’t get an athletic scholarship if they no longer want to play.
Club sports aren’t cheap. Unless the family has unlimited amounts of money, there is a financial sacrifice required for participation. The money that gets put towards club sports detracts from something else. It may detract from another athletic opportunity or something outside of sport.
Club sports aren’t evil by any means. They provide a great opportunity for athletes to further their skills, develop relationships, and travel. However, choosing to participate in a year-round sport requires a forewarning. It may limit opportunities to participate in other athletic endeavors, thus leading to a less well-rounded athlete and person. Keep your eyes open for burnout and be prepared to manage conflicting time schedules.
If a youth athlete has an opportunity to join a more advanced club team, ask these three questions:
1. Is the athlete excited about this opportunity or do they feel pressured into joining the team?
2. Is the feasible time-wise and money-wise for the athlete’s family?
3. Does the potential of success outweigh the risk of burnout?