Game On What parents need to consider when picking a travel team.

When most children start a sport, they begin by playing in a local recreation league such as those run by the Towson Recreation Council or Catonsville Rec & Parks. Rec league teams are affordable and relaxed, giving kids a chance to pursue their new interest in a low-pressure environment.

But what happens when recreation leagues aren’t challenging a child’s development? That’s when many parents consider making the switch to travel or club teams.

Parents need to find out, first and foremost, if their child really wants to try out for a more competitive team.

“It has to be about fun,” says Sean Rush, co-founder of the Pipeline Soccer Club. “The most important thing about soccer and clubs in general — it has to be fun. That, I would say, is 80 percent of the battle right there.”

If a chosen sport has become their child’s passion, parents should consider how their child is developing and whether he or she is getting better. If there is something they haven’t mastered in a game, are the team’s practices helping them improve that skill? Or do they need a different level of coaching? Are there things that they could work on at home that would make them better players?

“When you make that jump up to travel, you are looking at more of a specific type of coach or teacher,” Rush says. “Kind of the same reasons why many families [choose] certain schools. They are looking for that next level of education or training for their child.”

In addition to the type of instruction, parents also need to consider that there is a larger time commitment with sometimes-rigorous schedules, including multiple practices during the week, double-headers on the weekend for baseball and all-weekend tournaments for many sports. With more time comes more money, as year-long travel teams can cost from several hundred to thousands of dollars. These fees include uniforms, facilities and tournaments. And this doesn’t factor in hotel, food and gas costs if a team stays overnight at a venue.

So how do parents find the right travel team for their child? Rush again compares the decision with choosing a school. “You have to go. You have to experience it. You have to find out what works for your child,” he says. “See if the club’s mission aligns with what [your child] is looking for.”

Travel teams give kids an opportunity to play against the top talent in the area and region, says Dave Miele, director of baseball operations for Impact Baseball Baltimore. They also get to play on well-maintained fields, which isn’t always the case with rec programs. And they get to wear multiple uniforms, similar to Major League players.

When choosing a club or travel program, Miele suggests finding out whether coaches are volunteers with kids of their own on the team or have been recruited based on their experience and are paid.

No matter what, “make sure the coach’s No. 1 agenda is to make sure the game is fun and that they are developing their athletes, which means they are giving them a means to improve,” he says. In travel programs, coaches should be “helping these kids to learn and understand the nuances of the game, the routines that go into the game and how the process of getting better works in baseball.”

“If their No. 1 goal is simply to win, to me, that is a big red flag,” Miele adds. “You’ve got to learn the game, otherwise how do you get better?”

What else can parents expect from travel programs? Families have a bonding experience because they go out to dinner after games or to hotel pools if they are away at a tournament. “It’s a family environment,” Miele says. “To me, baseball is an extension of your family wherever you are with your team. It’s like a brotherhood, a sisterhood. Everybody is involved.”

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