Youth sports at almost all levels has experienced an explosion of club travel teams. The merits of the impact of this phenomena on athlete development (both on and off the field), health (mental and physical) and parenting and family life are significant and debatable. The reality, however, is that this is the new normal of how youth sports participation is structured and influenced. Accordingly, young athletes and their parents will inevitably be confronted with the decision and related pressures of whether to pursue club team participation and moreover, how to approach the inevitable decision of choosing a team.
Accordingly, several key factors should be considered as the explosion in the amount of travel teams and events has made it difficult and challenging to sort through all of the options, let alone deal with pressure from coaches and other outside influences.
First and foremost, make sure that you as an athlete and parent all have similar goals and expectations as the program under consideration. Determine the team's mission and culture and quality of the people involved, including directors, players and coaches as well as the existing parent/coach dynamic. If you are just trying to have fun, then look for a local league or restrict your play to your school's offseason program. If you are trying to improve as an athlete, then look for a team that is dedicated to a focus on development including skills, knowledge of the sport, competitiveness, athleticism, nutrition, and leadership skills.
Do as much research as possible when deciding which team is the best fit for you. Because the quality of your experience typically begins and ends with coaching, pay particular attention to evaluating the coaching staff.
Look for teams that have multiple talented, informed and experienced coaches. Meet with the coaches to get a feel for the kind of person they are. Look for key characteristics, including vision, drive, integrity and pursuit of excellence. Research their resume, and give particular consideration to coaches with significant coaching or playing experience in your specific sport. Also, strongly consider performing a background check on your finalists to determine any criminal or abuse history or other red flags.
You should take evaluate the services and features offered by the team. One key element is skills development. The off-season is typically an athlete's primary opportunity to develop their individual game. It is critical that coaches have the ability to contribute to this process - it is not just about playing games. Coaches should be well versed in all facets of player development and be able to teach and structure effective skill sessions. You should also solicit feedback and evaluations from former athletes and parents who previously participated in the program to get their thoughts on the coaching staff and the level of skill improvement that they experienced in the program.
Closely aligned with skill development is the practice schedule and access to facilities that the program offers. Many programs just offer athletes game or tournament participation -- these will only reinforce bad habits and stagnate growth in the absence of skill development through practice. What they should be offering is weekly practice sessions, not just games. They should be using this time to develop your skills, something that can really only be done in practices and not during games.
A practical factor that comes into play when deciding on a club team is the logistics of the situation. How far is travel to the practice facility? What nights does the team practice? Do you or your family have prior obligations that conflict with the practice schedule and location? Can you afford the fees and travel costs associated with the program? While these are simple factors, they are sometimes overlooked and can cause problems with your family's stability and well-being.
For high school-level athletes looking to be recruited, make sure that you are realistically positioning yourself to do so, particularly regarding your level of prospective playing time and exposure to college coaches. Will you start or have the opportunity for significant playing time? Assess how you stack up with the other members of the team. Does your skills and athleticism fit with the team's style of play? Look for a team where you will have an opportunity to play and showcase your skills. Remember you are choosing a team that fits you and increases your exposure.
The level of exposure to college coaches at the events where your team is scheduled to compete is a complicated, yet important consideration. Do some research for your region and identify the major travel team tournaments. Then try to determine whether the teams that you are considering are registered for any of these tournaments. You not only want to make sure you will play, but also that sure are playing where college recruiters are more likely to see you.
This is, however, difficult to fully assess because there has been significant growth in the number of tournaments and travel teams. It is becoming more and more difficult for college coaches to cover them all - despite your research you may still not get your expected level of exposure. Avoid the assumption that just because you are playing on a travel club team, you will be seen by college coaches and recruited. This is why full game video generation is also a critical related factor. Find a program that records your games or arranges for them to be recorded. Then just upload your video directly to a website such as ours at Recruiting Sports Network (or your coach can easily upload all of your team's games and you can connect to them) to ensure you receive the exposure that you are seeking and deserve.
Properly vetting prospective club teams and coaches is an involved and complicated process. However, doing so will go a long way to ensuring a positive and rewarding experience and growth for you as an athlete and parent.