Travel Teams: Youth Sports' New Headache

Remember when kids played just for fun with other kids in the neighborhood?

It's where kids chose sides, set up makeshift bases, picked positions and created their own rules -- and it was all miraculously done without the help of any adults.

And it worked.

If you played in those neighborhood baseball games as a child like I did, and I suspect most of you did, then you can not only attest that it really did work but that those probably rate as some of the most enjoyable experiences of your youth.

It was sports in its most pure sense and boy, was it fun.

Sadly, sandlot games have pretty much evaporated though, a casualty of the travel team frenzy that has been sweeping through communities for quite some time now, disrupting recreational programs and saddling children with a mind boggling schedule of practices and games.

And kids' arms are breaking down at alarming rates. Their seasons are being chopped short and spent dealing with doctor visits, surgeries and trips to rehab facilities.

And yet, many parents refuse to admit what they are seeing, blindly turning their backs and continually pushing and prodding their children in pursuit of wins and tournament trophies at whatever venue they have traveled to that weekend. And many of these trips are halfway across the country at a huge expense to the family.

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon agrees. He's quoted recently in the Chicago Tribune as saying: "That's why I hate the specialization of kids when they're on these travel squads that are only 12-13-14 years olds that are only dedicated to one thing, traveling all the time, paying exorbitant amount of money to play baseball with hopes of becoming a professional baseball player. I think that's crazy."

Staggering statistics

A 10-year study involving 481 youth players from the state of Alabama found that young players who pitched more than 100 innings in a year were 3½ times more likely to be injured than their fellow players who pitched less. It also found:

  • If a pitcher threw 600 pitches in a season, his chances of suffering elbow or shoulder pain was three times as high as a pitcher who threw 200 pitches.

  • Players who participated in baseball more than eight months a year were five times more likely to have elbow or shoulder surgery.
  • Pitchers who said they threw past the point of fatigue were 36 times more likely to have surgery.
  • A real mess

    Too many children are going through "Tommy John" surgeries, some before they have even entered high school yet. As you know, this is hardly a minor procedure as it involves taking a ligament from another part of the body and putting it into the injured elbow where the ulnar collateral ligament has been torn.

    It's a glaring problem across the travel team landscape -- but one that coaches and parents somehow are always quick to ignore because that's often the difference between winning and losing.

    Why are so many adults willing to roll the dice on kids' health?

    Sure, travel teams can be wonderful experiences, but not when adults blatantly ignore what's best for children simply to satisfy their own already inflated egos.

    It's time we put an end to this nonsense.