Over the last 20 years several factors have combined to change the landscape of youth sports across the United States. An increase in the number of young people participating in sports has led to the rise of an almost European style of club and travel teams that operate independently of the high school sports network.
According to a summary study entitled Sports Specialization in Young Athletes published in May 2013 by the American Orthopaedic Society of Sports Medicine there was a 33% increase in the number of children 6 years and younger participating in organized sports in the United States. The same study cited “the growing number of travel leagues in 7 or 8 years of age” as further evidence of growth in youth sports.
Those statements line-up with what Programs and Facilities Coordinator Buffie Hamil is seeing at Rock Creek Park. During a season that ran from Aug 1, 2018 to July 31, 2019 Hamil arranged for tournament and practice fields for 14 travel or club teams with softball seeing the largest increase climbing from one team in 2018 to four teams this year, although she couldn’t put her finger on any particular reason for the increase.
“This is the highest number we have ever been at,” Hamil said. “Maybe some parents or coaches want to go a different direction, maybe they wanted to find a higher level of competition. I honestly don’t know.”
Hamil does go on to say that one of the attractions of Rock Creek Park is that teams an arrange to use the facilities based on their needs. Travel teams can arrange for a place to both play games and hold practice, while tournament teams are usually looking only for practice space.
The flexibility comes with a cost with a practice only package pricing at 350 dollars a season and full-use costing 800 dollars. In addition to the base cost, each team is charged an additional 20 dollars per non-Dawson County Resident.
One such team, the Bombshells, recently won the 10U Global Sports Authority World Series June 29-30 in Carnesville after sweeping their bracket in tournament play. Head Coach Isaac Barnes acknowledged the expenses associated with travel ball but was quick to point out that he and his wife, Patty, ran their team differently than most.
“Travel ball is not cheap, but we pay as we go,” Barnes said. “A lot of places will charge you 1,700 dollars or more up front, and that doesn’t include travel, but we don’t work that way. We pay as we go.”
The team plays all over the southeast with games in Chattanooga, Cartersville and Ackworth in tournaments arranged by a wide network of sports associations such as the GSA or the United States Specialty Sports Association. Each tournament comes with a 50-dollar entry fee per player, and parents are responsible for travel costs, although the team will usually stay in the same hotel to qualify for the group rate.
In a season that can last for upwards of six months over the spring and summer, the twelve girls that make up the Bombshells will conduct roughly 60 2-hour plus long practice ,half of those practices will be held in Tennessee to balance out the travel time for the five members of the team from the state, and will play in 12 tournaments.
“You kind of make up your season as you go,” Barnes said. “A lot of college recruitment is done through travel ball now, so we play all over the place.’
Barnes went on to talk about the impact of travel teams on high school sports and he agreed that the girls would most likely have to commit to playing only softball in school to remain on his, or any other, travel team, but he felt that in the long run the rise of travel ball would be benefit the high school teams.
“A lot of these girls are playing middle-school ball right now and they will probably have to choose if they want to keep playing travel ball or not,” Barnes said. “I think it will feed the schools, once all of these girls get to high school ball, they will be tough to beat.”
As the Dawson County Lady Tigers softball team enters a rebuilding season assistant coach Logan Allen attributes the rise in quality players he has seen in tryouts this summer to the increase in the number of players with travel experience.
“I definitely think it is helpful to have kids with travel time,” Allen said. “We are seeing a huge increase in talent levels this summer.”
Although the summer sessions are voluntary, the team comes close to fielding its full roster at every practice session. Usually the only girls missing are those with travel ball commitments, but coach Allen understands the reasons why and is quick to grant leaves of absence when requested by the girls.
“That’s how you get noticed, on a travel team,” Allen said. “College coaches get to see 10-15 girls at a time, from all over the country, playing at a high level at the same time.”
The impact of the NCAA can best be seen in the changes made to the recruitment period this summer. In coordination with the Georgia High School Association, the organization responsible for coordinating all high school sports in Georgia, the NCAA made changes in the summer recruitment schedule that “are a huge step in the right direction,” according to Dawson County Athletic Director Jason Gibson.
“The original recruitment windows, two weeks in April and two weeks in July, corresponded with absolutely nothing in high school ball,” Gibson said. “NCAA exposure almost forced kids into a travel ball environment.”
This summer the NCAA reduced the recruitment windows in April and July to one week each and opened a two-week window in June that coincides with high school summer basketball in regulation with the GHSA.
“Now there is not so much pressure on kids to join travel teams,” Gibson said. “Put the high school player back in the high school environment.”
Gibson went on to emphasize the importance of the multi-sport athlete to a small school environment such as Dawson County. He recognized that the club and travel teams have become a fixed part of high school sports but believed it would be a positive development in the long run.
“Over the last 10-15 years the rise of travel sports and playing travel sports has become expected of the high school athlete,” Gibson said. “The more time you put in, the more skills you develop, the more success you experience, and the high school reaps the benefits.”
“At the same time, the multi-sport athlete is a huge piece at the high school level, especially at a smaller school like Dawson County. It takes a lot of communication between coaches to share athletes and to build an environment at school that encourages students to play multiple sports.”
As the head coach of one of the few programs in Dawson County not to have a year-round option, football head coach Sid Maxwell put the idea more succinctly as he talked about a coaching philosophy that emphasized athleticism and a whole team concept.
“You lose the opportunity to build your best program all around,” Maxwell said. “For us, football is a summer activity and a fall season. Come winter, go play the next sport, not the next club or U basketball where they’re making money off of you, the next GHSA regulated sport. That’s what we preach.”
No one denies that travel teams are here to stay, in fact, the Sports Specialization in Young Athletes study found that 77.7 percent of high school athletic directors reported increasing trends in sports specialization, and a study of 519 US Tennis Association junior teams found 70 percent of the athletes had been playing only tennis since the age of ten.
“For the most part the three-sport athlete is gone, our culture has changed and shifted directions,” Gibson said. “At the end of the day it has to be the kid wanting to be involved, the kid has to be motivated, and my hat’s off to the kids that can do it.”