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The Travel Team Trap

On achievement-obsessed parenting.


“Baseball isn’t fun,” Coach told the boys gathered inside for their first workout of the year. “Winning baseball is fun.” The scene in the Baseball Zone Training Center that winter night was as different as could be from the idyllic “Friday Nights on the Field” where my son Charlie first swung a bat six years earlier. Spring was two months away, and I was already doubting my decision to sign Charlie up for a twelve-and-under “select” baseball team.

After years of successfully avoiding the rat race of elite youth sports in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, I had my first real encounter with this hypercompetitive beast. I use “competitive” in a narrow sense here: after the team’s sixth loss in seven games, the head coach would quit. “I’m washing my hands of this mess,” he would tell the parents.

Yes, the team’s infield defense was often a mess. The relief pitching was always a mess. That’s because twelve-year-old boys are a mess. But by the logic of today’s middle-class and upper-middle-class parenting culture, our team’s one-and-six start wasn’t simply unfortunate; it was shameful. This attitude—equating youth sports success with moral rectitude and seeing failure on the field as a failure of character—shone through before our players got their first at bats.

Our boys jogged off dejected after the top of the first inning of their season opener. Errors and infield hits led to a six–zero deficit. I wasn’t surprised; this was the first inning of baseball many of these kids had played in two years thanks to the pandemic lockdowns. But when the boys got near the dugout, the head coach yelled, “No!” He yanked them away and made them take a knee on the grass near third base. Then he berated them. Pointing at the pitcher, Coach yelled, “I’m not angry at Colton for the batters he walked or the runs he gave up. I’m angry at you for making him get six outs!”

Angry. At eleven- and twelve-year-olds. For booting ground balls. The attitude was contagious. A few weeks later, my son bobbled a grounder, igniting a rally that would lead to an epic last-inning comeback for the other team. That night I found myself telling my wife, “I really need to hit Charlie grounders every day so that he doesn’t make those errors.”

A week later it was still light out after Sunday dinner, and Charlie asked me to hit him fly balls in the “Wayback”—the grass field with a baseball backstop behind our house. Thinking of those errors and losses, I suggested we drive to a nearby high school with a good dirt infield so I could hit him grounders instead. We argued for a minute, until finally he said, “Dad, I just think fly balls are more fun.”

I had almost turned a backyard father-son outing into a training session. My boy wanted to play ball with Dad, and I was fretting about his fielding percentage. I was falling into a trap. And it’s a trap that ensnares millions of American moms and dads, making their roles as parents less fun and more stressful.

We had already paid the exorbitant team fee (about four times as much as we have paid before or since for any team), and it was too late to put Charlie on any other team. We felt stuck with this select team for the spring. But we concluded pretty early on that we would escape for the saner confines of local rec ball as soon as possible.

Throughout the spring I saw how many had already been snared. At one game, the other team had a twelve-foot-by-six-foot color banner with all the players’ photos printed on it. Some teams provided top-of-the-line, four-hundred-dollar “Cat 9” bats to the players (the cost of which was folded into team fees, thus upping the ante for simply giving your kid some baseball).

I chuckled one day as I walked down to the field and saw a sign the field administrator had posted that read:

Please Remember:
These are kids
This is a game
Coaches are volunteers
Umpires are human
Your child does not play in M.L.B.

After the game, I wasn’t chuckling. The sign, it turned out, was necessary, but ignored. The parents saw much more at stake in the games’ outcomes—and in their sons’ stats—than they should have.

Charlie’s select team continued to lose, and the boys continued to have one or two practices a week alongside two or three games. For most kids, this was in addition to their school or rec teams. On a few Saturdays, I got a text from my friend, the dad of Charlie’s lifelong friend: “Hey Bobby wants to play some baseball with Charlie in the Wayback.” Every week I declined because Charlie had a game or practice.

One Friday night, the coach belatedly announced a Saturday practice. We hadn’t told Charlie about it by the time my friend texted on Saturday morning, “Is Charlie free to hang out with Bobby today?” “Yes,” I replied. “Send Bobby over.” A couple of twelve-year-olds got to spend a day acting like twelve-year-olds. After half an hour of throwing and hitting balls to one another, I think they ran to the creek to catch rat snakes. I have no doubt that I made the right decision that day in having Charlie skip practice, but at the time it was a hard choice to make.

The Travel Team Trap is easy for any parent to fall into. One need not be an achievement-obsessed parent or a dad living vicariously through his son in order to get caught up in over-competitive youth sports. What’s so pernicious about this system is how it drags in the unwilling and unsuspecting, which then creates more momentum for the system. Like every factor in our national parenting headache, it’s self-perpetuating. It robs the kids and parents who buy into the travel system, and it robs those who don’t.

Our own experience with select baseball was only bad, not awful. But I’ve spoken to a hundred parents whose lives have been totally captured by the Travel Team Trap or its equally pernicious cousins in Irish dance, violin, or theater. Our culture teaches parents that you need to hone your daughters and sons into high achievers at a young age and that you have to give them every advantage possible: tutors, lessons, equipment, private training. It takes up all of your money and your time.

Overly ambitious parenting, often unchosen or unconsciously chosen, is one big reason that parenting seems so hard and so costly in modern America. If you think that raising kids requires you to hire personal trainers and drive every weekend to lacrosse tournaments three counties away, or that you need to pull every possible lever in order to get your daughter into Cornell—lest you risk failing as a parent—you may decide that you cannot possibly have more than one or two kids.

And it’s a vicious circle. “With fewer children, parents become more child-centric,” as Kevin DeYoung, a father of nine, puts it. “And as parents become more child-centric, they do not see how they could possibly have more than one or two children.” The first prescription for curing our national parenting headache and making a more family-friendly America, then, is convincing everyone to have lower ambitions for their children.

It takes a deliberate and constant effort to extract yourself from the Travel Team Trap. But any parent can do it. The whole process starts with lowering your ambitions for your kids when it comes to sports, music, dance, or whatever, and understanding that these good things are means to more important ends: the building of life skills, good habits, and important virtues.

Where you go from there will vary depending on many factors in your life, but it will be determined mostly by what will make you and your children happy. For Eve, a mom in Chicago, “boredom is a muse.” Leave your kids alone for long periods, and they will make their own fun. A lack of parent-free, unstructured play is a root cause of the current mental-health crisis among children, experts argue.

When Lora escaped the Travel Team Trap, it wasn’t for lazier weekends, but for family activities such as kayaking and hiking. Her kids won’t go pro in backpacking with Mom, and nobody will hand them a trophy or scholarship for it. Regular weekend outings make it impossible to commit to an elite basketball or soccer team. But Lora’s family became a much happier one when they gave up striving for individual success and started climbing mountains together.

I once heard a varsity baseball dad lament that his younger son had switched to lacrosse: “Nine years of baseball down the drain.” No! Nine years of baseball is great because baseball is great. Now he gets to expand his sports experience. If you have an athlete, there’s a good chance he or she would be happiest trying a new sport every year. Baseball this spring, lacrosse next year, then tennis the following year. Your kid may never “get ahead,” but getting ahead is not the point of childhood.

Maybe he would be happiest playing one sport and in the offseason doing the school play—or nothing. Most years, my wife and I try to use sports-free or sports-light fall seasons to help our kids find their footing academically. (And we need to block off October evenings for that Mets World Series run that will come one of these days.) Just because your kid enjoys basketball or violin doesn’t mean you have to get her on a team or in an orchestra. And if you do decide to sign her up for some formal program, it doesn’t have to be the most elite program around.

The best team for your kid is often the one that practices across the street or the one that runs as an after-school program. Instead of “Next Level Lacrosse,” maybe look up next-door lacrosse. Sports and activities should work for your family, not the other way around.

One of the most powerful antidotes to the Travel Team Trap is siblings. Having many kids not only makes travel sports much harder, it also makes it feel less necessary. John is a dad I know through school and baseball. I’ve coached his younger son, Sammy, a good baseball player. John attributes that to one thing: Sammy has an older brother, Ozzie. “You know that ten-thousand-hours thing?” John says, referring to the theory that ten thousand hours of practice make one an expert. “Sammy got those ten thousand hours in our front yard with Ozzie.”

After Charlie’s select team head coach quit seven games into the season, a few parents spoke up: our boys weren’t having fun. The pressure made them lose more. Early in the season, the boys held a few late leads, but they never felt good about it. They were too nervous they would mess it up—especially since they knew what sort of scolding they would get if they blew the game.

After the parental intervention and the coaching change, everyone relaxed and by the end of the season they were having fun. They tied a good team late in the regular season, and then pulled off an upset win in the playoffs. We took the summer off from organized baseball, and in the fall Charlie asked to switch back to his old rec team. The competition, the umpiring, and the field quality were all less impressive than with his select team, but I have never seen a group of boys have more fun playing baseball than the “Green Goblins” of 2021.

What’s more, Katie and I often skipped Charlie’s games that fall. Don’t get me wrong, I loved watching that team, but some game days, I opted to take the younger kids to the park or simply to get some rest. The Goblins’ coach was happy to pick up Charlie on his way to the field. Counter to the travel-team narrative, the whole family didn’t have to be present for Charlie to play baseball and benefit from it.

In one very close Goblins game, Charlie was playing second base in the last inning with a one-run lead. He made a mental error, making a futile throw to home plate, allowing the opposing batter to reach safely. That kid then scored the winning run in a one-run game. (Charlie at this point has requested that I mention some of his defensive highlights of his 2021 baseball season so as not leave the impression that he only makes game-losing errors. I will mention that he was the winning pitcher on the select team’s only regular season victory, and for the Goblins he pitched scoreless final innings to save one-run leads in two consecutive games.)

When Charlie came to the car after the game, he looked a little dejected, but he said, “I know I should have thrown to first base instead of home on that play. I had thought through what I would do before the pitch, but I didn’t adjust after the ball hit the pitcher’s glove.”

As a former ballplayer and a coach, I was impressed Charlie had recognized his mistake. As a dad, I was thrilled that my teenage son was admitting a mistake and coming up with a way to do better in the future.

I realized during the drive home that it was good that Charlie had made that mental error and cost his team the game. That’s because my ambitions for my kids aren’t low, after all. I’m not trying to make them premier athletes or musicians. I’m trying to help them become men and women of virtue. That’s something my wife and I cannot do for them. We can only give them the opportunities to make their own mistakes and learn their own lessons.

This essay is adapted from Family Unfriendly: How Our Culture Made Raising Kids Much Harder Than It Needs to Be (Harper, 2024).

Timothy P. Carney is the senior political columnist at the Washington Examiner and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.