Explaining teams, terms of county youth sports

Questions: What is the difference between "rec" and "travel" teams? Why do age rules vary from sport to sport? What is "playing up"? The answers follow.

Howard At Play

April 29, 2001|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Parents new to youth team sports not uncommonly get confused about what's meant by recreation and travel teams. What do those terms mean, and what's their significance to players - and parents?

More distinctions exist than just "recreation" and "travel." Competitive sports are sometimes described as pyramids for players, the pinnacle being professional athletes, the base youth competitors. The more skilled you become, the higher you go, but sooner or later, everyone levels or falls off.

Clinics are usually for young beginners, typically between 5 and 7, depending on the sport. Tee-ball is the "clinic" for baseball and softball, for example. Clinics spend more time working on basic skills than on the game. Rules are kept simple; teams are small; equipment and fields are modified.

Recreation-level teams, sometimes referred to as "in-house" or "neighborhood" teams, are the next step. Most youth athletes compete at this level, sometimes with modified rules and equipment for the youngest. These teams rarely venture from their communities, although in some sports all-star teams are sometimes formed for post-season tournaments.

Many rec-level leagues don't bother with standings, emphasizing participation and learning over winning. Most rec-level leagues require that coaches use their players on roughly an equal-time basis - everyone plays.

Travel teams begin to sort out players. Depending on the sport, participation in travel ball - meaning traveling to compete against other communities - starts as young as 9 or 10 and continues through high school.

Travel ball demands more of players and parents than rec play. The object is to win, though not at all costs if it's a good program. But team and individual skills focus on winning. Players practice more frequently, must adapt to new individual and team-oriented skills quickly and perfect them under pressure. Travel players might not get equal playing time, though good coaches understand it's important to use everyone as often as possible. Almost all travel rosters, regardless of sport, are filled by tryouts rather than assignment. "Trying out" introduces the concept of getting cut.

Some organizations locally have seen 100 or more players try out for soccer or baseball teams with about 18 spots to fill. Often, once a team is formed, and especially if it wins regularly or shows good development, those openings shrink to as few as two or three slots, because coaches like to keep players together.

You hear about "age groups" as a defining element of youth sports, too. What's that mean?

Age is important, relating mainly to a child's physical and psychological capabilities. Age rules vary by sport. Soccer groups teams in one-year increments. Thus, you'll hear about under-12, under-13, under-16 teams. Baseball, softball and basketball tend to work in two-year increments - 11-and-under, 13-and under, etc. Football also applies a weight limit, which can work against boys who are big for their ages.

Skilled athletes may "play up," meaning on a team with older players. Normally, players are not allowed to "play down" a year.

The idea is to keep kids competing against opponents of relatively the same size and maturity, though once puberty kicks in, finding a skinny, 5-foot-8 girl or boy on a team with most players about 5 foot 2 isn't uncommon.

What about individual sports - gymnastics, wrestling, swimming, figure skating, golf?

You'll find clinics in every one. Watch the Department of Recreation and Parks mailers, or inquire at the gym, pool, ice rink or golf course of your choice.

Swimmers, even young ones learning various strokes, ultimately have to beat the clock. Skaters have to impress judges. Golfers have to shoot low scores. Wrestlers go head-to-head within narrowly defined weight classes.

Gymnasts and skaters, once past the rudiments, advance by passing national and sometimes international tests on required skills, then compete against others at the same skill level.

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