When forming travel teams, be sure to send the right messages

ASK CAL

Commentary

November 12, 2006|By CAL RIPKEN JR.

DEAR CAL -- Lately, we've seen a movement away from recreation league travel teams to club-metro teams. Coaches are focused on winning at all costs and now recruit across city, county and state lines. What are your thoughts on this?

Glenn Peacher, Abingdon

DEAR GLENN -- I don't think that fielding teams that are more competitive for those players who are prepared to handle it is necessarily a bad thing, if handled correctly. For kids who really enjoy the game and have more advanced motor skills, there's nothing wrong with allowing them to test themselves against players of similar ability.

The problem arises with how the travel teams develop, how the players are chosen, the balance of game play vs. practice time and the messages that are sent by the parents. For most young kids, a tryout situation can be nerve-wracking and stressful. Tryouts can render young players incapable of performing well, and getting cut can be traumatic. Even the word "evaluation" can cause players to panic.

The ideal situation would be for the local league to offer a preseason clinic that could be held over several evenings or on two consecutive weekends for maybe two or three hours each day. Players would be trained in the game's fundamentals, while being evaluated without the kids knowing it. This would allow for an even grouping of talent at the recreational or in-house level, and if the league wanted to offer a travel program, those players who performed best could be given the option of playing. This decision should be made only by the kids.

Once the travel team is formed, the coaches and parents have a responsibility to monitor the situation closely. Young players can't improve without practicing. Travel teams often schedule as many games as possible throughout the -- often at the expense of practice. The chaos surrounding games does not allow coaches much time to teach, so practice is essential for addressing areas in which a team needs work. Most youth teams should strive to have at least two practices for every game played. This is nearly impossible for teams that play 60 or 70 games. That number of games and the pressure that goes along with them also can lead to burnout.

Coaches of travel teams must remember that kids still are in the developmental stages as players. They should receive equal playing time and try any positions that interest them. Improvement as individuals and as a team should be emphasized over winning. If the coaches and parents can maintain perspective and monitor the state of their kids, travel teams can serve a valuable purpose.

DEAR CAL -- I'm coaching my son and daughter on their under-6 soccer team. I'm having trouble getting my 4-year-old son to pay attention to the game when he's on the field. I've taken a passive approach until this point, thinking that the situation would improve as the season went along. It hasn't. And now I'm concerned that I'm sending the message that his behavior is acceptable. Where and when do you draw the line?

John Gordon, LaVale, Md.

DEAR JOHN -- I would imagine it is difficult for you to get your 4-year-old son to pay attention to much of anything for more than a few minutes. That's normal. Don't allow yourself to get too worked up about the situation, and don't single him out in front of everybody on the field. That could embarrass him and turn him away from soccer. Instead, enjoy the time you have together, knowing that every child matures at his or her own rate. You really can't rush that. It happens naturally.

Spend time working on skills with him at home and try to give him goals that he can easily achieve. The goals might be as simple as not falling down or kicking the ball in the right direction. Then, when he achieves one of his goals, celebrate it publicly. Make him feel like he just made the greatest play in the world. At that age, you really want him to have fun first and foremost and to develop a love for the game.

Have a question or issue arising from your involvement in youth sports? Send it by e-mail to askcal@baltimoresun.com.

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