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Growing pressure, intensity in youth travel sports

Vernon Hills U8 Cougars take on Roselle Rage
Vernon Hills U8 Cougars take on Roselle Rage. Photo by Lauren Comitor.

On Saturday mornings across the country, parents and children flock to dewy, manicured fields like birds descend on a chunk of bread. The lush, fresh-cut grass catches the waking sun in a still, peaceful moment – a moment before those same blades become trodden with cleats and mud. Kids lumber around the field as their parents, clad in team jackets, umbrellas and hats, will them to score in a flurry of cheers, voices encouraging yet laced with faint desperation.

Save some slight variations, and the scene isn’t all that different wherever you go. In a smaller suburb like Vernon Hills, Ill., sports are the light from which most people draw their sustenance, the place to see and be seen. While not at the level of an Odessa, Texas, Vernon Hills, a retail-centric town of about 20,000 people, is a tight-knit community where most people know each other and social hierarchy is derived from sports, rather than politics.

While the Vernon Hills Cougars Athletic Association, an extension of Vernon Hills High School, offers community sports for kids in the area, most people have jumped ship for the increasingly popular travel teams, which groom kids to play at the high school level (not all Vernon Hills residents feed into the town’s high school).

Youth travel sports start at increasingly young ages because of the competitiveness and the desire to develop skills early on. The youngest team the Cougars organize is 8U, meaning 8 years old and under. As kids get older, the teams get more competitive, which entices parents to start their children young. However, the youngest teams are still competitive, with the soccer program paying professional coaches.

Professional coaches expect more, which is one of the reasons why 8-year-old Ethan Kozin wanted to quit after one year with the Cougars soccer program. He mostly joined travel to play with his friends, but quickly recognized that experience would only get more intense.

“The coaches yell too much,” he said. “They should just talk to me and say, ‘Ethan, try to do it this way and not that way.’”

He calls the decision to quit soccer an easy one, and his mother, Lisa, is glad he made a sensible choice. She thought that if travel soccer didn’t have all the “bells and whistles” it does, like the uniforms, travel trips and general prestige, Ethan wouldn’t have been as interested.

“I think it’s too young,” she said. “But I want to support Ethan and I want him to be with his friends. He loves playing the game, but he doesn’t like the intensity that comes with it.”

Unfortunately, there aren’t many alternatives for kids like Ethan, who want to play and improve their skills in a less intense, but still competitive, environment. The commitment and interest on community teams is increasingly depleted because of the takeaway from travel. This year, the community soccer program had only four teams of five players each in one age group. Additionally, the program has to combine more ages because of the lack of players, which leaves teams with a wide range of skill levels and little time to develop cohesion.

Lisa says the younger travel teams aren’t necessarily more talented – it’s about money more than anything. Since the baseball program has volunteer parent coaches, it costs only about $650 with uniforms. Soccer is close to $1400, including the coaches’ pay and uniforms. However, neither price includes tournaments, for which families have to pay for lodging, food, transportation, etc.

Dave Doerhoefer, a coach and former board member for the Vernon Hills Stingers softball program, believes that factions form because many girls start playing at 8 years old. For the last two years, the Stingers have put together eight teams with 96 girls total in the program. In the last five years, Doerhoefer says, there has been a clear split within teams between people who want to play as much as possible and those that think it’s too excessive.

“There’s a lot more specialization lately,” he says. “And less enjoyment of the experience. You have to be fair to every girl, but you have to treat every girl differently.”

This proves to be even truer after the age of 14, when the Stingers program places more focus on winning. Playing time is no longer equal and there’s a drop-off in participation, mostly because of either a loss of passion or lack of ability. Doerhoefer says the teams are then split between those that want to get recruited and play in college and those that don’t. Some girls still play for enjoyment, but then there are others who have completely different motives and needs.

Doerhoefer said that the girls start out too young, and they get burnt out very quickly. He says it’s usually the parents who push their children to join because they’re afraid their child will be behind, which isn’t the case. The only reason an 8-year-old team is offered is because the parents demand it, and at that age Doerhoefer says it becomes a status symbol.

“Every parent thinks his or her kid is better,” he says. “Parents get more upset with their kids [than coaches do].”

Parents are such a huge factor in the travel experience that they even have to sign a code of conduct at the beginning of each season, which starts off with a telling statement: “Children’s sports are supposed to be fun – for the children.” There are 25 guidelines that parents and spectators must follow, beginning with “I will not force my child to participate in sports.” Most items have some mention of diminishing the importance of winning in order to create a more positive and fun environment. The code does, however, mention that more emphasis will be placed on competition in the older age groups.

Most softball and baseball programs consume every weekend of a child’s summer, illustrating the kind of commitment expected on travel teams today. However, many people who started playing travel sports at a young age are glad for the experience.

High school senior Maria Schroeder, 17, started playing tee-ball when she was five, and joined the Lake Zurich Lightning travel softball team when she was nine. She credits her father as her biggest influence in softball, as he is the one who encourages her to practices and pushes her to get better. Schroeder says both her parents have had a huge influence on her playing career.

“They aren’t the parents that get on their kid when they strike out or make a bad play,” she says. “They always encourage me to do my best and have supported me throughout everything. Without them I would not be where I am today.”

Schroeder will continue her softball career at Bradley University next year, and she said the decision to play in college was an easy one.

“Softball has been a part of my life for so long,” she says. “I love the feeling of being on a team and being a part of something bigger than myself. I think playing in college will help me grow as a person and will also help teach me a lot of lessons that will make me more successful later in life.”

Conversely, Vernon Hills High School senior Jennifer Claussen, 18, grew tired of softball after playing for 10 years. She reluctantly decided to play for one last year on the high school team, partly because she wanted to finish out her career there and partly because the Cougars didn’t have enough players. The team has lost almost every game, but she wanted to follow through with her commitment.

“I don’t think it would have looked good if I quit my senior season of softball, even though I regret playing it,” she says. “But I had to. It was routine. It was all I knew.”

Claussen will attend Purdue University next year, and says there is no chance she will ever play softball there, even at an intramural level. She said that at one point early on she considered it, but in her junior and senior years of high school, she realized how sick of softball she was and that she didn’t like playing at all any more. She said she didn’t want to throw away her free time and life, especially in college.

This summer will be Claussen’s first without playing Stingers, which has consumed her life year round for seven years. And while she has had enough of the sport she spent long, sweltering summers playing, she isn’t bitter about the experiences she had.

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