If you've traveled during the past few summers, you may have noticed the swelling numbers of young athletes in team t-shirts, streaming through airports with their gear and filling up hotels.
What you might not have realized is that the influx is due to youth travel sports - a rapidly growing, multi-billion dollar industry.
Jeff Coulson, a hall of fame lacrosse player who owns Massachusetts-based Catamount Lacrosse LLC, has placed players on D1, D2, and D3 rosters for 30 years, but he's never seen participation increase like it has over the last decade. “The club lacrosse world has exploded," he said.
And it's not just lacrosse: The U.S. youth sports economy is a $15.3 billion business that has grown by 55 percent since 2010, according to WinterGreen Research.
Parents with kids of all ages in nearly every sport are investing thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – every year in travel sports team fees, training camps, tournament fees, private coaches, highlight videos and equipment.
Many parents hope that those investments will pay off when their child is admitted to a top school as an athlete. Nearly half a million high school students will earn a spot on a college team, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, giving some the ability to attend a school where they might not have otherwise been accepted.
But getting recruited these days requires more effort than in previous generations. The competitiveness of youth sports and the fight for a spot on the college roster has meant that many parents are getting their children involved in serious sports at earlier ages and utilizing more strategies to help them beat the college-acceptance odds.
George Phillips Jr., a Los Angeles dad, has two softball-playing daughters, one who just graduated from Lehigh University and another on her way to the University of Pennsylvania this fall. Philips believes that having his daughters playing on a select club travel team by middle school helped shape their athletic skills.
“If your goal is to play in college, getting to the highest level as fast as possible is really important," he said. “The more repetitions you have under your belt increases the likelihood of the outcome you want."
But simply joining any travel league isn't enough. Both Philips and Coulson stress the importance of researching the best club for your child – one that has no “DNA in the team" - meaning no parent coaches who have little experience.
Philips sought a nationally ranked program run by a professional coach with a track record for placing players on college rosters. His younger daughter's club team even had a recruiting coach who assisted players with college coach interaction.
On that team, which required a tryout, every player was committed to a college by junior year. In addition to playing on her high school team, his daughter commuted 70 miles round-trip twice a week for practice and traveled to team showcase tournaments in Florida, Texas and Chicago.
Marc Graham, former head men's lacrosse coach at Vassar College, warns parents not to overvalue a coach's athletic accomplishments over a club's strategy. “Parents have to ask what the plan is for practice, team strategies and skills," he said. "What is their strategy to get your child recognized, recruited and ultimately committed to the best college?"
Coulson advises parents to ask, “What can the club do for my child?" He said he prefers teams that stress learning over winning: “If you're paying more than $1,000 for a weekend tournament, the emphasis should be on field time, not winning the championship."
A key benefit of club sports is visibility to college coaches. According to Next College Student Athlete (NCSA), a college athletic recruiting network based in Chicago, many college coaches rely on club coaches to help fill their rosters.
Of the coaches surveyed in their recent study, between 63 to 95 percent of Division 1 coaches called club coaches a source for finding players.
But club is only one piece of this equation. As Graham explained, “If a young athlete has Division 1 aspirations, there are some great tournaments that will grant them exposure to upwards of 100 college coaches."
Showcases — tournaments where high school athletes attends either with their team or on their own — offer unique opportunities to play for many coaches at once and are usually open to all players, though some require an invite or recommendation. The registration fee for these events can be hundreds of dollars, depending on the caliber of coaches attending or the size of the event.
Another tactic is reaching out to coaches directly, Graham said. “As a player gets into their junior year, they should be focused on the size, location, academic programs and competition level of colleges" and contact specific coaches to let them know they are interested in playing for their team.
Most college teams list contact information for coaches on their websites, along with a recruiter questionnaire that a player can use to express interest in the team and get added to the team's mailing list. This is a way to stay informed about prospect dates and other events that coaches are expected to attend.
Prospect camps are run by college coaches and generally held on campus on a first-come-first-served basis. For players who have identified their ideal college team, they can be good opportunities to get to know the schools and connect with the coaches.
But before parents invest thousands of dollars into travel sports programs, they should know that this is what their child truly wants. “Coaches have told me point blank, 'I'm not interested in a kid who's not serious about what they do,'" Phillips said.
College admission is contingent on your child's grades and test scores, although at many schools top athletes may be admitted with grades and scores below the average for incoming freshman.
Some student athletes decide to take a fifth year of high school - which many boarding schools offer — to improve their grades while honing their talent to enable them to play for a highly ranked team or top academic school.
For some students, playing a sport can be the competitive advantage that makes the difference between an acceptance or rejection letter. Still, even after years of traveling, there is a chance your child will not land on her dream roster. But that doesn't make it all for naught: Travel sports give athletes an outlet to enjoy their passion year-round, perform under pressure, form bonds with other players and develop skills like leadership and teamwork that can serve them well throughout their personal and professional lives.
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