Commentary

Where the 'elite' kids shouldn't meet

Travel teams, "elite" leagues, "select" players … they skewer our sports perspective

Originally Published: August 24, 2011
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

EliteDrew Litton/ESPN.com Who really is invested in elite youth sports teams? Is it the kids or their parents?

Your kid is good, right? Really good? You don't want to brag, but he can do some things on the field that other kids his age won't even try. You played a little ball yourself, and you know the difference.

Make no mistake: There's someone out there for you. He's putting together a team, and he's got a pipeline to the best tournaments. He knows people. He'll have tryouts and he'll tell you what you want to hear. It's expensive, sure, but who can put a price on your kid's future? If he's got a chance to be the best, he needs to play with and against the best, right?

Judging by the direction we're taking preteen youth sports, it appears we have completely lost our minds. Gone crazy -- collectively and individually. It's become something of a hobby for me to read the local sports coverage of the three or four sub-20,000 circulation papers in my area, and I am here to report that the center cannot hold.

The days of simply playing ball with your friends is over. It's a different world out there for the preteen athlete, with "Elite" and "Select" commonly turning up in the names of our youth sports teams and leagues. We're having tryouts for 10-and-under traveling baseball teams, and we've got 10-and-under basketball teams traveling the country playing against other fourth-graders at God knows what cost to the parents' bank accounts and the kids' psyches. All in the name of … what? Trophies? Exposure? A leg up on a college scholarship? The egos of the parents?

The exploits of these kids, which almost always include tournament championships, national rankings from some little-known organization and perspective-free quotes from the coaches, are dutifully and breathlessly reported. If you didn't know any better, you'd think the 9- and 10-year-olds in my neck of the woods are the most remarkable 9- and 10-year-olds anywhere. But then you could probably say the same about yours. You just have to know where to look.

I found a great nugget the other day: a notice for a 10-and-under baseball team that's having tryouts for its extensive fall tournament schedule. The notice included the following sentence: "The team needs competitive youngsters who are looking to play baseball at the next level."

Let's parse that for a moment. Someone needs to explain to me what the "next level" is for a kid who's 10 or younger. I dare you to define it. Is it 11-and-under? Maybe 12-and-under? And if so, are there really 10-year-olds who are striving to play baseball at the 12-and-under level? Wouldn't it just happen naturally -- you know, with age?

The days of simply playing ball with your friends is over. It's a different world out there for the preteen athlete, with "Elite" and "Select" commonly turning up in the names of our youth sports teams and leagues. We're having tryouts for 10-and-under traveling baseball teams, and we've got 10-and-under basketball teams traveling the country playing against other fourth-graders at God knows what cost to the parents' bank accounts and the kids' psyches.

If you think that, you're behind the times. This is the age of the special child. This is the age of the parent who believes his or her kid playing Little League for the neighborhood team is beneath them both. (Despite the talent you see at the Little League World Series, make no mistake: Little League has suffered enormously at the hands of the folks who peddle dreams to the parents of the preteen set. Local independent teams -- most of them touting the supposed benefits of year-round play -- skim top players out of neighborhood Little Leagues.) This is the age of the youth-sports industrial complex, where men make a living putting on tournaments for 7-year-olds, and parents subject their children to tryouts and pay good money for the right to enter into it.

There are palaces built just for the purpose of housing these tournaments. Big League Dreams is a chain of West Coast baseball complexes with multiple diamonds that attempts to replicate different big league ballparks. There's a bunch of 10-year-olds playing in Fenway, the 12s in Yankee Stadium and the 13s in Wrigley Field. (You haven't really lived until you've seen Wrigley's ivy-covered wall painted onto slabs of plywood. There are times you have to pinch yourself.) The fields are spokes that extend from the hub -- an air-conditioned restaurant and bar, where parents can sit inside and watch games away from the infernal heat.

They go through every player's backpack as he enters -- and yes, there's an entrance fee -- to make sure he isn't trying to smuggle in any outside food or drink. PowerBars and Gatorades are confiscated.

There are buzzwords in this business, sure to coax the gullible parent. The big three terms are "elite," "select," and "travel ball." Oh, the power of those words. Waving the prospect of "travel ball" under the nose of the ambitious father of a talented 9-year-old is like wafting a steak under the nose of a sleeping dog. After all, the more you travel and the farther you go to play a sport, the better you must be at that sport, right?

"Travel ball," in this world, is meant as a synonym for "better ball." Parents say, "Oh, he plays travel ball," as a means of separating their kids from the riffraff who don't see fit to spend thousands of dollars to travel all over the place with their 9-year-olds. And if it's "year-round travel ball" -- a red flag across the orthopedic medical community for the dangers of repetitive overuse -- all the better. It's a status symbol, one promoted by parents and justified by the guys who collect tournament fees, and it's the main reason baseball in this country is widely becoming the province of wealthy suburbia.

[+] EnlargeLittle League World Series
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe action and drama was terrific at the Little League World Series game beweeen Georgia and Kentucky. But it's possible the very best young talent isn't playing Little League ball.

Another nugget: A 10-and-under AAU basketball team from my Northern California town got the lead story in the sports section about a week ago. They've won six of seven tournaments, we're told, and they aren't stopping there. The coach is quoted as saying, "I am looking to go to North Carolina and Houston. And there may be a New York tournament."

In the bylined story -- and yes, I remember the days when I had to cover Little League and adult softball (gack) for a local paper -- we are treated to thumbnail descriptions of the team's two best players before we're left with the following walk-off quote from our coach: "Some parents claim they're the best team in [the county]. I must agree with them."

These are 9- and 10-year-olds, which raises a question: What the hell are we doing?

Here's one thing we're doing: We're creating a class of kids who are being labeled with terms such as "elite" and "competitive" and "best of the best." They're being worshipped by their parents and coaches, who keep statistics to post online and send photographs to the local paper. It's organized insanity.

And this is just something to think about, but if there are countless elite and select teams where I live, how elite and select can they be?

We went through a culture shift in American education in which self-esteem became a major focus. Slower kids became "challenged" or "special" as a means of eliminating pejoratives. A lot of good came of it; kids who were branded with demeaning terms found strength in their differences.

Well, the pendulum has sure swung, hasn't it? We're nearing the point in youth sports where we need to stop the "elite" and "select" madness because we're raising a generation with too much self-esteem. They can't handle failure because they've been conditioned to believe they're too good to fail. They're being placed on teams that identify them as better than their peers on the whim of either a parent/coach or a businessman/coach.

We're nearing the point in youth sports where we need to stop the "elite" and "select" madness because we're raising a generation with too much self-esteem. They can't handle failure because they've been conditioned to believe they're too good to fail.

Parents line up to have their kids try out for under-10 fall baseball teams, where tiny kids compete for the right to have their arms trashed by pitching in four different games over two days of a weekend tournament put on by a for-profit organization that gives teams 10 minutes between games to warm up.

There is the allure of better coaching (sometimes true), better gear (nearly always true) and better competition (debatable). Still, is there anything dumber than holding tryouts for 9-year-olds? We're not talking about Little League tryouts, which don't include cuts and are intended to place kids at the appropriate level for their ability. No, we're talking about putting 9- and 10-year-olds through an extensive tryout to keep some and cut others.

And then, five years down the line when Little Johnny decides to trade his bat and glove for a skateboard and a piercing, his parents can scream and yell about the travel ball coach who ruined baseball for their son by taking their money and not playing him. It's an overgeneralization, sure, but the whole operation has a way of surgically extracting the fun out of a sport at an age when fun is all it should be.

Here's what the dream-peddlers don't tell you: Anyone who has spent more than five innings watching 10-year-olds play baseball -- or one half of a basketball game -- knows that athletic ability in a kid that young is directly related to physical maturity. The kid with hair under his arms in sixth grade is going to hit the baseball farther than the prepubescent kid who can't get out of the dugout without tripping over his own feet. It's really not that hard.

When I played youth baseball -- it was called "Fly League" where I grew up -- everyone knew the legend of Buddy Wall. He was the 5-foot-10 guy from the other side of town who struck everyone out, hit mammoth homers and bench-pressed 225 at 12 years old. He was a couple of years older than me, and I lost track of him after Fly League days. Then, when I was 16 and showed up for the first day of practice for a local 16- to 19-year-old team, the coach had all the players introduce themselves. One guy, 5-10 with a full beard, said, "My name's Buddy Wall."

I was stunned. I wanted to yell out, "No! You're not Buddy Wall! Buddy Wall is bigger than life, and you're a backup outfielder on an average summer-league team." But he was Buddy Wall, and he still liked to play baseball even though the rest of the field had caught up with him. Today, Buddy would have been a travel-ball wonder at 9, feted and honored throughout the land. I'm guessing it would have made the inevitable fall to 19-year-old backup summer league outfielder that much harder to take.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," available as well on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Senior writer, ESPN.com