The Challenge of Challenge Teams

When Chaz was only 2, he could hit a pitched baseball. He never did use a tee. Before he was 5, he could remember baseball plays and his parents recognized an “extraordinary talent.”

“He just knew instinctively what to do in any situation in baseball,” said Alison McCue, Chaz’s mom.

Chaz began playing baseball at higher and higher levels. His father quit his job to coach Chaz’s baseball fulltime, and the family was spending weeknights at practices and every weekend at a youth baseball games and tournaments. When he was 11, the McCues spent $36,000 on expenses for his travel baseball team, including helping other team families who couldn’t always afford the travel costs.

When Hannah was entering third grade, she tried out for a challenge soccer team.

“We thought it would be great,” said Joanne Walsh, Hannah’s mom. Hannah was required to attend two 90-minute practices a week and games every weekend.

The time commitment was difficult. Walsh and her husband work fulltime. And they had a 1-year-old, not even sleeping through the night. Weekend games meant no slumber parties for Hannah because she needed a good night’s sleep before games. Everyone had to make sacrifices. The family’s schedule soon revolved around Hannah’s soccer.

Walsh said one of the hardest times was the team’s out-of-town trip to Greensboro, where Hannah played about half a game out of three games. Joanne was frustrated, but they had committed to the full season. At that tournament they encountered highly-competitive teams of third-grade girls, some wearing black make-up smudged under their eyes for games on a cloudy day and others who Walsh said “played dirty.

“It was pretty aggressive,” Walsh said.

At the end of the year, Hannah had enough of soccer and quit the sport. Now in sixth grade, Hannah plays on a recreational soccer team and plays basketball and swims.

Do You Have What It Takes?

More and more children are specializing in one sports as early as age 5, moving onto travel, challenge and all-star teams that require increasing amounts of time and thousands of dollars as children get older. Critics say this intense play can lead to injuries, burnout and major sacrifices for families, while others say children love the sport and families enjoy the camaraderie of the teams.

Parents who believe their children have athletic talent are faced with difficult choices of if, how and when to step up their child’s sports involvement. Joining a “select team,” which usually involves tryouts and a higher level of play than recreational leagues, can take a toll on a family.

“You have to be completely dedicated to baseball,” said Alison McCue, who lives in South Charlotte. “Your child cannot survive in this world if you’re doing it halfway.”

“You have to think about how you’re going to juggle your life,” McCue said.

.Avoiding Burnout and Dodging Injury

Dennis Johnson, associate professor of sports sciences at Wingate University, said children should play multiple sports when they are young.

For centuries, he said, sports were intended for adults. “Kids played. They didn’t do sports,” Johnson said. “Now, you have adults running sports and making kids play it like an adult game.”

Playing multiple sports can help children develop different muscles, as well as avoid burnout. Area coaches say they’ve seen boys whose pitching arms are ruined and young soccer players unable to return to the sport after knee injuries. Johnson recommends that children not play one sport intensely until they are teenagers.

Johnson said kids play sports because they are fun, and they quit when it’s not fun. He’s seen plenty of parents trying to live vicariously through their children’s athletic careers, pushing them to play harder and better. When parents offer more critiques than unconditional support regardless of a child’s performance, it can hurt a child’s psyche and lead to them hating the sport.

“You need to be careful that your child doesn’t perceive that your love for them is tied up in their sports performance,” Johnson said.

Brad Francis, one of Charlotte Soccer Club’s directors of coaching, works with parents and coaches to make sure they don’t overdo it. Bad coaches can ruin a season even for the most devoted players. “As long as (the kids) are enjoying it and the coach is letting them enjoy it, the kids are not going to burn out.”

Identifying an All Star
But what do you do if you have a true athletic talent on your hands?

Area clubs and leagues offer many levels of play. Francis says parents should first make sure their child truly enjoys the sport. A good test? Ask your child to practice on his or her own, such as kicking a soccer ball around in the backyard.

“If your kid is willing to do that, then you’ve got something,” Francis said. “If it’s a kid who cannot take a ball off their foot, that’s the kid who’s going to do pretty well.”

Francis said those are the players who should consider travel teams, which draw college recruiters and college scholarships.

Chaz McCue, now 17, is one of those talented kids that loves to play ball. “He never had anything else he wanted to do,” Alison McCue said. “We told him he could end it at any time. We would never have supported this or pushed it if he had not been so talented.”

Though Chaz’s sports story took a tragic turn when he suffered a brain injury in a car accident at age 15, he still loves baseball and hopes to one day coach and teach.

The drop-out rate for select teams increases as children get older. Children develop other interests, get burned out or injured or their families can’t keep up the sacrifices.

But Steve Lingo, whose 12-year-old daughter plays on a classic team for South Charlotte Soccer Association, said his family doesn’t mind the commitment — even though they canceled Thanksgiving plans to accompany their daughter to a tournament in Orlando last year.

“It gives us a lot of opportunity to spend time together, so it doesn’t feel like a big commitment,” Lingo said. “Some of our closest friends here in Charlotte are the other soccer parents, and our daughter’s closest friends are often the girls she plays soccer with.”

The classic team, which requires two weekday practices, weekend games and travel, has taught his daughter advanced soccer skills and given the family opportunity to visit cities around the Southeast.

“I think (select teams are) OK if it’s something they really love and as long as they continue to develop in other areas of their lives such as academics and have strong family relationships and a good spiritual foundation,” Lingo said. “If people lose sight of the fact that we’re trying to develop young people, then it could be a problem–on any level of the sport.”

Prevent Try Outs from Becoming Burn Out
Should your child try out for a select team? Advice from area parents and coaches:

• Clearly understand the sacrifice required of the whole family. Some teams charge dues upward of $1,500 annually, and weekend travel costs include gas, food, hotels, tournament fees and concessions. Practices and local travel can take eight to nine hours weekly.
• Talk to other parents about coaches and clubs to make sure a team is a good fit for your child.
• Don’t overestimate your child’s athletic abilities, and make sure the level of play matches your child’s love for the sport.
• Consider having your child play a few seasons in a recreational league first.
• Explain to your child specifically what he or she will have to give up to play on a team.

Marty Minchin is a freelance writer and mother of two based in Charlotte.