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Travel ball is one of the most popular forms of competitive baseball in the United States, and it is only growing in popularity. It can start as young as six years old and go all the way up to 18.
Travel ball consists of teams that are independent of any amateur league, school, or organization that travel to tournaments locally, regionally, and/or nationally to compete against other travel teams.
As more kids each year are taking advantage of travel ball opportunities, more and more parents are considering travel ball as an option for their child to improve his baseball skills. Before committing to travel ball though, one must weigh the pros and cons.
Travel ball teams are notoriously more competitive than rec league and sometimes even high school teams. Because travel ball teams are able to recruit the best of the best in their city, state, or region, teams are typically more talented.
This allows players to play with peers who share their passion and talents for the game. Also, it gives them the opportunity to play against peers with equal or greater skill than themselves. This allows them to push themselves to become better players.
Players who typically dominate rec leagues and high school games should consider travel ball as an option to play against better competition.
At the youth level, parents sometimes opt to play a full season of travel ball and skip little league altogether. This can be controversial as some believe that doing this is unfair to the community leagues, but it often benefits the player and challenges him to improve.
At the high school level, players often use travel ball to supplement their high school season. They play in the summer and sometimes fall when their high school team is not in season. Very rarely does a high school player opt to only play travel ball.
For players who struggle in little league or high school, travel ball may not be the best option as the competition may be too much for them. Their confidence in their abilities may suffer making it counterproductive.
For any amateur player looking to play with and against better players, travel ball is a great opportunity to do so.
One of the main reasons many high school baseball players with hopes of playing college ball decide to play travel ball outside of their high school seasons is the exposure they may get because of it.
Most of the time, college and high school baseball seasons overlap leaving little time for college recruiters to get out and see players. High school travel ball normally takes place during the summer while colleges are not in season. This gives them more opportunities to be seen.
Also, many high level travel teams have systems in place to afford players the best opportunity to earn interest from college coaches. Many travel coaches have connections with college recruiting coordinators, so they often reach out on their players’ behalf to get them on recruiters’ radars.
More competitive travel teams also play in a lot of tournaments hosted by companies such as Prep Baseball Report and Perfect Game. These are scouting services devoted to helping high school players find colleges and for colleges to find talented prep players.
At these tournaments, players’ stats and measurables are recorded and added to their recruiting profile for college coaches to see. They also sometimes record videos that they share on social media.
Playing travel ball is not the only way to gain exposure in front of college coaches, but it is one of the more effective ways to play in front of recruiting coordinators.
Pro: Relationship Building
Travel ball also has non-baseball-related advantages.
Travel teams are normally made up of players from different areas of a particular city, state, or region. This affords young kids the opportunities to develop friendships with other kids outside of their hometown.
This allows them to broaden their horizons and experience things outside of the perspective of their hometown. Sometimes, players will form lifelong friendships with kids they never would have met outside of travel ball.
Not to mention the relationships that can be formed from a parent’s point of view. Sometimes, the adults of the children on the team can form lifelong friendships that otherwise may have never had a chance to develop.
Pro/Con: Playing Time
Yes, believe it or not, playing time is both a pro and a con when it comes to playing travel ball.
The positive side of it is that playing time is easier to come by in travel ball. Teams are often made up of anywhere between 9-12 kids to ensure that everyone gets enough playing time.
For coaches, it is important to evaluate the talent level of both your team and the players on your team. Ideally, they should all be about equal in talent level with maybe a few outliers who clearly have more talent than the others.
If a team has nine players that are head and shoulders above the talent level of the remaining two or three players, it will be difficult for a coach to get those two or three players in the game therefore leaving an unequal amount of playing time.
Parents let their children play travel ball in hopes that they will develop their skills, and those skills can only be developed through ample playing time. Most of the time, travel ball teams offer players that opportunity.
On the negative side of things, some people believe that this creates a false sense of security in young players. As competition against other teams is increased through travel ball, competition in playing time is decreased.
Some high school coaches feel that their players expect to start every game regardless of their talent level or their work ethic thanks to travel ball. This even leaks into the minds of their parents as well.
When they go from playing on travel teams where playing time is guaranteed to playing for their high school team where the best nine players get to play, they have a much more difficult time accepting a role as a bench player.
To combat this, travel coaches should make both players and parents aware that while their child may be guaranteed playing time on his travel team, that will not be the case in high school. While this may not solve every problem, it may help clear up any misconceptions.
Some travel teams have coaches with lots of playing and coaching experience and take their job as coaches very seriously in helping to develop players’ skill sets.
However, one of the biggest complaints about travel ball is that there is often not enough focus on player development. Coaches just put together lineups and let the kids play.
Sometimes, as is the case in younger levels of travel ball, coaches are parents who may not know as much about the game but are willing to spend time organizing practices and tournaments for the kids.
Also, parent-coaches can sometimes muddy the waters when it comes to playing time. If others feel the coach’s son is getting special treatment, it could cause friction among the team.
Any parent who volunteers his time to coach a travel team should be commended, but he should be prepared for complaints from other parents if his child gets more playing time than other players. It doesn’t always happen, but it is certainly a possibility.
To combat this, some travel teams hire a third party to come in and coach the team. These are often younger coaches who are looking for extra income and ways to get started in coaching.
There are some great travel team coaches out there, but for every good coach, there are many more who struggle.
Probably the biggest complaint about travel ball is the cost to play.
Travel baseball costs on average about $3,700 per year. It is not unusual for parents to pay close to $10,000 for their child to play on a travel team.
Before complaining about the cost, remember that travel teams are not affiliated with any leagues or organizations, so they are on their own when it comes to uniforms, equipment, tournament fees, umpires, coaches (sometimes), hotels, etc.
The typical travel team is not for the family who struggles to pay the bills each month. However, there are travel organizations with sponsorships that pay for most everything for the players. The only downfall is that these teams are typically exclusive to players with elite talent.
Some teams opt for fundraising efforts to charge parents as little as possible for their players to play on a travel team. Either way, parents should expect to fork up some money for their child to play travel ball.
Con: Length of Season
Another criticism about travel ball is the number of games the teams play. Some youth travel ball teams start in early April and play every weekend all the way up until Labor Day weekend.
If a team followed that schedule and played at least three games each weekend, that would be 66 games over five months. Three games is the minimum most teams play in a weekend. It is sometimes as many as six or seven.
This is the reason many kids get burned out on the sport before they even reach high school. They simply play too many games too early in life.
High school summer teams usually don’t start until June because of the high school spring season, but they are notorious for playing anywhere between three and five games per weekend the whole months of June and July and even some of August.
That’s about 8-10 weeks worth of games and can be anywhere from 30-50 games on top of whatever their high school teams played.
Not only can playing that many games lead to early burnout, it also puts young players at a higher risk for injury — especially pitchers.
How does travel ball compare to Little League?
Little League is an organization that was founded in 1939 that operates in more than 80 countries. It is the governing body for many community run youth leagues for ages 6-12. Travel ball is not an organization itself. Tournaments are run by individuals or groups that are not tied to Little League at all.
Travel ball is typically viewed as more competitive than Little League as teams are not restricted to playing against their local competition. Also, travel ball begins at age six and can be played all the way up until age 18.
How do I choose a travel ball team?
When choosing a travel ball team, players and parents should have in mind what it is they hope to get out of playing travel ball. Then, they should take that list and try to find a team that can provide them those opportunities.
Some teams require players to try out for their team while others simply use word of mouth recommendations from people they trust when finding the players that are fit for their team.
What age should I start a travel team?
Travel teams can start as early as six years old and go all the way up to 18 years old. Six is pretty young to start playing on travel teams, but many people do it.
Instead of using age as a determining factor for starting travel, ask this question: “Am I serious about baseball, and am I ready to take my game to the next level?” If the answer to both of those questions is yes, then it may be time to look for a travel team.
When should I leave a travel team?
Leaving a travel team is something that should be avoided because players do not want to get a reputation for jumping from team to team.
However, there are times when it is necessary. If the team is not providing a player with the opportunities to get better, it may be time to leave that team. It is also best not to leave the team in the middle of the season as that leaves them in a bind trying to fill the vacant spot.