Youth Sports Theft in America

Explore the theft of youth sports in America: rise of travel teams, high costs, and detrimental effects. Discover solutions.

The Greatest Theft in America is Youth Sports

We typically think of theft as an underground shady operation by bad guys looking to rob a bank, steal corporate secrets, or steal gold, like Mark Walberg in “The Italian Job.”

The definition of Theft is “The action or crime of stealing.” It’s typically viewed as insidious. We go to great lengths to protect our homes, vehicles, and money against criminal acts of theft- AND we would never consider participating in an unlawful act of theft. But we’ve become complicit in stealing something so pure and close to our hearts- our kids' youth sports.

Yes, that’s correct! We’ve allowed the very thing we hold near and dear to us to be hijacked by unsuspecting wrong-doers and participated in the act.

We allowed youth sports to be hijacked right from under our noses and helped it happen.

Recreational sports have been a staple of American youth sports for as long as they’ve existed. Recreational sports range from hobbies to highly competitive sports. They are reliable, trusting, and foundational. Recreational sports are for kids and adults of all ages. They are affordable, effective, and fun.

Today, it is reported that as high as 70% of kids have dropped out of sports by age 13. A host of other stats show a depressing number of declines in youth sports participation. It’s an epidemic throughout America and won’t stop unless changes are made.

Enter Travel Sports

Many decades ago, an idea was born to bring together a region's top players in high school to form a highly competitive team. The goal was for these high-level teams to travel to other areas of a state or tri-state and compete against their top players. 

high school age girls playing aau basketball

This idea created a competitive hierarchy in high school regional sports. To make the team, a player had to be invited or try out and make the team. If they didn’t make the team, they returned home, worked on their game, played competitive recreation ball, and played in adult open runs versus college and ex-college players. In other words, they worked to improve and tried to make the team next year.

While this small sector of youth sports was occurring, the overwhelming majority of youth sport athletes played recreationally, went to summer camps, played other sports, and worked on their games.

The cost and investment into youth sports were perfect. It was a low financial investment- yet a young athlete could get everything they needed to stay involved, improve, and be inspired to achieve more if they wanted it.

A Bad Trend Occurred

In life, there are levels. Not all of us have elite athletic ability, high-level talent, or that” it-factor” to become an area, region, and country elite player in sports, and that’s perfectly okay. We reach our potential and make the very best of it.

But this wasn’t good enough for the “travel-dad”. The travel dad is the parent who can’t accept the way things are and must make his team so his son can “feel special” and play on an “elite-travel team” even though the team is anything but elite. This led to many dads doing the same thing for their ill-equipped kids.

Then it happened…

Recreational Youth Sports Value Changed

The most unbelievable transformation in youth sports common sense history occurred. We’d all like to think we have a baseline of intelligence and can reason fairly well. However, what has happened is hard to reason.

The exact population of youth recreation players (low to average skill level) whose parents spent $50 bucks for their kids to play in well-organized recreation leagues has NOW jumped into the world of travel sports. This same low-to-average skilled 12-year-old group of kids are now playing on teams that cost $500 to $1500 just to be on a travel team and pound their chest.

ARE YOU READING THIS? The same low to average skill level players whose parents paid $50 to play well-organized and appropriate youth recreational sports are now paying $500 to $1500 to play against the same kids they would play in the 8-week recreation league. This is like saying, “No, I don’t want to pay $50 for the same sneakers- I’d RATHER PAY $275 FOR THEM”. Good lord, have we lost our marbles as parents?

The Sad Truth

We are seeing parents pay for horrible physical education basketball. I know, I was a PE teacher for years. Kids with low skill, understanding, and experience- and I’m not picking on them- are at the stage they should be. Parents are not only paying hefty amounts to get them on a team; they are okay with paying $20 per parent to watch them play. They could have watched them play for free at the local recreational program. No, really! I’m not making this up.

A Lost Great American Tradition

Another great American tradition has been all but lost. Youth recreation was a birthright of young American kids. Millions and millions of young kids could dip their toes in youth sports through recreational sports. This same recreational program offered a progression of increasing competition and talent levels over the years. During the summer or off-season, many high school players would join recreational teams and have a blast competing against their friends. Today, these same high school players joke and ridicule anyone who plays recreational sports- they think it’s beneath them.

recreation basketball coach instructing recreation player

The truth is that parents have allowed their kids to be entitled. They sign them up for a travel team and enable them to play in an incredibly broken model of youth sports. It’s shocking. These kids brag about their upcoming weekend tournament across state lines, with them playing six games in two days. Six games in two days. One more time, six games in two days. Why would anyone think that is good for a player's health and development?

The tradition was playing with your school team in the summer or rec league GAME. GAME, not games. Kids played hard for one game. I’m not opposed to a team playing two games in a day with rest between games, but anything beyond that is unsafe and unproductive.

Corrupt Model of 6-8 Tournament Games

AAU organizers are clever. They know the American mindset. It’s all about More is Better. More food, big gups, and games must equal BETTER. Wrong! It’s bad in all cases.

Players who play over 1-2 games at a high level cannot fully recover their energy system. Because of this, they cannot play at high intensities in additional games. They cannot protect themselves when cutting, landing, and changing directions hard once fatigued. They cannot perform quick and aggressive skills due to mental and physical fatigue and loss of timing issues.

The result is sloppy, undisciplined habits being developed. Who wants to pay $20 to watch games 3, 4, 5, or 6 when we know this is the result?

Organizers and coaches of youth travel sports know YOU, as PARENTS, don’t understand this. They are banking on the fact that you don’t understand this and will buy into their rhetoric of “the value of travel sports.” They know it’s wrong. They know it's dangerous and understand it’s not helping 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15-year-olds and many players older than that. They also know their bank account grows when they get you to sign up.

Recruiting Angle Scheme

Travel team organizers and coaches are notorious for selling parents and players on the “Exposure” aspect of playing travel ball. Almost all guarantee they will get recruited if a player joins travel sports. An intelligent, well-grounded parent would see right through this and realize it’s a hoax because there are not many 10, 11, 12, and 13-year-olds being looked at by colleges. Even if they were, nothing could happen until these players are officially seniors. Remember this: Exposure is a two-sided window. More players get EXPOSED for lacking skill, effort, coachability, and college-level talent than get positive reviews. College coaches can’t risk their jobs on your child who hasn’t developed a strong game yet.

There are percentages anywhere from 2% to 5% of high school players who earn scholarships to play college sports. Now let’s put this in some context of what is happening:

  1. College programs have 4-year levels of players- meaning they have freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and first-year seniors (meaning some have an additional year if they want it). So, if a program has 1-4 seniors on their team and they graduate, 1-4 potential spots are available- potentially!!

  2. College programs don’t always make recruiting high school players their #1 priority. They are going after experienced college players in the transfer portal because they don’t have to deal with freshmen who don’t have experience. They are also looking for straight transfers who move directly from their current school to another- not entering the transfer portal.

  3. Most college coaches of sports like VB, basketball, tennis, track, soccer, swimming, hockey, etc… are recruiting players from Europe, South America, Canada, Asia, Australia, and other countries, continents, and regions worldwide. This means those 1-4 spots you are looking to get a scholarship in not only have hundreds of thousands of athletes in the US but millions of potential athletes from around the world vying for the same scholarship.

Youth Sports Are Not College Sports

One of my biggest pet peeves is how we make youth sports a stepping stone for college sports. By taking this stance, we immediately remove a large percentage of kids from the equation of youth sports. Parents, youth coaches, and travel sports organizations constantly talk about getting to the next level, earning a scholarship, and being recruited. What happened to being the best high school player you can be and enjoying youth sports for what they are—a great experience?

Very few kids will do college athletics, and very few are interested in playing in college. They want to enjoy playing at the level they are at. And here’s the thing. Typically, it's the happy-go-lucky kids who play for fun and enjoy the process of playing high school sports that often accel. They could relax and just be the best athletes and players because they didn’t follow the model of playing high school sports to be recruited. These kids also have something super important in the developing process. They must be a normal kid and have a life outside of sports. They went to sleepovers rather than staying in a hotel at a travel sports event every weekend. They enjoyed the beach with family and friends instead of traveling to play six-plus games 3-4 weekends every month. They are healthy and not physically or mentally beat up because of playing so many games in 1 to 2 days. They benefit and end up better players than those force-fed the game.

A Depressed State

As a parent and coach of youth sports, I am shocked how many adults can’t see the damage youth travel sports are causing so many innocent kids who just want to play. The “jam-it down the throat” mentality of always having to play travel sports, go to exposure events, and drive an hour to a 2-hour practice after a school practice is causing the dark side to creep in. These kids are developing anxiety and depression at a young age all because adults are making every youth sporting decision for them. Imagine that! Parents tell kids what youth sports they can and cannot play; what has happened?

We’re Not Equal in Sports

It’s acceptable to be less talented in sports than your peers. Most kids are OK with it- the parents can’t accept their kid isn’t as good as the neighbor's kid. It grinds on them. So what do they do? They push their kid to be something they are not, and most likely something they don’t want to be.

Adults Take Over Youth Sports

The issue of youth sports and the dysfunction of youth sports can be summarized in one word- ADULTS! Adults have gone above and beyond to make youth sports about them. They have taken the recreational model, turned it into a travel sports model, and controlled every aspect. Kids used to meet at the park to play, and now they meet in the car to drive for hours to play for adults. Adults make money off kids playing youth sports, adults get trophies off kids winning adult-led tournaments, adults choose when and where kids will play, and adults pick which kids get to play. I’m not saying adults shouldn’t be influenced to open gyms, start recreational leagues, and help develop players; however, it’s gotten so it’s all about what adults want. The problem is that so many adults running things are unqualified to run youth development programs, especially as coaches.

It Comes Down to What We Will Stand For

We have a poor educational system in America because we stand for it. We have lousy nutrition in schools and homes because we stand for it. We have abusive coaches running youth programs because we stand for it. If we as a nation of parents stand up and use this powerful word- “NO” we can start to make change. Remember this. Travel sports teams are only formed by parents saying yes. When they start saying NO, teams will no longer be formed. Once NO is said enough, those in power must listen.

high school boy making a jumpshot during a basketball game

At this point, parents can list what they want:

  1. Low-cost fun sports program for developing kids.

  2. Low travel sporting events in communities.

  3. 6-8 week leagues with more practice than games. And one game per day.

  4. More 3on3 events to help kids develop.

  5. Environments where learning how to play, how to make decisions, how to understand tactics, and how to progress skills.

The above is just a short list of things we must demand in youth sports. Travel sports have a place, but they’re not for everyone. Their model also needs to be revamped to be safe and healthy for players.

We have hijacked the Youth Sports Experience. We know where it is, though. We can take it back. We just must let go of the notion travel sports are the end-all-be-all. We must get a plan together and take action. Take action to regain youth sports and allow all kids to have an experience at their current level they can enjoy and carry on for a lifetime.

Solutions For the Greater Good of Youth Sports

Travel sports aren’t wrong- they are poorly managed and run by the wrong people. In most countries, youth coaches of any level must be qualified and certified. They must understand the foundations of coaching, writing a practice plan, progressing and regressing drills, basic offensive and defensive concepts, movement training, and proper warm-up protocols. In the US- any Tom, Dick, or Harry with a whistle can coach. And now you see the problem with the US travel sports system.

There are solutions to make travel sports a viable option for those who want it. It’s not for everyone.

Recreation leagues should still be the #1 option for most youth sports athletes. We need to bring it back to prominence.

Below are a few examples of travel basketball. Travel basketball is a big culprit in abusing youth sports culture, but this model can work for any sport.

high school boys playing intersqaud basketball game
  1. Have a mindset of improvement, development, and the process over winning. Teaching kids how to compete and win is essential, but it must be within the context of getting better. The problem is that moms and dads who coach youth teams stockpile all the best players onto their teams and crush all opponents. This approach helps absolutely no one!

  2. Establish a league of roughly 4-8 weeks where all the travel teams in a region can compete on specific days of the week (kind of sounds like recreation leagues, right- wink, wink!). Organizing leagues puts order in the process of games. Teams can be matched appropriately with other teams of similar skill sets or abilities. Teams can play one, possibly two, games per day. There would be no issues having two days per week of games if you’d like. Maybe a Tuesday and Thursday schedule. But I’d limit it to one game per night so the kids can give 100% effort per game.

  3. Keep travel to a minimum. A region should have a 1-2-hour radius max. This way, families don’t drive 4-6 hours to a tournament. Keep it simple and easy to get involved with.

  4. Cost. Work hard to get schools to allow you to use their gym(s); the school receives 100% of all money. The school athletic budget gets all money from team entry fees, admission into game fees, and concession fees. This way, it benefits everyone involved. Your goal is to have your kids play safe and fun basketball while the schools need to keep their athletic budget growing.

  5. Register your teams into 3on3 events. It’s the most developmental way for young kids to become better decision-makers, learn how to play in open space, attack defenders, AND defend in open space. It gets more kids touching the ball more often. It only takes half a court, and you can have multiple games going on at the same time. It’s a big rock strategy to improve youth basketball for the greater good!

  6. Try to invite other travel teams to your practice and run an amazing scrimmage model! Warm up with both teams getting ten offensive plays in the half-court, then switch. This approach allows coaches to teach specifics and the players to learn spacing, help rotations, and how to move on the court. Next, open it up to full court and have a special emphasis each quarter. It's also great to run special situations where the kids learn to compete to win- meaning, run situations where your team has the ball with 2 minutes to go, and you are down by 7 points. Then run a situation where your opponent has the ball, and you are down by 3 points with 30 seconds on the clock, no timeouts for either team, and both teams are in the bonus. It's the same scenario, but your team doesn’t have many fouls, so you have to foul quickly to get them to shoot foul shots. Make up several different fun scenarios. The players love this!

  7. There are many other fun ways to make travel ball appropriate, not expensive, low travel, and developmental. But it is vital to STOP making travel ball about being recruited and playing in college. Just play basketball for the great sport it is. The next level of college or professional sports will happen if a player is good enough to play and, more importantly, wants to. Let kids be kids, let youth basketball be youth basketball, and grow the greater good of youth sports.

Final Words, But Certainly NOT The Last Word…

We’ve been looking at smoke and mirrors regarding youth sports and the travel sports debacle. We see the top 1% of players in the country talk on TV and social media or read their words in an article. They speak about how their travel team allowed college coaches to see them, and we jump in with both feet; NEVER ask questions about how deep it is before we jump. The lack of not diving deeper by asking questions is why so many are hurt by travel sports. We listen to the wrong people.

The top 1% can go anywhere they want. Colleges are after them because they are dominant in their high school programs. The top players are seen regardless of whether they play travel. Stop thinking that it must be the only way because Bronny, JuJu, and Cooper play travel. It’s not! Even these players realize it often is too much.

Youth sports are and always will be in the developmental stage. A low-skilled player playing on a travel team is like a low-functioning academic student being put in the highest honors class just because the top students are.

Play your age and ability. Use recreation as a training tool to better your skills and grow your passion for the game if you choose travel teams. Play for teams that don’t charge much, play only one-day tourneys and a max of 2-games, have a huge priority on development, small-sided decision-making games, and 3on3. This will give your youth experience back the way it was supposed to be and how it was ALWAYS meant to be.

Give the Game Back

My mission is to help players develop and improve their love of the game and to ensure that families attend events in a calm setting rather than an angry one.

We have lost our end goal and allowed organizers to travel the field to make us do things we know are wrong for your youth.

We have the final say - not them.

I created The Basketball Game Model to show parents and coaches that they don't have to spend thousands of dollars to give our youth a great basketball experience. If we allow the process to work as it is supposed to, our youth will develop much quicker, much safer, and reach a level of basketball understanding at a much higher rate.

The entire premise around this model has the developmental process of our youth in mind.

And more importantly, GIVING THE GAME BACK TO OUR YOUTH!

Let's make this happen,

Coach Taft

Categories: : aau basketball, youth basketball