The arena is a Mecca for sports, with 130,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor fields, practice areas, a track, locker rooms, a café, and a retail store. “Our goal is to provide an environment that entices players to work hard and compete to the best of their ability,” DiTommaso says. “The travel team concept attracts established and educated coaches crucial to the development of young players. Success is achieved through the dedication of the player to grow as both an individual and a team member.”
Todd Hill, a former player with New Haven Youth Soccer who has served as a coach since 2002, says the organization’s programs have grown in recent years as families look for a balance between competitive and recreational sports. Today, the group offers a recreational league, a middle school league, and a travel league. “We have many programs that address the ever-changing landscape of youth soccer in our community. We see soccer as a means to a healthier person. The sport part is important, but we look to also build the overall health of the child.”
Tatiana O’Connor, an official with New Haven Youth Soccer, has seen growth in younger age groups, U-10 and U-12, particularly with the boys. “Parents of kids at this age level are ready to make the commitment of bringing their players to away games to play against other towns. With travel, you get to see other talented players with different levels of skill.”
Jennifer Labrie, president of Norwich-based Connecticut Storm Girls Basketball, says players in that nonprofit club’s basketball program – especially those in older age groups – are looking to play in college.
“They are playing with the best in their area and against the best from all over the country. College scouts attend their games and recruit players that would be a good match for their college programs,” Labrie explains. “Our graduating teams from the last two years have 11 players currently playing in college and even one playing professionally. For tournaments on the weekends, older players travel all over the place.” Younger grades compete mostly locally.
Connecticut’s annual AAU boys’ and girls’ basketball tournaments currently draw more than 140 teams from around the state, with teams playing at various high schools in the spring of each year.
This year, male and female players will try to out-dribble, out-pass and out-dunk opponents at tourneys in New Haven, Woodbridge, Trumbull, Waterford, Canton, Bristol and Harwinton. But they will also travel beyond state borders to attend competitions in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
The price of participation
The word “travel,” when applied to youth sports teams, can run the gamut, from teams sponsored by individual towns and organizations to those fielded by private or semi-private facilities. The cost to play can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars a year.
The Farmington Soccer Club prides itself on being one of the lowest-cost travel programs in the state. It raises money from hosting a tournament over Labor Day weekend, which helps defray some of the cost of playing. Also, coaches and managers are volunteers, and that helps keep expenses low. “Playing soccer in Farmington is extremely affordable for any family and if they qualify, we also provide financial assistance,” says Ratcliffe.
NHYS charges $325 per player for travel teams in the fall and spring and offers financial aid. Says Hill, “The cost is fair and includes the player’s uniforms, one home and one away jersey. New Haven Youth Soccer is an absolute steal with its travel costs. The club uses a sliding scale, so the U10s will pay less than the U12 to U19s. Based on age and ability, the costs are reasonable.”
Labrie explains that playing for the Storm “is fairly expensive” due to the cost of tournaments, gym space rental fees, as well as travel to tournaments. “However, we do understand that cost may be an issue for some families, so the Storm never turns a player away due to financials. We always work with our families to make sure the athlete can play.”
Fees for intensive travel programs at the Connecticut Baseball Academy range from $500 to $2,000 per player for fall teams, while for the spring/summer season the rates are $1,950 to $3,500 per player. The spring and summer travel fees entitle players to participate in 35 to 65 games, depending upon the age bracket, and around a half dozen tournaments.
For the money, especially at the high end of the spectrum, parents and youngsters expect results.
“Our goal with The Storm is to promote the full individual,” says Labrie. “On the basketball end, we are looking at a full scope and sequence of the game, and each coach is trained on what skill set their players need before they move on to the next grade level. As coaches are passing off players, the next grade level coach knows exactly what the players have learned, and can build on those skills. The goal is that by the time they reach high school, they have a full skill set to play at a high competitive level. We also promote the individual off the court. We talk to our players about grades and making sure they are focused in school.”
Nicholson, a baseball coach who has taught and played at all levels of the game, including as a former 4-year Division I pitcher at Siena College, addresses both the mental and physical aspects of pitching with his students. Speaking both as a parent and as a professional pitching coach, he says youth travel teams – and all they encompass – should be for children and teens who are mentally, emotionally and physically ready to handle “everything that goes into traveling and playing on the road.” He adds, “Just because the parent has a good checkbook doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for the young kid.”
Kennedy says in order to avoid burnout in one particular sport, the Connecticut Baseball Academy “encourages kids to play all sports, not just concentrate on baseball, although some do.”
DiTommaso agrees that “too much of anything can have negative effects on the mental, physical and emotional well-being of individuals. That’s why we have focused on developing programs to continue to challenge our players while avoiding the burnout phenomenon that often occurs in youth sports. We strive to find the balance between motivating and pushing players to be the best they can be, without turning them off to the sport they love.”
Today, youth travel teams are exposing boys and girls to better competition, college coaches and pro scouts, and places in the country only dreamed about when “travel” meant simply walking down to a neighborhood field or playground for a game of pickup ball.
John Torsiello is an independent writer and editor. A resident of Torrington, he writes extensively about sports, business, and general interest topics.