Do youth travel sports teams create better athletes?

(WTNH) — For 12-year-old Sara Andreesen, soccer is a passion; and one that keeps her on the field for hours during the week.

“I play, well my practices are twice a week, Monday and Wednesday, and then I usually have a game on Sunday and Saturday, sometimes two games,” Andreesen said.

Sara is one of thousands of young athletes that play on elite and travel sports teams. They emphasize top-of-the-line coaching, skills training, and competitive games against other highly motivated kids from around the state and region.

Nicole Andreesen, Sara’s mother, played soccer on both the high school and college level. Now, she coaches young players. She can’t say enough great things about what being on an elite team has meant to her daughter on and off the field.

The advantages are definitely the coaching that she has access to, the facility tht she has access to and it just really builds her confidence.”

In terms of kids sports, things have changed since the days I was playing Little League Baseball. Recreational leagues and school teams welcomed all skill levels, with little or no cost to parents; but the cost to play with the best has taken an seismic shift in recent years.

Don Westfall is the General Manager of the Connecticut Sportsplex in North Branford. He said the costs can add up quickly.

“There’s a baseline, where let’s say you join a program, and you spend, say three thousand dollars. If that program does more traveling, then that gets added on. The hotel costs, whether its we’re going to join this tournament, everybody has to put in something to join this extra tournament that wasn’t budgeted for, and those kind of things.”

The Sportsplex is a popular spot for high level teams to practice, play games, and compete in tournaments. Westfall says both parents and kids have major league dreams.

They’ve got the gear, they want to be in the big leagues, and a lot of these programs are touring the ex-professional players, ex-college coaches; so parents expectation is that they’re getting a bigger, higher quality experience.”

But how much is too much when it comes to kids playing in these ultra competitive leagues at these early ages, and is it really producing, with all of this intensive training, a better quality of player in the long run? Yes, according to Quinnipiac University Women’s Basketball Coach Tricia Fabbri.

“We are seeing a higher level athlete and skilled player, because more women have started playing at a younger age; so they have developed their skills that they have gone though and trained at a higher level.”

But Dave Clarke, who coaches the Quinnipiac Women’s Soccer Team, has concerns about kids as young as seven devoting all of their free time to just one sport.

“You just see from a sports perspective that they don’t need to travel. They don’t need to play all the time. They need to do other things.”

For some parents, the gold at the end of the rainbow is a college scholarship, or maybe even a big money pro contract someday; but coach Clarke says, those are longshots even for kids with the most talent.

“The parents don’t understand that because they’re prisoners to their own experience; so they don’t see in a year’s time that there will be a better player than their daughter. Someone who will be faster, someone who will be stronger, and in two or three years time, down the road it changes again.”

Back on the practice field, mom Nicole has a much more realistic view on things, and just wants Sara to keep having a great time.

“I think that when they’re playing in these type of environments, where they are forced to perform at a certain level, and you are learning to interact with teammates, you’re dealing with adversity. You are dealing with different personalities. These are life lessons.”

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