Travel Soccer Is Every Parent’s Nightmare

Faraway games, sacrificed weekends, agressive parents—there’s not too much good to say about travel soccer. So why are we schlepping our kids all over creation to play it?

Travel soccer in the Philadelphia suburbs is a nightmare.

We aren’t signing our eight-year-old daughter up for travel soccer.

At least, I’m pretty sure we aren’t. Like, 96.3 percent sure.

Maybe.

My husband and I have only been debating this decision for a year, which is more time than it took us to decide whether to have a third child. The trouble is, last fall, we also didn’t sign Blair up for travel soccer. And then all of her BFFs’ parents signed up all of her BFFs, and they all made the team, and they talked all season long about how much they loooooved travel soccer. In the spring, when our town sent out an announcement about this year’s tryouts, the prodding began. Not from Blair, but other parents: “You should sign her up. She’ll love it.” We know they’re right.

So does Blair. When I ask her if she wants to do it, she says, “Okay.” Of course, she says “okay” to just about anything. She’s cool like that. “Do you want to hunt for snakes?” “Okay!” “Do you want to get sealants at the dentist?” “Okay!” It would seem, then, that travel soccer should be a done deal.

If only it didn’t suck so much.

Having a kid on a travel soccer team requires only slightly less time in a year than it took to build that same child in the womb. All fall, the parents of a travel soccer player must bring said child to two soccer practices during the week, which generally start at dinnertime and can last up to two hours; on weekends, those same parents must transport said child to games that can be hours away, or to tournaments that can be hours away and involve multiple days. And it doesn’t end, either. In the spring, there are mini-leagues and skills sessions and more practices (which adds to the sticker shock of it all, what with the uniforms, gas, fees, pairs of cleats they outgrow monthly … ). With both my husband and me working full-time, and three kids (Blair’s younger sisters are six and two—two!), I barely have time to type this schedule into iCal, much less make it happen in real life.

Sandra in Malvern does it. Her two daughters, both in elementary school, play on travel soccer teams in Lower Merion. Different teams. At different times. In different places. They could play in a league in their hometown, but, explains Sandra, “It just isn’t good enough.”

Apparently, everyone’s doing this, everywhere—Lower Merion, Cherry Hill, New Hope—since colleges are now scouting more and more of these travel teams. So for a kid to have a smidgen of a chance at a scholarship 10 years from now, travel soccer is basically required. The better the travel team, the better your odds. Which may explain why parents are literally going the distance for them.

Still, “The kid has to really want it,” Sandra tells me, though I’m not sure what “it” is that a third-grader would know she “really wants.” To get a soccer scholarship? To drive semi-weekly to Gladwyne? Regardless, if this is what our family life will look like if we have a travel soccer player under our roof (or two travel soccer players, or, sweet Lord in heaven, three), then that’s it. We have to pass. No travel for us. One hundred percent no. Blair can continue to play on our town’s co-ed rec team (a.k.a. “Easy Soccer”), free of the Three T’s—tryouts, traveling and tournaments. If she decides she “really wants” to travel later, we’ll switch then.

Upon hearing my rationale, Sandra is incredulous: “You can’t just suddenly decide when you’re 13 that you want to play travel! You’ll be trying out against kids who’ve been playing hard-core competitive soccer since they were seven! You won’t be able to compete. You have to start young. You have to!”

And suddenly I feel it—that buzz in the back of my throat. I’m pretty sure it emanates from a gland that forms when you become a mother, a special little glob of cray-cray with the sole responsibility of alerting you when you might be doing the one thing no parent ever wants to do—making the wrong decision for your kid.

And this decision is even bigger than I already thought it was. Way bigger. Like, “might alter the course of Blair’s life” bigger. If Blair ends up leaning toward handcrafting bassoons as her life’s passion, we have options to direct her to perfect that skill down the line. But what if it turns out to be soccer? And her parents—too focused on the selfish need they have to, basically, spend less time in a minivan—decided not to sign her up for her only chance at glory?

So.

We are signing up our eight-year-old daughter for travel soccer.

I think.

“Aren’t you being a little dramatic?” asks my PTA friend Molly while we sip shandys at a friend’s birthday party, after I explain why we flip-flopped. I actually can’t remember a conversation I’ve had with a fellow parent over the past year that didn’t involve the words “travel,” “soccer” and “hate.” I’m not the only person bringing this up.

At the Shore, another friend mentions that she and her old college roommate have been having weekly pro-and-con travel soccer deliberations for six months. My old colleague Brooke has a two-year-old daughter and is already worried about what she’s going to do. She herself was in travel soccer, and “I was gone all the time. Do I tell her no because I don’t feel like losing my weekends driving all over the state?” Another pal, Sylvia, has a son who’s barely one: “I don’t know what this even is and I already fear it.”

A year ago, I didn’t know what it was, either. Way back when I was a third-­grader, there was “nothing like this,” my mother assures me. I remember kids in my high school playing on outside-of-school leagues in the winter, or at least I assumed they did, because why else would they wear indoor soccer shoes all … the … time? But with the push to make sure your kids are ah-may-zing at something (or eight things), club teams started to grow. Now, they’ve taken over the landscape, like Wawas. This fall, the Lower Merion Soccer Club (because there is, of course, a Lower Merion Soccer Club) is fielding 49 travel teams for kids up to age 15. Forty-nine.

And the truth is that PTA Molly has been obsessing, too, fretting that skipping travel might cheat her third-grader out of lettering in high school. But she’s decided not to sign him up. Because she asked him if he wanted to play travel. And he said, “No.” (“Thank God,” she says.) I wonder to myself if her “dramatic” remark contains a little dose of Oh no! Should I make him do it anyway? Am I enabling the ruin of his life? I realize immediately that, no, her subtext is more along the lines of You are a total psycho. “These kids are eight,” she adds, pausing between the words as if my ability to comprehend obvious facts has suddenly come into question.

Molly isn’t the only one who thinks that deciding to “do travel,” which seems to be the proper terminology, means I must be losing it.

“Getting a dog, getting a second job and having a fourth child would be less of a commitment,” advises Anne.

“We’ve got two in travel, and I’m miserable,” admits Pamela.

“My neighbor’s kids do travel, and they are never, ever home. Ever,” warns Sam.
It takes my high-school friend Lisa to sum up the general consensus very pointedly: “No.” And just in case I didn’t quite get her meaning, she adds: “No. No. No.”

Since I generally believe other parents are much smarter than I am, I begin to waver. Again. It doesn’t help that I see an article on Yahoo about an altercation that broke out at the end of the school year at an under-14 soccer game in Ontario. There were 30 people involved … all of them parents. And no, it’s not just those crazy Canadians. Years ago, near Princeton, police had to break up a fistfight that exploded among a dozen or so parents and coaches at a soccer game for eight- and nine-year-olds. Two years ago, at a game near East Stroudsburg, one mom grabbed another mom by the hair, pulled her to the ground, and then, while she was down, smacked her.

“Parents who you think you know?” whispers one of my soccer-mom friends as we chat at a softball game in May. “Well, you don’t really know them. They … change at soccer games.”

“What do you mean, ‘change’?”

“They get all … different. They scream during the whole game, but they don’t use their normal voices. It’s deeper. And growly. The first time I heard it, I was like, ‘What is that sound?’”

My friend Julia in Haddonfield has a neighbor she’s always really liked. They have kids the same age. They’ve barbecued. When Julia tells the friend she’s signing her ­seven-year-old up for travel soccer—a decision already freaking her out because her kid isn’t exactly athletic, but more of a flower-picker, as in she literally stands midfield during rec soccer games and picks dan­delions—the friend leans in and gives her the rundown on the team she’s about to join: So-and-So? Her leg’s like a cannon. And So-and-So’s not very fast, because she’s so fat, but …

“I laughed,” Julia says, laughing as she recalls it. “I thought she was kidding. She wasn’t kidding. But I have to say, it made me wonder: Will that happen to me? Because I’m not so sure that crazy soccer-bitch mom isn’t inside me somewhere, waiting to be unleashed.”

Frankly, I don’t think my girls can handle another thing that I become a crazy bitch-mom about. Just getting them to brush their teeth at bedtime can release my ever-lurking Joan Crawford—“No. Bubblegum. Crest. Ever!” As it is now, I don’t even know the rules of soccer beyond the kick-ball-to-goal one. During “Easy Soccer,” I spend most of my time on the sidelines talking to parents about more important matters, like the best brand of thermal coffee mug or Downton, while occasionally yelling a “Wahoo!” or a “Way to go, kiddo!” when a more experienced soccer parent shouts over to me, “Did you see Blair just made a goal?” Does this mean more will be expected of me in travel? Will I need to pay more attention? Will I be required to transform into a version of the one mom I keep hearing about who sits right up against the white line and screams at her nine-year-old all game long: “Attack! Attaaaaaaack!!”?

Even the socceriest soccer parent I know talks about this lady in a “Can you even believe her?” way, as if the lady is the vicariously living, helicoptering, shove-her-kids-way-too-hard-to-achieve model that gives soccer parents such a bad rap. But, as it turns out, the reason parents sign their daughters up for soccer in the first place is to nurture the “attack” in them—to make them aggressive. Or so Harvard sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman found when she interviewed a ton of parents whose kids participated in competitive after-school activities. One soccer dad, who nudged his daughter into soccer as opposed to something like cheerleading, told Friedman, “I encourage her to be more aggressive because she’s a cute little girl, but I don’t like her to be a girly-girl. … I want her to prepare to have the option, if she wants to be an executive in a company, that she can play on that turf. And if she’s kind of a girly-girl, maybe she’ll be a secretary.”

Um.

There is no way in hell we are having any part of this.

Obviously, there are benefits to playing a competitive sport. Teamwork. Commitment. Self-motivation. Getting to have your name on the back of a shirt. But snuffing the girly out of the girl? As if the “girly” in a girl will be her undoing in the real world?

“Thad, we can’t do this to Blair,” I tell my husband as soon as he walks in the door from work.

“Do what?”

“Travel soccer.”

“What? I already paid the $150 registration fee!”

“I think it might be a cult.”

In another time, in another place, Thad might tell me to take a Zoloft and get over myself. But he doesn’t. Because here’s the bottom line—he doesn’t want to spend the next 10 to 15 years driving to Kunkletown every weekend, either.

Finally, it’s finished.

We are not signing our eight-year-old daughter up for travel soccer.

On August 6th, what would have been the day of Blair’s first travel soccer practice, two soccer parents text me: “Does Blair need a ride tonight?” She’s still on the roster, since we only decided to take her off the day before.

The buzz in my throat starts again. Maybe it’s destined to flare no matter what we decide for our kids. Maybe the one true constant of parenthood is always, always worrying that you’re screwing it up.

Or maybe I’m just nuts.

Just then, I remember something a friend told me months ago when I asked her what I should do about travel soccer. At the time, I dismissed it as one of those gaggy mottoes parents tend to write on Facebook in order to prove they aren’t as inept as the rest of us, which we know isn’t true, but we totally block them anyway. She said, “You have to love them where they are.”

She’s right.

She is.

It’s just so hard to do that. It’s so hard to see the now without focusing on the later—the complaining siblings who have to come to all the games, the college scholarship she’ll need, the corner office someday. We forget that none of that is actually real. Not yet. And we almost miss what is: Blair has a soccer practice tonight, and a kind parent is offering to give her a ride.

I spend the whole hour she’s at the field hoping she hates it. I hope really, really hard that it’s awful. And muddy. And that her coach is mean. That she sweats too much, since this particular girly-girl doesn’t like to sweat. When I hear Blair’s cleats clomp through the front door, I shout from the kitchen: “How was it?”

“Awesome,” Blair squeals. Truly. She squeals. “We scrimmaged. I made the only goal!”

“You did?”

“I did!”

And this, right here, is where we are. Our eight-year-old daughter is playing travel soccer.

“Wahoo, kiddo!” I say. “Way to go!”

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