Finding the team that fits

From recreational to competitive play, choosing the right youth sports team requires consideration.

After playing recreational soccer, Overland Park mom Becca Wilkinson’s oldest son began asking if he could join a competitive team. Given his interest, initiative and drive, making the commitment to a competitive team proved to be the right decision. Today he plays in college, and soccer still has a big role in his life.

Wilkinson’s other two sons have played competitive soccer as well, but they don’t necessarily have the same drive in the sport as their older brother. In fact, one enjoys playing basketball competitively, perhaps even more so than soccer.

Becca’s experience is similar to that of many Kansas City families involved in youth sports. With various sports to choose from and ranging levels of teams, how can you know which team is right for your child?

Most communities in the metro area offer recreational sports as a way of exposing kids and their families to sports. The commitment is generally for a season (usually around eight to 10 weeks) and typically involves a practice one night a week and one game a weekend, all close to home. The coaches are usually parent volunteers, the cost is affordable and the games are in your community. Oftentimes, the organizations try to match up kids who go to the same school.

Given the seasonal commitment of such sports, it’s possible for a child to play multiple sports throughout the year on a recreational basis if the youngster desires to do so.

“The majority of soccer participation nationwide is recreational,” says Joel Dragan, executive director of the Kansas State Youth Soccer Association. “Where that line between competitive and recreational play is drawn is often blurred. Mostly I believe it’s about both commitment level and a player’s long-term soccer aspirations.”  

For those kids who happen to be particularly interested in a sport and desire more training coupled with a chance to advance, a competitive team might be worth considering. Often, the coaches are more experienced and can provide more direction.

“The draw to putting them in young is that when they start out on the premier side at a young age, they can grow with the process,” says Leawood mom Julie Weinrich, who has six children who have played competitive soccer.

Although the competitive side comes with opportunities for growth and training, it is a large commitment to make. Participation is generally more expensive and sometimes goes year-round with several practices a week. Traveling to other cities for games is frequently involved. Additionally, with that kind of commitment, the child typically has to choose to focus on one sport at a time.

“Recreational soccer is often the entry point for competitive play, but many players will continue recreational because it fits their needs and the needs of their family,” Dragan says. 

Yet the benefits of competitive play are notable. Weinrich says that as a result of playing competitively, her daughter has learned how to manage her time between school, homework and practice. She has learned how to commit to something, train and work hard, and the sport has helped keep her busy and stay out of trouble. ­­­­

“A sense of team and even family is common in travel soccer,” Dragan says. “Plus, the opportunity to advance a player’s skills to the point where a scholarship is an option is always enticing.”

Weinrich says her daughter has made great friends and connections with kids outside of her school, whom she wouldn’t have otherwise met if not for her competitive soccer team. Overall, Weinrich says her children have chosen when they have been ready for competitive teams and when they have not. “We always let our kids make the decision,” she says.

Kyle Hogge, director of the KC Legends soccer club, says recreational sports are typically geared more toward younger kids under fourth grade and don’t have a set curriculum to accompany them. More competitive teams offer more in these areas and have opportunities for continued growth. Hogge says their program and curriculum praises creativeness, boosts self-confidence and emphasizes leadership away from soccer.

Sometimes choosing strictly between a recreational or competitive team isn’t necessary. Both KC Legends and Sporting Blue Valley offer intermediary programs that fall somewhere between recreational and competitive, and these teams give kids and their families a chance to see more of what a competitive team would be like before making the full commitment.

Hogge says KC Legends believes strongly in using soccer to teach life lessons. They have had thousands of players come through their program over the years, he says, and from that they have produced 60 professional players. Although the vast majority of players will not continue past high school, the lessons they learn along the way are invaluable.

Choosing the right team is a case-by-case basis, according to Hogge, and the ride home from practice or a game can often be the most important part of the experience as it gives you the opportunity to discuss what kids are learning and whether they are truly enjoying the experience.

Overall, Wilkinson says if a child is having fun, being creative and continuing to learn, he is in a good place. If one of those aspects isn’t there, it might be time to re-evaluate.

Competitive talking points

If your child expresses an interest in joining a competitive sports team, here are a few questions to consider before signing up:

  • Does your child have a passion for the sport and desire to grow in their skills?
  • Does your child have an interest in possibly playing in college?
  • Does your child desire more skilled coaching?
  • Does your child show the ability to balance sports along with family, school and other aspects of life?
  • Is joining a competitive team logistically and financially feasible for your family?
  • Does your child appreciate the life lessons outside the game that they are learning from the sport?

Allison Gibeson is a freelance writer and mom from Lee’s Summit whose 5-year-old-son has played recreational soccer.

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