There's been a trend in lacrosse, and other youth sports, towards travel and club teams instead of traditional rec-based programs. Do rec programs still have a place in the youth sports scene? I think so.

A few years ago, one of my daughter’s softball coaches called me up and asked for my support. He was trying to exempt the travel players in our local recreation program from having to play in the in-house league so that the travel team could go to more tournaments during the season and play higher levels of competition.

I told him that I understood where he was coming from, but that I couldn’t support that decision. My reasons were two-fold, the first being the benefits my kids received from playing for in-house rec programs.

On a travel team, kids are generally slotted to certain positions in order to help the team win. That’s a perfectly understandable decision for a travel coach to make, but how do the kids develop?

My son played infield for his travel baseball teams when he was younger, but he rarely pitched. But on his in-house teams, he was one of the main pitchers. Eventually he began to pitch a little bit more for his travel teams, but it was still the exception and not the norm. Fast forward to high school and guess where he played in his first game? Pitcher.

Without the in-house rec experience, would he even have been exposed to being a pitcher? Would he have had the confidence to try it out?

My daughter had a similar experience in softball. When she was younger, she played a few different positions, but rarely played first base. When she played rec, she played there a lot.

Over the last couple of years, she grew a lot and is much taller. Today, a coach would look at her and consider first base as a natural position for her. Because she became comfortable playing that position in rec, she was confident when she moved to that position for her travel team last summer.

Learning new positions is hardly the only benefit my kids got from playing rec sports. They took on new roles and were put into positions of leadership that they weren’t always in for their travel teams. They also got to play with many of their friends from school that chose not to play travel sports, and probably more than anything, they absolutely loved competing against their travel teammates in the rec setting.

My second big reason for not wanting our program to stop requiring kids to play in-house was that I firmly believe you need a strong rec program to serve as a feeder program for your travel program.

Kids are going to leave your travel program – they stop playing the sport, they move, their parents aren’t happy with the coach – you name it. Without a strong rec program where are the new kids for your travel program going to come from? Sure, a coach will be able to grab a kid here and there to fill some holes, but the best travel programs have kids that have developed in the rec programs moving up to the travel teams. The travel players help those rec players develop so that they can one day become a travel player.

But it seems that is not what’s happening in the youth sports scene.

My son is 16 and my daughter is 13 and the landscape has changed so quickly. When my son began playing travel sports there was almost always a corresponding rec component through at least age 12. There were a very few isolated select/club teams in different sports below that age, but that was the exception, not the rule. Now it’s pretty common to see the rec component over by age 10.

That’s crazy.

I understand some of the problems for advanced players having to play rec. It’s really frustrating when you pass the ball to a teammate that you think has no chance of catching it. A truly standout player can develop bad habits by being able to get away with things against weaker opponents. Even a relatively light weekly schedule that consists of a rec practice, a rec game, a travel practice and a travel game adds up pretty quickly.

I have no trouble seeing the side of the argument that wants to move past rec programs, but I also have no doubt that I stand on the other side of the argument.

My children have won championships playing travel sports and they’ve also gone winless playing on rec teams. When I look back on their youth sports experiences, I have so many vivid and distinct memories – some from travel teams and some from rec teams. Neither is more important than the other, they’re just different, and I treasure them all.