* Consider how joining an elite travel team will affect your whole family.
Will the parents and siblings be separated more weekends than not? Will it limit or eliminate your ability to take a family summer vacation? How will it affect your marriage if you and your spouse are going in different directions and sleeping in different locations each weekend? How much will you and your child have to give up?
Is it worth it? Or will your child likely have a future opportunity - the high school team, a travel team when she's older - without sacrificing the early years of childhood and free play?
Will it wipe out the chance for spontaneous weekend getaways or days at the beach or in the country?
If siblings are busy with their own games, and Mom and Dad are getting around to see and support everyone somehow, great. But if younger or nonathletic siblings are being dragged to games where they are bored on the sidelines or craving their parents' attention, which is predominantly focused on the playing field, resentments and disappointment can grow and last a lifetime.
* Ask the coach not to penalize your child for attending family events.
The rule of thumb about playing time is to reward those who show up for practice and penalize those who don't. This is generally viewed as a fair system by players and coaches alike.
But when there is no accommodation for spending time with your family - to attend a wedding, a bar mitzvah or a Mother Day's brunch, or go on a family vacation when the family wants to go, even if it's not during the coach-approved two-week break in the training and tournament schedule - that tells the child that sports and the team are more important than family. Playing at the rec level, this isn't an issue.
* Keep academics a priority.
Often club volleyball tournaments in my state are scheduled to begin on Friday during the school year. That means that students, starting as early as 5th or 6th grade, miss not only Fridays but Thursdays as well, as their parents pull them out of school to travel to the out-of-town location. If you as a parent don't agree with putting sports before academics on a regular basis, and aiding and abetting the message that this sends to kids, think twice before you sign that dotted line.
* Consider not joining an elite travel team until your child is an adolescent.
Children are better prepared for intense play, practice and competition after they've gone through puberty. Travel soccer teams, for example, generally start at Under 10, which means 8- and 9-year-olds are spending weekends in motels, away from their friends and siblings, in intensely competitive play. State Cup competition starts at Under 11.
Brian Doyle, director of coaching for Michigan's elite, nationally ranked Wolves-Hawks Soccer Club, told me, "A lot of guys believe we start championships too early. Fourteen should be the first State Cup to play in. If you want to reduce stress, reduce the need to win. I personally believe the child doesn't really need to learn how to win the game until they're around 14. Before that, you're learning how to play the game."
* Check your options.
Seriously question if an elite team is what your child needs or wants. Sometimes a child wants to join a Class I team just because his friends are going to. That may be a valid reason, but alternatively, you can evaluate the situation and decide that (a) it doesn't work for our family, or (b) he's a good enough player to make the high school team without playing club or (c) it's not a great choice for our family, so we'll put it off as long as possible and let him join in 7th grade so he'll have two years of competitive training under his belt going into the high school tryouts.
One option is to do less competitive club play, such as Class III soccer, which is a step above recreational level but less demanding than Class I. They travel less and take the summer off.
Another option is remaining at or dropping down to the recreational level. There's no shame in it! If you have a good coach and good players you enjoy playing with, you can have a great time without undue pressure.
The status awarded the elite teams may be overrated in terms of the athlete's actual experience.
I know many rec players - from my kids' teams - who were extremely talented and went on to make their high school varsity teams without having given up their lives to year-round club teams in middle school.
Excerpted from "Revolution in the Bleachers" by Regan McMahon. Published by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) April 2007.
Regan McMahon, a mother of two athletic children, is the deputy book editor and a feature writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. "Revolution in the Bleachers" traces the dramatic changes in youth sports in America over the past 20 years and provides a guide to help parents bring balance back into their kids' lives and reclaim family life apart from the kids' team activities. For more about the book, go to: http://www.revolutioninthebleachers.com/
McMahon's previous contribition to the Youth Soccer Insider was "From Passionate to Frenzied"