I recently had a conversation with my aunt about my 8-year-old cousin, who is a stud baseball player. The demands that come along with being a good athlete at a young age are starting to add up. His coaches encourage him to get private trainers, join better leagues, and start playing year-round. My aunt was looking for advice because she knows I went through a similar experience with basketball at about the same age. What would I have done differently? What was worth the cost, and what wasn’t?
In this post, I set out to show how expensive it is to be an “elite” athlete from a young age, what I would have done differently, and how my parents and others feel looking back on their experiences.
Be Prepared for an Expensive Journey
I’ll begin with a quick summary of my basketball life: I was a gifted basketball player starting at about age 7. By age 9, I was training daily and playing for my local Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) program, and by age 12 I was completely focused on training for basketball and playing in national tournaments. This continued through high school. I went on to play college ball at Harvard and then professionally overseas.
As you can imagine, all this basketball required a lot of time and money from my parents. We’re not alone in that respect. Recent research out of Utah State University showed that spending on youth sports is on the rise, and it can consume up to 10.5% of a family’s gross income. That’s $6,300 per year for a family earning $60,000 per year. So, if you start getting serious at age 9 and play until you’re 18, it’s not uncommon for a family to spend about $57,000 on one kid.
When faced with that kind of a bill, it’s worthwhile to take a look at what’s really needed to perform at a high level, and where you can look for savings. This will all be specific to basketball, but it should apply equally well to all competitive athletes playing team sports.
The Highest-Priced Gear Isn’t Always Best
I’ll never forget being in 8th grade when the newest Kobe sneakers came out. I had to have them. They looked so sleek, and all the ads with Kobe wearing them while tearing around town in a motorcycle had me completely hooked. After unsuccessfully pitching my parents on buying a motorcycle to transfer me to and from games, I set my sights on at least being able to get the shoes. My parents reluctantly obliged and forked over the 120 bucks.
It was Christmas come early. That is, until I wore them during a game. I instantly realized that I hated the shoes. They were narrow, heavy, and had poor traction. I felt like I had cement blocks on my feet. But, there was no turning back. I couldn’t return them, so I just had to use them until I grew out of them.
I feel like my parents were smiling on the inside. It’s the footwear equivalent of letting a kid have a sip of alcohol to watch them react to the horrifying taste and vow never to try it again.
The Kobe fiasco taught me valuable lesson. For the rest of my career I focused on comfort first and foremost. It was often the less flashy, less expensive sneakers that fit my feet the best, and I was fine with that.
Between a new pair of shoes every year, basketballs, apparel, custom weight sets, uniforms, pregame sweatsuits, socks, and headbands, spending on gear can get out of hand fast. But, if you take the time to school your kid on how it’s ultimately the fit that matters, not the brand, you can bank some savings in this area.
Travel Teams Are Pricey, But Worth It
The Amateur Athletic Union organizes and runs high-level youth sports leagues. In most cases, they have surpassed high schools as the premiere way of showcasing your skills to college coaches. The exposure and the competition level make them indispensable, but there’s no denying they are costly.
Playing on a travel team requires team fees, new jerseys, new shoes, tournament entry fees, travel costs, meal costs and more. There are some programs that have sponsors that pay for almost all your expenses, but I was never fortunate enough to be on one of those teams.
While AAU teams often get a bad rap for promoting showmanship over skill development, that doesn’t have to be the case. My AAU program was run by a man who cared deeply about fundamentals, personal development, and college prep. Do your research before you blindly join a club that will supposedly get you the most exposure. Oftentimes it’s the less expensive programs that offer the most room to grow and develop as a player.
Be warned: The time spent playing AAU basketball is basically incalculable. Besides the thousands of games and practices, there is the driving to those games and practices, sometimes for hundreds of miles.
But, despite the fact that most see driving as a drudgery, both me and my parents actually have fond memories of all this. Maybe we just have Stockholm Syndrome, but we all agreed that the travel inspired interesting conversations and helped deepen our bonds.
My Mom was especially fond of this time. She loved “driving to the practices every Saturday morning, listening to ‘This American Life’ stories, making the best of car trips and learning to be road warriors.”
One downside my Mom singled out with all the travel for AAU was the money spent at restaurants, particularly when the bill had to be split. She lamented “the expensive dinners, which were always split equally no matter how many martinis someone had or how many appetizers were ordered that you didn’t want. That was a waste of money!”
Looking back, we could have done a better job of excusing ourselves from certain functions, hitting local grocery stores, buying cheap sandwich materials and creating our own, affordable meals. But, all in all, the competition, friendships, and exposure that come along with playing on a travel team make it well worth the cost.
Avoid Most ‘Elite’ Summer camps
When you are competing at a high level, sports camps aren’t used in lieu of daycare, and they aren’t for having fun with your buddies. They’re for playing your best in front of coaches and scouts. The camp circuit is big business, and each one markets itself as the newest and best. The entrance fees often exceed $500 for a three-day camp.
If I could do it again, I would have skipped the vast majority of these camps and used the free time to practice on my own and decompress. That’s because, honestly, most of these “elite” camps are a waste of time.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, I would end up playing in front of one 26-year-old assistant coach from the local community college. The Coach K’s and Tom Izzo’s of the world were nowhere to be found. Unless you’re already an extremely hyped player, it’s tough to get invited to the camps where top-level college coaches are showing up to watch.
I advise all the kiddos out there to do as well as they possibly can playing for their school and AAU teams, and only attend these camps after they have built a little buzz for themselves. The only time I ever had high-level coaches pay attention to my games was after I had a brilliant performance during a championship game my junior year of high school.
Avoiding some of these camps can also help stave off burnout. My parents were good about using the summer months as a time to check in with me to make sure I was still playing all this basketball because I loved it and not because I felt pressured.
My Dad has good advice for those parents who get too invested and push their kid unnecessarily hard: “If the kid is doing it out of obligation, or the parent is living through the kid vicariously and putting unnecessary pressure on the child, then it becomes drudgery.”
Most Private Athletic Training is Unnecessary
Depending on just how serious you get about your activity, you’re probably going to end up spending money on private lessons. I know my parents did.
I used to insist on going to all the best training facilities. In high school, I once paid a thousand bucks for 15 sessions with a trainer at a state-of-the-art gym. At the time, it felt like a steal. This thing had a giant computer screen you worked out in front of! I felt like I was training with Morpheus in The Matrix. You slid around, squatted and jumped and hopped through an obstacle course while your computer avatar completed various tasks. It was cool, and a great workout.
But, in retrospect, was this type of training any more effective than running up the hill outside my house? I doubt it. I’m very confident I could have eschewed a lot of the gimmicks and still achieved the same results.
There were also many, many private basketball workouts. Mine were mostly with my AAU coach, so we got a deal, but they definitely weren’t free. These were much more valuable than my weight training workouts, but I still could have cut back in this area.
All you really need is a ball, a hoop, and some determination. All my fancy-schmancy workouts were a fun diversion, but I think you can get the same results through good old-fashioned self-discipline.
Avoid the Nutrition Gimmicks
I always had the fanciest shakes, gels, bars, drinks, powders, and supplements. This was all on top of eating an obscene amount of food as a growing teenager who worked out 24/7. I imagine our food bill was through the roof. I don’t think it had to be that way.
My mom always prepared large, hearty, healthy meals. These contained all the nutrition I needed, thinking back on it.
I think I could have easily gotten by supplementing my normal eating routines with some Gatorade for games and workouts without missing a beat.
As I discussed in a previous post about so-called “super foods” and supplements, I think a lot of the information out there with regards to nutrition is more about hype than substance. I don’t think I ever won a game because I ate a newfangled Cliff Bar beforehand.
It Can Help to Look at the Costs as an Investment (Within Reason)
When you immerse yourself in the world of youth sports, you inevitably come across parents whose hopes for their kid are nowhere near reality. They think because their kid is the top-ranked fifth grader that they have a meal ticket. This thinking is often passed down to the kids.
I can’t tell you how many people I played against who had huge basketball tattoos, or ones that said “King” or “The Chosen One.” One particularly unsubtle player just had a massive NBA logo on his bicep. At age 15! That’s like getting the lead in your high school musical and then tattooing an Academy Award on your arm.
In reality, the prospects of making it to the pros are very low, even for talented players. Most high school athletes are unlikely to even play in college. In men’s basketball, the NCAA pegs the odds at just 3.3% of all high school athletes making it to the collegiate ranks. Before you drop thousands of dollars on your kid expecting a monetary return, educate yourself on the reality of the situation.
Interestingly, the low odds of success didn’t stop either of my parents as viewing all the time and money spent on my basketball playing as an investment. My dad says he definitely thought of all the costs “as an investment in [my] future.” My mom concurred, saying she “looked at it as an investment, but not until [I] was in high school.”
There is a psychological component to this. All parents want to see their kid succeed, so it’s natural that they will see all expenses as a necessary evil to help them achieve their dreams. This is fine to an extent. When the whole family is committed, goals are more attainable. I would just keep in mind the money-saving options I laid out earlier so that your monetary “investment” is maximized and psychological damage is minimized.
Couple Autonomy with Guidance
I would leave the choice on what to focus on up to the kid. If he loves playing baseball and wants to do it all the time, I say let him. If he gets burned out, let him stop. We as a society tend to overthink these things. Kids have intuition. I say let them use it.
That being said, the adult should always be involved and looking for ways to help. My dad feels that “the parent that has to decide what is best for the kid, and then do what they can for support. It should be balanced and healthy. “
NBA player Tyson Chandler feels the same way. When asked by Sports Illustrated how he handles the pressures his kids face, he responded with this:
“I think it’s really important that parents are involved. I don’t think you can just place your child in a situation like that and just let them be. I think it’s very important that you gauge and pay attention to your child’s mental growth as well as how they’re dealing with playing competitive sports. Is this a positive or a negative? I think every child is different. So I think it’s up to the parent to pay attention to that.”
Without basketball I never would have received my Harvard degree, which is something I can’t put a price on (although my student loan issuer sure tries). Couple that with the seemingly endless friends and positive memories I accrued in my basketball days, and I’d like to think I’m proof that the specialization many people bemoan isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If a kid is truly doing what he loves and isn’t feeling pressured, and the parents are keeping the costs within reason, then I think being a one-sport athlete is a fine choice.
While there’s no doubt my basketball-centric upbringing was expensive, it doesn’t seem like anyone involved has many regrets. I wish it could have been less intense at times, but all the experiences helped me to accomplish a lot of things no one expected out of a small Jewish kid from a place better known for horseback riding than basketball.
I hope families can use this a guide to help them limit costs and get the most out of the amateur sporting experience. And please, don’t spend money on that “Greatest of All Time!” tattoo until the ink has dried on your first NBA contract.