Ten Tips for Tournament Sports Team Travel Planning Success

 Posted by on November 24, 2013  Comments Off
Nov 242013

busMany teens play on club or select sports teams in addition to their high school squads.  In sports like ice hockey, lacrosse, and soccer, teens who aspire to play in college pretty much play their main sport year-round.   Many club and select teams lean hard on parent volunteers to help out with fund raising, supply snacks, and coordinating team travel.

In our case, this season we volunteers to coordinate tournament travel for the Princess’s club ice hockey team.  So far, since September, we’ve been to upstate New York, Vermont and Toronto (twice!).  If you are wondering why things have been a little quiet on the blog — work, school and the need to play travel agent  for 20 teen hockey players probably explains it.  In theory, getting the team from point A to point B and back again shouldn’t be so hard.  Book a bus, a hotel, and a couple of meals and your done….well, not so fast.  What about passports and permission to take teens outside the country?  What about players from outside the US that want to visit us here?   If you are based in Europe but want to join in on these kinds of  tournaments and trips, getting the paperwork done is easy by getting a visum usa-ESTA conveniently online.   FYI – ESTA means “Electronic System for Travel Authorization”.

Team travel planning requires attention to all sorts of details.  Coaches have a lot on their plate and will generally appreciate a parent volunteer carrying the load when it comes to finding hotels, negotiating rates, booking buses, finding venues for group meals, preparing rooming lists, and keeping all the players and families up to date.  If you have been recruited to organize your teen’s team travel take a deep breath and run through our checklist for success:

  1. Expect to communicate early and often with parents and teens.  In a perfect world the teen player would get all the information and communicate with their parents, but, in the real world, parents can often be left out of the loop causing confusion and last minute chaos. As long as parents are paying the bills it is worth keeping them in the loop. Set up a group email list or web site to make sure everyone has the latest news.
  2. Get the big picture early.   Meet with the coaching staff to develop a season long calendar for the team’s travel plans and notify families to hold time on their calendars.   Double check against major school events – like mid-terms or finals or SATs and give families some warning if they may need to negotiate with the schools.
  3. Learn your organization’s internal administrative processes – make sure you are clear on how team payments get processed for fees, hotels, etc.  Know who to ask for travel permits. Make sure players keep their paperwork up to date – medical profiles, passports, parent permission for international travel, consent forms for medical treatment, etc.  Get it all organized early in the season.
  4. Pay attention to deadlines.   Large tournaments typically have cut off dates for booking hotels, confirming participation and submitting rosters.  Don’t get left out or end up at a hotel 45 minutes away from the event because your team missed a deadline.
  5. Set the team travel ground rules up front – is the team traveling with or without parents? Do players stay in hotel rooms with parents or with assigned roommates? How much supervision is needed at hotels, meals, etc. and who is providing it?  What costs are included in team fees and what are on your own?  What are the expectations in terms of behavior, homework, going off on your own.  Can parents take their kid away from the team during breaks — maybe to visit a nearby college — or is the teen’s time 100% committed to team activities?  What happens if kids are late.. do they lose playing time?  Make sure the coach reviews these expectations with the parents early in the season to avoid mis-understandings.
  6. Be clear about out of pocket costs.  Some teams include significant travel expenses in the annual fees while others collect money individually for each trip, and still others expect families to pay their own travel expenses as they go.  Last minute financial surprises can be very difficult for some families to manage so be clear about what costs will be and when fees need to be paid.  If your role of tournament coordinator includes collecting money, have an organized system in place before the checks show up.
  7. Let parents know their roles on the road – this can be tricky.  Some helicopter parents will want to get way too involved to the point where they want to approve their teen’s roommate assignment and have family dinners with their teen during tournaments.  Others would just as soon stay home.  Most are happy to follow the coaching staff’s lead but it helps to be clear.  Expectations can vary widely depending on the age of the players and the level of the tournament.  A recreation team’s annual out of town tournament will be run a lot differently than a Tier I team heading off to Nationals.
  8. Set deadlines and  late fees for travel commitments.  While the expectation is that all team members attend all tournaments, sometimes family commitments, school or health issues can get in the way.  With the exception of illness, be clear on when team members need to confirm their participation and also be clear on fines or fees if they are late.  Not only does it cause problems for the team to have missing players, but, it can cost the program money if hotel rooms are not filled or pre-booked meals are not eaten.
  9. For each trip publish an hour by hour schedule – this may sound extreme but believe me, trying to figure out when hungry teens eat, sleep, do homework, get on the bus, etc.  is critical.  Bus drivers need detailed schedules and the players and coaches need to arrive at the right place at the right time.  We send out a detailed schedule once the tournament game times are set and expect players to have a copy available during the trip.   Then,  every time players get off the bus we announce the next step in the program including when and where they are expected to be next.  We have a strict coach and kids get benched if they are late.
  10. Keep in close touch with the Coach.  Despite your best efforts plan for last minute changes.  Have team emails and cell phone numbers organized and accessible.  Know how to reach every hotel and event location.  When plans change on the fly, be ready to move quickly to re-arrange plans – particularly on the road.

Parent travel coordinators are the unsung heros of successful tournament teams.  Stay organized, keep the lines of communication open with players, coaches, event directors and parents.  Most of all, maintain your sense of humor.  Your teens will be off to college before you know it so enjoy your time with them and their sports friends on the road!

Apr 302013

This recent Spring weekend found us in Saratoga Springs, NY cheering on the Princess as she participated in the Saratoga Invitational Crew races at Fish Creek on Lake Saratoga.  Our one night adventure included a quick tour of some of the city’s most famous landmarks, as well as an adults dinner and evening stroll around the thriving downtown.   Saratoga Springs is a college town, home to Skidmore College and SUNY Empire State College.  It is also a great base camp for exploring other nearby schools including Union College, RPI and Williams College.

Crew racing at Fish Creek in Saratoga Springs NY

Crew racing at Fish Creek in Saratoga Springs NY

Whether you visit for a college tour, rowing, or as part of a family vacation, make time to check out the many historic landmarks.  This Victorian era town is dripping with history, as it has long been a destination for travelers seeking relaxing mineral water spas, golf, summer outings at the country’s oldest thoroughbred race track,  and a range of performing arts.  Since the mid 19th century, Saratoga Springs was known for the healthful effects of its many mineral springs and spas.  During the 1930s, then NY Governor Franklin D Roosevelt championed the construction of public mineral baths, a swimming pool and other attractions in what is now known at the Saratoga Springs Spa State Park.   Several of these vintage spas continue in operation to this day.

Saratoga Springs Spa State Park historic building

Saratoga Springs Spa State Park historic building

The 2,500 acre park is the centerpiece of the city housing a number of classical spa buildings including the  Roosevelt Baths and Spa, as well as the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the Spa Little Theater, the National Museum of Dance, the Saratoga Automobile Museum, and the Gideon Putnam Resort.  We visited early in the season when the park was still getting ready for summer.  The original 1930s era pool complex, and the larger 1960s era Peerless Pool Complex were not open although the Spa and resort and golf course were in fine shape.  The many picnic tables and walking trails made us wish we had more time to linger.

Testing the Mineral Water at Saratoga Springs Spa State Park

Testing the Mineral Water at Saratoga Springs Spa State Park

While the Princess stayed at the team hotel, mom and dad settled in downtown at the Hampton Inn and Suites which was clean and well run and offered a tasty hot breakfast with fresh fruit, pastries, make your own waffles and plenty of coffee.  Dinner at the Mouzon House across the street offered a decently prepared eclectic farm fresh menu, but, the early season waitstaff definitely needed some more training.  The downtown offered a lively mix of clubs and college students.  We enjoyed simultaneously watching the Red Sox and Boston Bruins on several of the screens at Dango’s Fitzgerald’s Irish Pub.  The Irish coffee was spot on!

Hampton Inn and Suites Lobby Saratoga Springs NY

Hampton Inn and Suites Lobby Saratoga Springs NY

With just a one night stay and most of our time devoted to the races we only got a quick sense of what Saratoga Springs has to offer.  We are pretty sure that between rowing and college visits we’ll definitely be back, but we’ll be sure to leave more time to get to know Saratoga Springs better!

Mar 182012

In a case of be careful what you wish for, we were thrilled last weekend when the Princess and her U14 ice hockey team qualified to compete in the USA Hockey Tier II Girl’s National Championship Tournament being held in Dallas at the end of March 2012.  The team has worked hard all season and the 15 girls and their parents are so excited and looking forward to some top National level competition in the Lone Star State.

The Princess scores a goal on her way to qualifying for the USA Hockey Tier II National Tournament

The Princess scores a goal on her way to qualifying for the USA Hockey Tier II National Tournament

So, while the good news is that we are going to Nationals, the bad news is that we are going to Nationals on 2 weeks notice.  Mary T knew this team had a chance to qualify and had blocked off her  work calendar months ago just in case.  Beyond that however, everything has to be arranged on the fly and, as many parents who have kids competing at a high level of youth sports already know, major tournaments are NEVER designed with the idea of affordability or academics in mind.

In our case, the Princess will be missing the better part of 4 days from her freshman year of high school – during the last week of the quarter when many tests and projects are due.  We never book family vacations when school is in session, but, for this once in a lifetime opportunity we’re going against our better judgment and hoping she won’t fall too far behind.

The team was able to work with the tournament hosts to find a semi-affordable hotel about 15 miles from the rink.  The team got a group airfare rate of $611 per round trip ticket, which we know would have been a whole lot lower if it had been booked a couple of months ago.  Fortunately, we managed to save a few bucks for our family by grabbing a couple of frequent flyer seats on a direct flight down and cashing in some credit card frequent spender points for the return.  Even then, we still had to pay fees to “expedite” award tickets because we booked with less than 3 weeks notice!  We were happy to find a good discount for the rental car.   Now we are looking for activities to keep the girls busy off the ice.  Luckily they have morning games, which means early bedtime curfews. Nonetheless, they are sure to want to spend money checking out as many malls, restaurants, rodeos, and other fun Texas activities as possible during their off ice time.

When all is said and done, most families making this trip from the Northeast will end up spending $2000 or more per family.  That is a pretty big bite out of a lot of family’s vacation budgets.  We hope the team goes deep into the tournament and that the girls make memories to last a lifetime – we just wish these youth sports folks could figure out a way to make their major tournaments a little bit more school and budget friendly.

A word to the wise, if your teen or tween is on a track to qualify for a national level tournament, start saving your pennies and frequently flyer points now!

Apr 272011

Champs wear helmets!

     Concussions are never far from our mind when we see a hockey player, skier or snowboarder take a bad fall.  We’ve known more than one teen who has suffered from a concussion and lost weeks or even months from school, sports, friends and family travel.  The ones who have suffered the most came back to sports too soon and got injured a second time before the first concussion was fully healed.

      With these experiences in mind, we’re taking a break from our usual travel discussions to make our readers aware of an important concussion awareness program currently being promoted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) under the banner of “Heads Up”.

     The CDC is enlisting bloggers like us to help increase awareness of what concussions are and how to protect your child or teen if you suspect they have one.   Why are we so worried about concussions?

What is a concussion?  The CDC defines a concussion as “a type of traumatic brain injury—or TBI—caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head or by a hit to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth. This sudden movement can literally cause the brain to bounce around or twist in the skull, stretching and damaging the brain cells and creating chemical changes in the brain.” 

     What you might not know is that these chemical changes make the brain at risk for further injury until it fully recovers.  In addition, children and teens are more likely to get a concussion or TBI and take longer to recover than adults.  Each year in the US, almost half a million kids ages 0 to 14 years old make emergency department visits for traumatic brain injuries, many of which are concussion.

Heads Up Action Plan: What to do if you suspect your teen has a concussion?

Step 1:  Keep your teen out of play and make sure his or her brain has plenty of time to heal.  Repeat concussions that occur before the first one has healed can cause lasting damage or even death.

Step 2:  Seek medical attention right away.  Any doubts – go straight from the rink or field to the emergency room.  If they lost consciousness even briefly be sure to contact the doctors.

Step 3:  Teach your teens about the long term dangers of concussions.  Many teens want to pretend they are fine and go right back into the game – setting themselves up for even worse injury.

Step 4: Make sure coaches, teachers, and school nurses know if your teen has a concussion.  We’ve known some kids who missed weeks of school and couldn’t do homework for a month.  Get ahead of the curve and work out a school and homework recovery plan that is appropriate for your teen’s situation.

          Educate yourself about concussion prevention and treatment – the CDC has a lot of resources at its Concussion Education page where you can download their Heads Up toolkit.  It has targeted materials for parents, health care professional, coaches and school administrators.

     We’d also like you to share your concussion stories or ask the CDC questions at www.facebook.com/cdcheadsup.

     Next, be sure to check in with your schools and sports leagues and if you are not satisfied with their policies and training make sure they get educated too.  Our high school has recently begun conducting concussion prevention baseline tests and developing return to sports protocols based on the same steps as the Heads Up program.  Funding came from concerned parents, so reach out to your schools and teams and see what you can do to help.

     Finally, make sure you teen wears an approved sport appropriate helmet for skiing, snowboarding and contact sports and preach concussion awareness regularly.  Ever since our kids learned to skate we have drilled them on heads up, don’t duck – which means if you are heading into the boards keep your head up and do everything you can to avoid getting knocked head first into the boards. And you can be sure they wear helmets for all their outdoor winter sports too.

Disclosure:I wrote this blog post while participating in a SocialMoms blogging program for which I may receive a thank you kit.” For more information on how you can participate, click here.

Feb 012011

     As kids age their interests change and the types of summer camps they choose can evolve as well.  When it comes to sports, day camps are often the rule for younger tweens.  However, by the time a dedicated athlete is 12 or 13 years old he or she has often exhausted the possibilities close to home and starts to look at overnight camps for the next challenge.  Younger tweens may want a recreational sports camp as an alternative to more rustic overnight options.

     Unlike traditional summer camps, where many campers return annually until they get too old (and then come back as counselors) overnight sports camps typically target different skill levels and age groups for different sessions.  Sports camps can vary widely in terms of physical and emotional intensity.  What is right for an elite athlete who works out year round would be a confidence shattering disaster for a recreational player who is just thinking about trying to take it up a notch.

          For those who are new to selecting summer overnight sports camps here are seven tips to consider:

  1. Book family trips first:  most families with teens and tweens need to squeeze family vacations, college visits, summer jobs, and overnight camps into just a couple of summer months.  If you live in the Northeast, you have probably already lost a week of summer vacation to snow days that will have to be made up in June.   We have learned to set priorities by blocking the time for family trips first, then, fit in the camps around those plans.  We’ve seen too many friends sign their kids up for so many divergent camp commitments that there was no time left for a family vacation. 
  2. Decide  early if the teen wants to go with a friend or travel solo:  If your athlete has a good friend and teammate with a similar skill level it can be a great experience to attend a challenging camp together.  On the other hand, many camps house players of similar levels together since they will be rotating through the various camp sessions on the same schedule.  Some camps even refuse roommate requests because they want to make sure kids make the effort to engage with other campers.  If the friends have widely different skill levels they might not see much of one another as most camp activities will be grouped by skill levels based on assessments made on the first day.   Some kids prefer to go solo and make new friends at camp.  If your teen is planning to sign up for camp with a friend find out if the camp will honor roommate requests and try to determine if the kids will get to be together for at least some of the activities.  Deciding early about bringing a friend allows you to evaluate camps based on their roommate and teammate assignment policies, if those are important to you.  It also makes it a lot easier to coordinate schedules.  Last summer we found exactly one week that worked for the princess and her hockey playing buddy to go to the camp they both wanted.
  3. Check out the coaching credentials:  Ask around at the rink or the field to find out what a particular camp experience is really like.  Most camp brochures promise big skill improvements, amazing workouts and great experiences but take a closer look at who will be working with your kid.  Many camps are run by someone well known in their sport – but the star may not always spend a lot of time with the campers.  Check to see what the mix of pro, college, prep school and  high school coaches and assistants really is.  Often the camps with the most popular pro players on the marquee are very recreational and rely on a lot of student helpers.  By comparison, the intense camps meant for highly skilled athletes are often staffed by college or prep school coaches assisted by Division 1 college players.   If you are hoping a camp experience will help your player get recruited for a college or prep school team, be sure the coaches you want to impress will be there.   Also recognize that different camp weeks may feature different player skill levels or skill development focus areas.  These  might impact your thoughts about coaching credentials as well.
  4. Match the intensity level to your player’s current needs:  Be realistic about your player’s skills and the amount of physical activity they will enjoy.  Are they scared or excited about 3 or 4 hours of skating and 2 or 3 hours of dryland workouts daily — plus the lectures and film reviews that are expected at some camps?   Would they rather have evenings reserved for fun times or field trips, or do they want to keep exercising after dinner?
  5. Realistically evaluate how well your teen or tween handles stress and disappointment.  Many recreational overnight sports camps put a big emphasis on fun and keeping stress levels down (did you know for example there is an ice hockey camp in Rhode Island where the kids go surfing every afternoon!)  More competitive camps, however, can be very emotionally challenging and stress inducing.  Players may get moved up or down levels.  Some camps could actually be tryouts to get selected for even more advanced camps.  How will your teen feel if he or she doesn’t make the cut? If they see it as an opportunity to test themselves then go for it, but if it is just going to stress them out look for something else.
  6. Make sure you are comfortable with the level of supervision provided in the dorms.  We’ve been surprised at how variable sports camp supervision can be in the dorms or hotel.  Some camps use prep school or college dorms and sports facilities and rely on older teens to navigate their way around campus pretty much on their own.  Some dorms may not be locked during the day.  Other camps assign multiple counselors to small groups of kids and never let them out of their sight.  They won’t even let the kids have the keys to their own rooms so they can’t sneak in unsupervised.  At night,  some camps may have just one or two supervisors per dorm floor while others may have paid overnight security guards or tape the dorm doors to make sure no one goes sleep walking.  Many camps have a no cell phone policy which could make it hard if you are the type of parent who wants to check in regularly.  Go with your gut and pick an environment where you feel comfortable about your child’s safety.
  7. Leave some downtime in between the return from camp and starting the next adventure.  Kids come home from most overnight camps exhausted, but, this is particularly true for sports camps that work them really hard from sun up to past dark.  Plus, you never know if the kid will come home sick with something picked up in a dorm.  Save yourself the disappointment of spending a long planned family vacation cooped up in a hotel room because your teen is too sick to have fun.  We try to allow at least a week in between returning  from an overnight camp and scheduling another big adventure. 

     This will be our third year making decisions about sleep away ice hockey camps.  Each year, the right choice for the hockey princess has been different as she has gotten physically stronger, become more skilled and continued to raise her goals.  Her first overnight hockey camp was an inspiring but fun  recreational camp coached by Olympic athletes.  The next year, it was a skills development camp that required competitive tryouts and recommendations.  This year, we are still debating the right choices given our schedule, budget and her current level of hockey aspirations.  Whever she goes, we know she’ll give it all she’s got!

Oct 252010

Hockey princess scores a goal at recent holiday tournament

The our fellow travel experts over atBest Family Travel Advice, have a great holiday blog carnival going on.  Each week they feature a new question.  This week its:   What kinds of special holiday travel traditions do you share with your family and friends?   It got us thinking about our own unique tradition which centers on participating in youth hockey tournaments.  This will be at least our 10th year of holiday hockey!

     For many families, thinking about holiday travel traditions conjures up walks in the woods, visit to grandma’s, or attending holiday parades.  In our house, winter holidays — but particularly Thanksgiving — mean it must be time for a hockey tournament!  Over the years we’ve traveled near and far,  although most years we get to have our holiday dinner at home and then hit the road to Rhode Island, Cape Cod, Ottawa or beyond.

Families who don’t have the youth sports bug often look at us with pity, wondering how we can stand spending all these holidays on the road away from family.   Truth be told, although we sometimes get a little wistful at missing out on sleeping in and relaxing over the holidays, there are a lot of positives that come along with our holiday travel hockey tradition.  As we gear up for another season, here is our list of five reasons we are thankful:

Work hard, play hard on the hockey road

  1. Time with our kids on the road means we get to focus on them with no other relatives to attend to or house chores to distract.
  2. Friendships among the kids and families are strengthened hanging out at rinks and hotels.  Our kids have made great friends playing hockey and often cement those relationships during roadtrips.  With so many kids around, they never get bored and the entertainment is built in.  Even the parents get to kick back and relax.
  3. The life lessons learned from playing a team sport are on full display.  The  kids always amaze us by being well behaved, courteous and helpful to parents, staff and one another.  We are always pleased and proud to see them rise to an appropriate level of responsibility.
  4. The kids learn to deal with adversity (at least a little).  Teams may win or lose but the kids always try hard, have fun, and then move on.  The kids learn a lot about coping with the unexpected when playing on the road in unfamiliar surroundings and against teams that may be stronger (or not) than the usual competition.   We particularly enjoy the impromptu cultural exchanges that result from meeting players from Canada or other countries.
  5. The kids learn to be good sports.  We’ll never forget the Thanksgiving tournament where our daughter’s team ended up facing a seriously underpowered opponent.  Rather than running up the score, the girls took it easy on the inexperienced goalie.  Then after the game, our girls delivered cookies to the other locker room.   The game ended with smiles all around and the opposing coach even wrote our program a letter recognizing our girl’s kind conduct.  That may have been their proudest moment of the whole season!

This year we’ll be on the road again, singing along to the greatest hits of the ’80s (our kids know all the words after years of these holiday roadtips) and visiting yet another rink, or two or three.  We hope you enjoy your holiday traditions as much as we enjoy ours.

Take Me Out to the Blue Claws!

 Posted by on September 7, 2010  Comments Off
Sep 072010

     Families with teens and tweens that are visiting the Jersey Shore can’t go wrong with a night out watching the Lakewood Blue Claws minor league baseball team.  Just 25 minutes from many Monmouth and Ocean County shore towns, the Blue Claws are celebrating their 10th season by turning in a division leading performance and advancing to the post season playoffs.  The team is an affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies and many Blue Claws eventually make it to the big leagues.

Join Buster and the Blue Claws at First Energy Park

     The Blue Claws play more than 60 home games a year at the very modern, 6,500 seat First Energy Park.  The season runs from mid April to early September.  Regular season tickets are $10 to $15 a person, with $5 tickets available for seating on the outfield grass.  Parking is $3.  Well stocked food courts and kiosks offer a range of affordable food, snacks and drinks.

Many Blue Claws eventually make it to the big leagues

     Just about every night at the Blue Claws is a party featuring some kind of promotion such as fireworks, giveaways or special visitors.  The night we were there, The Famous SD Chicken put on a show including a break dance contest with Barney, coaching first base and hexing the opposing team and umpires. 

The Famous SD Chicken and friends hex the opposing team

     Our teen enjoyed climbing up and watching a couple of innings from the lifeguard chairs that are sprinkled around the outfield promenade which circles the field.   

Grab a seat in the outfield

    This is the perfect size stadium to give the teens and tweens some freedom to walk around on their own as you can stay in your seat but still watch them stroll along the walkway and take a break in the chairs.  They report the view is great!

     For families with younger kids, a small but serviceable arcade and a very active kids play zone are open during the games.  A Tiki Bar in center field reinforces the Shore theme.

     During the peak season many games sell out, although the night we were there the stadium was about 2/3s full because the local schools were already back in session.    The Blue Claws organization provided complimentary tickets for the game but we paid for our own parking, food and drinks.  We really enjoyed a summer’s evening with the Blue Claws – it is well worth the short drive from the beaches.  And bring your glove, we saw lots of fans catch fly balls – a great souvenir from a fun and affordable evening out that parents, teens and tweens will all enjoy.

     Looking for more ideas for fun with teens and tweens at the Jersey Shore?  Check out our Jersey Shore Top 10 list.