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Youth Sports: How to Juggle Travel, Family Life and Your Sanity

If your kid plays sports, you know how quickly practices, games and out-of-town tournaments can fill your calendar. Travel teams are especially demanding, and nights away from home base require extra planning and mean added expenses for parents. My husband coached for 28 years and I have three kids who each played sports from age four all the way through college. So there were many Saturdays when our family was pulling out of the driveway by 5 a.m. to go play in another city or state, not to return until late Sunday night. By the time Monday morning rolled around, we were all worn out, and I often wondered how long we could keep doing this.

But the more away games my family hit the road for, the more I learned. Those years not only built character, they provided countless moments for family bonding. Here are six tips to help maximize your sports travel and have fun along the way.

1. Formulate a game plan

Although planning requires time, it saves time (and money) in the end. When you look ahead to a tournament weekend, scope out the area for affordable, healthy, family-friendly restaurants. Then take a few minutes to search for coupons online.

With many sports, there’s often a lot of downtime. Before you arrive in a new place, spend a few minutes researching fun and inexpensive things you can do between games or matches. Every city has something unique to share. For example, if you want to line up something that doesn’t require a ton of physical activity so that your kid can rest up for the next game, head to an interactive children’s museum. If you’re taking the whole team with you, try to find something that everyone has some heart for—and line up plenty of fellow parent chaperones. In town for a swim meet? Organize a visit for your little swimmers to an area aquarium for a behind-the-scenes tour.

2. Have a stand-in on speed dial

If you have two kids playing at the same time, it’s OK to split up travel duties. If you’re a single parent, or both parents are unable to make it to an away game (which, let’s face it, will happen too), find another adult traveling with the team who can sub in for you. Parents often feel guilty if they can’t attend all sports trips. My advice? Go easy on yourself. Your kids don’t need you to be at every game. What they need is your positive support. If they have that, they’ll understand that you can’t be everywhere all of the time.

Instead of beating yourself up for missing a sports trip, put your energy into finding creative ways to support your little slugger from a distance. This can be as simple as finding time in between games to FaceTime or text with them so they can give you the play-by-play of each goal, basket or race while it’s still fresh in their minds. You can even tuck a couple of encouragement notes into their suitcase or game bag, along with a few of their favorite snacks.

3. Go with the flow

No matter how much you plan ahead, there will be weekends when things go wrong. The ability to be flexible and not freak out at the unexpected is crucial to sane sports parenting.

I’ll never forget the basketball tournament when our car key broke and we had to sit in the parking lot for hours waiting for a locksmith. It was after the game, fortunately, but we were all hungry and anxious to wind down after a long day. But our frustration quickly faded when another family pulled up and offered to wait with us. We ended up having a great time waiting it out—the boys hopped out of the van and started throwing a football around, and we had a chance to get to know the parents better. Experiences like that not only showed us the importance of flexibility, they deepened friendships.

4. Create a sport-specific packing list

Keep a list of the things you should always remember to bring on sports trips so you don’t have to wrack your brain every time you pack for one of these weekends away. Make this list with your child and let them be responsible for gathering their equipment and uniforms. If it makes you feel better, run down the checklist with them before you leave.

5. Don't leave your home court in shambles

When packing for the trip, also think about your return home. What can you do ahead of time to make returning to your routine less stressful? If you’re like me, you hate coming home to a messy house, so have the kids clean their rooms and pick up before you hit the road. Or if you know you won’t have a lot of time the night you get back, be sure the kids have their school clothes and backpacks laid out and ready for Monday, and pre-pack lunches that will keep the weekend.

6. Learn to live with imperfection

The best way to help your family better handle the tug-of-war between youth sports travel and family life is to recognize that something has to give. All of the hours spent traveling doesn’t just drain families physically and financially, it wears them out emotionally, too. So learn to let go of having a perfectly clean house or home-cooked meals every night. More importantly, embrace the opportunity to watch your kids doing something they love and focus on making memories as a family and experiencing adventures with friends. These are the perks of youth sports that money can’t buy.

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