Tips for Surviving Youth Sports Tournaments From a Non-Sporty Parent

Confession: I am a completely clueless when it comes to sports. How clueless am I? Here’s a partial list:

  • I understand Quidditch better than football.
  • I can name all of the major and minor characters from “Lord of the Rings” (book and movie). I have the geography of Middle Earth memorized, but I would struggle to name a recent major league baseball player.
  • I’m more comfortable at an event like SXSW than I am at any major sports game.

My two oldest kids have taken after my husband and I. Therefore, our entry to the world of youth sports games and tournaments has been delayed: until now. Our 15-year-old son has entered the world of AAU sports.

I have many complicated thoughts and feelings when it comes to youth sports, which I’ll save for another post. There are definitely pros and cons and I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about the entire culture.

AAU Is a Commitment

While we want to support our kids’ interests, one thing we’ve struggled with is the travel schedule and overall cost of participating. AAU sports are an enormous investment of time and money. When our son asked to join an AAU team we were immediately concerned with how many weekends we would be gone. This can be extremely challenging for parents who don’t have weekends off, to say nothing of the monetary resources it takes to pay the team fees, buy equipment and to pay for gas, food, and hotels if necessary.

My husband and I both work multiple jobs, and sometimes our work happens on the weekends. We also still have an 8-year-old who we have to factor into the equation (bringing him with us can be difficult if the tournaments are 10-12 hours long and finding childcare can be a challenge.) When we agreed to let our son join an AAU sports team we made sure to select clubs who don’t participate in tournaments more than 2 or 3 hours away. Still, even these games can take up an entire weekend. We’ve tried to find some ways to make the most of our weekends away.

Tips For Tournaments

Here are some tips I’ve learned to make tournament weekends go more smoothly:

Research the Location

Learn as much about the location as possible and look for ways to maximize your time.

Take the time to figure out where the facility is located in relation to food, shopping, and other community amenities. This can help you make the most of your time in between games. For instance, if there’s a Target or a Wal-Mart in the community, you could use the downtime to run your weekend errands. If there’s a library or coffee shop in the neighborhood, you could use the downtime to get some work done. Or, find out if the facility has free WiFi. If it doesn’t, bring a hotspot, if you have work to complete — I’ve graded hundreds of papers and worked on many lesson plans at tournaments. I’ve even been able to squeeze a workout in at a facility that had public exercise equipment.

It’s also important to have an idea about the dining situation before you leave. I’ve attended many tournaments where the only options for food were the concession stand or the gas station across the street. Find out where the restaurants are ahead of time, or pack your own food to save time and money.

Bring Cash

The vast majority of these tournaments only take cash for the admission fee and concession stand. I learned this lesson the hard way. I missed one of my son’s first basketball tournaments because I didn’t have cash and I had to drive around an unfamiliar town to find an ATM machine. Make sure you have more than enough to get through the day. If you happen to strike it lucky and the tournament site takes cards save the cash for the next tournament.

Find Way to Relax

Bring a pillow, a blanket and a book.

Travel tournaments sometimes have an early call. If you have a significant amount of travel time you might have to get up before the sun comes up and you might not be home until late. While hotels can be an option in these scenarios, the costs can mount very quickly, adding to the already expensive cost of participation. If you’ve had an early morning and a long day ahead of you, it might be ways to catch some winks in between games so you’re not too tired to drive home. I’ve taken many naps in the back of my van during tournaments.

I’ve also gotten a lot of reading done at basketball tournaments. If I’m at a tournament by myself it can be a great way to recharge my batteries.

Split the Time

Split the time if you have a spouse, friends ,or family who can help.

My husband and I are lucky in that we can count on each other to split the tournament duties. Sometimes he does one weekend and I do another. Or, he might do Saturday and I might do Sunday. This is admittedly challenging if you don’t have a co-parent to help share the load. If you don’t have a co-parent, perhaps carpooling with another family or extended family could be an option.

Enjoy the Process

This is admittedly more difficult for me than I’m guessing it would be for parents who are more interested in athletics. While interest in sports doesn’t come naturally to me, I’ve found a tremendous amount of joy watching my son excel in an activity he is passionate about. I’ve marveled at the discipline, dedication, and teamwork of my son, his teammates and their coaches. I’ve loved getting to know the other kids on the team and their families.

And I’m keenly aware that the time I have left with my older kids is limited. They’ll be off at college in the blink of an eye. I’ve learned to love the long car rides with them even if they fall asleep on the way home. Extra time spent with your kids is always worth it — especially when they hit the tween and teen phase.

Since I’m new to the world of youth sports tournaments, are there any seasoned veterans who have tips to share?



Meghann is the mom of 5 kids. She is a Lecturer at the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication and an Owner/Partner at Brand Driven Digital. Meghann was elected to the Coralville City Council in 2017 and is currently serving her first term. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Coralville Community Food Pantry (Vice-Chair) and on the DVIP Board of Directors. She is also a member of Johnson County's Juvenile Justice and Youth Development Policy Board. Meghann is passionate about her family, her community, and is a proud pop culture nerd.


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