Travel Baseball Should Focus on Player Development

When travel league schedules revolve around tournament play, winning inherently becomes the primary focus. Rarely do travel baseball teams have time to practice because of the number of scheduled games and the associated travel.

This is a glaring problem with travel baseball. Kids need a combination of practice and games to best facilitate athletic development.

Simply throwing young kids out on the field to play as many games as possible does not necessarily facilitate athletic development. Younger athletes need considerable practice time to develop their hitting and defensive skills in a pressure-free environment.

In its current state, travel baseball places 8-11 year olds in a setting where the pressure to win and perform takes precedent over the emotional and athletic development of the players themselves.

As a result, the travel baseball coaches act as if they were managing professional players. Yelling. Throwing equipment. Arguing with umpires. Sulking after losses.

To many parents it appears that these travel coaches know what they are doing with their custom-made dry-fit coaching shirts and Oakley Sunglasses resting on the brims of their fitted caps. In reality most of travel coaches possess the same amount of knowledge as your average house league coach. A majority of these coaches are parents who don’t know the first thing about teaching baseball or the social and emotional development of kids.

Rather than winning, the focus for youth baseball needs to be on development.

Athletic excellence and success cannot always be identified at an early age. If given the right opportunity to compete and develop their skills, inferior athletes will frequently blossom and attain success in later years. We’ve proved this time and time again with players we have worked with.

Watered-Down Talent: A Consequence of Travel Baseball

When I grew up in the 1980s, we all played house league. At the end of the season, the best players made the All Star team, which then competed against other community All Star teams in a post-season tournament.

Then youth organizations decided to create teams that played a part-time travel schedule and a part-time house schedule. This later evolved into the development of full-time travel teams with significant tournament schedules, sometimes requiring out-of-state travel and overnight lodging. Games increased from 30-40 games per summer to 60-70 games, sometimes more.

Not only did the amount of games increase, so did the number of teams. Towns and communities which once offered only one travel team now have several options to choose from. Previously considered an honor to be selected for travel baseball teams, now anyone willing to travel on weekends and afford the registration fee can play travel baseball.

The existence of numerous options is a major problem with travel baseball.

In the past when kids did not make their travel team, the lesson was to work harder and try out next year. However, with multiple options currently available for many eager travel players, this message has been eliminated.

Now, many parents shop their kids around like free agents. Parents look for teams with the best records and most trophies. Kids who were cut from one travel team simply tryout for another. Parents of those children who were unhappy with playing time simply form their own teams.

Last time I checked, sitting on the bench and learning how to support teammates from the sidelines is a valuable lesson that all kids should learn. No wonder we as high school coaches are seeing more and more incoming freshman with spoiled attitudes and a strong sense of entitlement.

Naturally, the existence of multiple travel teams waters down the talent level per team. Now, most travel teams have at least three or four marginal players on the roster because the best players in each community are spread out over several teams.

Not only does the existence of multiple travel teams water down the talent level of each team, but it also waters down the number of quality coaches. Let’s face it – great coaches do not grow on trees. And when I say great coaches, I don’t just mean coaches who know baseball (and believe me, there are very few of those).

Great coaches are those who can teach and manage the game, as well as understand the emotional and social development of kid. Great coaches carry themselves with class, honor, and integrity, and teach life skills. These coaches are so rare that the odds of finding several in one community are slim.

And while I admit that there are probably just as many bad high school coaches as there are bad travel coaches, many high school coaches are either trained educators or certified by respected coaching organizations such as the American Sport Education Program (ASEP). In addition, high school coaches must be accountable to school administrators and athletic directors while following various policies and guidelines as established by state high school associations. In contrast to this, the majority of travel league coaches do not possess the proper training and experience to work with kids, and most do not have to be accountable to anyone for their decisions, behaviors, and conduct.

Travel Baseball Can Lead to Burnout for Kids Under the Age of 12

Obviously, the most glaring problem with travel baseball is the ridiculous amount of games many kids are playing during the summer. Clearly, there is a problem when 10 year old kids are playing the same amount of games, if not more, as Major League Baseball’s Rookie League Players. The risk of physical fatigue and injury is alarming, as medical research indicates the significant levels of stress that continuous overhand throwing places on the elbow and shoulder of underdeveloped bodies.

However, the primary cause for burnout is the onset of mental fatigue caused by the types of games and the pressure associated with tournament play and travel.

Remember, I am talking about young kids under the age of 12, most of whom are not emotionally and socially mature enough to handle the stress associated with tournament baseball, in addition to the idea of being solely dedicated to one sport or activity.

Kids need time to be kids, especially in the summer. This includes going to the pool with friends, hanging out in the park playing pick-up games, riding their bikes through the neighborhood, or simply spending time at home with family.

Travel baseball forces kids to fully dedicate their time, energy, and interest into one activity. This is not natural at their stage in life. Even for high school athletes where I believe the rigors of travel baseball are far more age-appropriate, it is still difficult for many athletes to dedicate that much time and energy into one activity.

One important aspect of preventing burnout is enabling kids to play other sports throughout the year and not just concentrate on baseball. Playing other sports gives kids a break from baseball, in turn facilitating a greater appreciation for the game itself.

Rodney Davis, a high school coach in Arizona, expresses concern that travel baseball and the pressure associated with it has led to lack of appreciated for the game itself. Adding to this is the growing perception regarding the necessity for year round training and specialization.

"Kids aren't growing up with the love of the game," Davis said. "They are now growing up with the sense to perform and to be showcased all of the time. Their knowledge of the game seems superficial. I think they love the game, but they haven't learned to appreciate it."

In addition, playing other sports develops athleticism, which will prove extremely beneficial on the baseball field.

“Kids really need to be encouraged to play different sports,” says Daniel Wann, a professor of psychology at Murray State University. “And there are two sides to the coin as to why that is the case. First, it allows the muscle groups used to play baseball to take a break. And second, it allows for other sports skills to be developed. Many sports skills are transferable. For example, the footwork in soccer can be transferred very easily to basketball or baseball, and the starts and stops in basketball can be transferred to infielders or when running the bases. A kid can be playing sports other than baseball and still be getting better as a baseball player.”

Problems with Travel Baseball Under the Age of 12

Originally designed for middle and high school aged baseball players, summer travel teams are now providing opportunities for kids as young as 8 years old. I have even heard that in certain parts of the country they are offering travel t-ball. These youth league teams travel all around the country like big leaguers so kids still learning to read, write and complete elementary mathematical computations can play the toughest competition for the biggest prizes. Sounds like a great opportunity for kids who love baseball, correct? Not really. I believe that travel baseball is out of control, and the problems with travel baseball for kids under the age of 12 far outweigh its benefits.

Proponents of travel baseball argue that playing more games against the best possible competition facilitates athletic development. It is hard to disagree with that.

However, I urge parents with kids under the age of 12 to evaluate travel baseball with a more critical eye. In doing so, parents should ask the following questions:

  • Is my son really playing the best completion, or is he playing against mainly watered down teams in over-hyped tournaments?
  • Is the focus too much on winning and not on my son’s athletic, social, and emotional development?
  • Is my son’s travel schedule so rigorous that he has lost his ability to be a kid?
  • Is the pressure associated with playing tournament competition age-appropriate?
  • What are my son’s long term goals regarding baseball, and how does participating in travel baseball fit with those goals?

 

While I would like to remove travel baseball all together from the 11-U youth league landscape, I understand that travel baseball is here to stay. That said, here’s some advice for parents:

  • Do not let your son play travel baseball until they are at least 12 years old. If you feel that it is absolutely necessary to play travel baseball before the age of 12, find a team that plays about 30 games with minimal travel.
  • Look for teams that focus on player development, not winning. Gravitate towards coaches who understand emotional and social development. This can be more important than baseball knowledge.
  • Seek out teams with professionally trained coaches or teams who have hired professional coaches to consult with the team throughout the season.
  • Find teams who run practices during the season. Running practices during the season is a critical component to the athletic development of young players, as this gives them opportunities to improve skills that were not performed correctly during games.
  • Be careful of newly formed travel team. More often than not, the person creating the team is doing so to serving their own interests, not the players’ or the team’s.

College Athletic Recruiting Misconceptions: The Clearinghouse and Scholarships

Many misconceptions about college sports recruiting, scholarships, and the Clearinghouse exist. We want to put these to rest. What is the NCAA Clearinghouse? In order for your student-athlete to play Division I and Division II college athletics, each student-athlete needs to be certified through the NCAA Eligibility Clearinghouse. Division III athletes are not asked to submit their information to the Clearinghouse.

What are Division I, II, III subgroups for college athletics? Each Division is based on respective school size, legitimacy of the athletic teams, and scholarships available. Division I institutions are the biggest schools; they have the most amount of athletic scholarship money. Their athletic programs are the best. Division II are smaller schools but they still offer athletic scholarships. Division II athletic programs are usually a step below Division I. Division III schools are not allowed to offer athletic scholarships, but can give student-athletes academic scholarship money. These are the biggest three subgroups in NCAA athletics.

Is it imperative to register your prospective student-athlete to the NCAA Clearinghouse upon becoming a high school junior? It isn’t necessary for your student-athlete to sign up for the Clearinghouse. The Clearinghouse has a fee of $65 dollars for each application given to the NCAA Eligibility Center. The only student-athletes who need to register are the athletes that are looking to play Division I and II athletics. Division III athletes do not need to submit their information to the Clearinghouse. In submitting their information as juniors, student-athletes become eligible to play Division I and II athletics and eligible to earn an athletic scholarship.

Do you have to register with the NCAA Clearinghouse at all? As previously stated Division I and II athletes need to submit their information to the eligibility center. Division III and NAIA student-athletes do not have to submit their information. If a Division I or II student-athlete does not submit their information before stepping on the field their freshman year, they will become ineligible until the Clearinghouse certifies that that student-athlete is eligible.

What are NAIA schools? The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics is home to nearly 300 institutions in the U.S. and Canada. The NAIA is a separate governing body than the NCAA. The NAIA has its own policies and rules (pdf).

Do coaches gain more exposure to my student-athlete once he/she is eligible on the Clearinghouse? Registering with the Clearinghouse will not gain a student athlete any more exposure. The Clearinghouse only ensures that the student-athlete is eligible to play at the college level. College coaches have nothing to do with the Clearinghouse.

I got a letter from a Division I college. This means they want me, correct? Just because you received a letter from a Division I coach does not mean that they necessarily want you. Of course receiving mail feels great, but a lot of the time, they send mail to promote a camp, showcase, or the institution. A college letter is just the beginning, you need to follow that letter up by proactively promoting yourself so the coach and the program will want you. If the letter seems like a mass e-mail, or mass mailing, it probably is. Don’t get your hopes down, you made it on a list with many other prospective student-athletes looking at the school. Your goal is to stay on that list, and even work your way up that list. The way you do that is by being proactive, doing what you need to do in the classroom, and also on the field.

Can Division II schools give me athletic scholarship money? Yes, Division II schools are able to give student-athletes athletic scholarships. However, these schools might not have as much scholarship money as Division I institutions. Division III schools are not allowed to give athletic money to their student-athletes.

What is a core course? Core courses are math, science, english, and history courses. Gym, health, music, and many other electives are not considered core courses. Core courses are essential for eligibility to play at Division I and Division II schools. For Division I students-athletes, 16 core courses are needed in high school. For Division II student-athletes, that number is 14 core courses. Beginning August 1, 2013, students planning to attend an NCAA Division II institution will be required to complete 16 core courses.

Can my student-athlete get into college specifically on their ACT/SAT scores? ACT and SAT scores are usually looked at in what in the college admittance world is a sliding scale. If your student-athlete does well in the classroom but isn't a good test-taker, colleges will be more lenient due to his or her hard work in the classroom. If your student-athlete hasn’t done well on his or her GPA, but does better on the ACT or SAT, college coaches are more likely to let the GPA slide.

The Facts about Summer and Fall All-Star Travel Teams

Many student athletes say: “My All Star Travel Team is going to be playing in the Holiday Wood Bat Classic in Peoria during the 4th of July Weekend.  This is a great opportunity for exposure.”

FACT:  There are only a select few tournaments for both baseball and softball where a vast number of college coaches will be in attendance.

In terms of the example above, you can be sure that college coaches will not be spending their 4th of July weekend away from their families on the recruiting trail.

FACT:  Getting exposure through tournament play is only possible if college coaches know who you are prior to attending a particular tournament.

Just like showcases, most college coaches come to tournaments to evaluate players they already know. Thus, the chances of being discovered at an exposure tournament are slim, unless you play for a well known elite program, in which case many college coaches are already familiar with the caliber of players that compete for your particular team.

FACT:  Travel baseball and softball is extremely watered down.

Playing for a Travel All Star Team does not necessarily mean that you are on a truly elite team, despite what the coaches of these programs may say.

FACT:  The connection between travel baseball and the recruiting process is unclear.

Travel baseball was at one time only about player development. Then it later evolved into a contest between coaches to see who could win the most games and tournaments. More recently, several coaches and organizations realized that money could be made if they somehow tied college recruiting to travel baseball and softball, or at least made it appear that a connection between the two existed.

When choosing a travel team, find a coach and program that puts the needs of student athletes first.

Travel baseball and softball is first and foremost about development, not about winning tournaments or getting exposure.  If you choose a program that is sincerely about athletic development, then the recruiting aspects will take care of themselves.