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Youth Travel Ball and Player Development

Youth baseball has really changed huh? It seems like baseball and life itself used to be so much simpler twenty or so years ago. Youth sports were about teaching fundamentals and playing in games. It sure doesn't seem like that is what is going on these days. There is one thing I think all parents of little leaguers or babe ruthers or travel ballers would agree on - we all want the best for our kids.

We want them to become the best that they can be while at the same time be successful on the field and help their respective teams win championships. I am starting to realize however, that travel teams over rec ball teams are becoming more and more popular and rightfully so. Your rec ball team consists of one or two really good players, 3 or 4 middle of the roaders and five or six that can't play a lick. As a coach, you find yourself spending more time working with the can't play a lick group so that they can improve to be able to catch a pop up and put one in play. All the while, the two really good players and 3 or 4 middle of the roaders don't really get the reps in limited practice time for them to reach their full potential. So that doesn't work for me.

Do you then go the travel team route? Better players, cool uniforms, weekend road trips, $$$, tournaments, etc. That to me sounds a little better than rec ball but I am not sure if that is best route either. Young talented athletes need to work and perfect the fundamentals of the games they are playing. If it is ball control in soccer, dribbling in basketball, short game in golf, good fundamentals are key to a successful player or team. No matter the talent level of a player, fundamental development requires practice, practice & more practice. Most travel teams are not designed as such. They may meet once a week, throw a few, hit a few and get ready to make the road trip, put on the cool uni and try and win the tournament.

So what to do? We are currently experimenting with what we are calling a "Developmental Team." We practice twice a week for two hours a clip. We practice correct fundamentals & take the players through a regimine of drills and they get a bunch of quality fielding and hitting repitiions. The second half of practice we play "sandlot" baseball. Five on five, switching postions every inning, teaching while we play. We may play in a tournament or two before it is all said and done, but in the meantime, I could care less about playing in anything organized. I am watching 12 young players improve right before my eyes and it is pretty cool. I am not saying our little program is better, worse or the same as anyone else. But one thing I do know, in order to improve at the game of baseball, players need to practice correct fundamentals, and practice them often.

If your travel team does that for you, great. If your rec team does it, wonderful. The problem I see is that fatherly egos are taking over youth baseball at rec and travel levels. For the coaches/dads it is more about winning the games/tournaments than it is developing the players.

Don't get me wrong, I am not knocking competition. Learning to compete to win is vital in the development of a player. But competiton without preparation will result in exposure of weaknesses. You see, eventually our youngsters fundamentals will be exposed and eventually they will have to learn and practice them if they desire to continue playing the game of baseball. Why not teach them now?

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Comment by John A. Baker on October 13, 2010 at 10:15am
Adults bring their own brand of "what's best for my kid" every place they go. I was no different when my son was growing up. And we all impress our own window on the world, on what goes and grows - it's what we do.

In your case, you've taken it upon yourself to do no more or no less. I give you high marks for the effort - but, the next day the sun will rise, kids will grow up with and without a lot of things - baseball fundamentals included. It's really no big deal. In fact, take a look at the trades and professions. The same format can be seen along a wide spread of vocations and professions.

All in all, we do seem to make it somehow. I wouldn't lose any sleep over it - but it's a great subject to bounce back and forth.
Comment by Michael Paes on October 13, 2010 at 11:20am
I think the emphasis has switched to travel/AAU, and the vast majority of the kids get left behind. In our town, the "in-house" time (regular season) is almost considered a pre-season for the travel kids. The fact is, the VAST majority of these travel players will have their careers end with high school - there are thousands of kids for every scholarship out there. The focus for ALL players should be:

1. sportsmanship
2. having fun
3. baseball skills

Every year the discrepancy gets greater, since most of the kids stop playing after the spring season, and the travel kids play all summer. That is a big reason so many kids drop out of organized sports when they hit 12 or so - they realize most coaches don't care about how they do.

I started something new this summer - a bi-weekly clinic for kids not on travel rosters. Depending on the number of players there, I did drills and/or practice games. Every kid showed improvement, and they all had a great time. Next year I hope it can expand to the point where real games can be played.
Comment by Kip Gross on October 13, 2010 at 12:04pm
I think what you are doing is great and I commend you for it, I really do. My son who is now a young 10 plays on a travel ball team and the reason I let him play on this team is because I was told by the manager that this team would consist of players that all of the kids already know and it will 1st be about learning the game some and then what happens in the tourneys is pretty much secondary. And to me this is really what matters at this age. What I don't understand is WHY Pony baseball allows these kids to steal bases? It makes absolutely no sense and does nothing more than turn the games into a walk and run fest which in my opinion doesn't teach the kids much about the game. No kidding, last season out of every game that I went and watched, ONE kid was thrown out trying to steal 2nd base and it was a fluke. The catcher was actually trying ti throw the ball back to the pitcher and he missed the ball and the runner, thinking he was going to be safe easily slowed down and the 2nd baseman caught the ball and tagged him out. I don't have a problem with teaching kids the proper running skills to steal bases but to get to 1st and automatically go on the 1st pitch just doesn't do it for me. These games most of the time turn into snowball fights because the kids throw the ball around the diamond most of the time without a purpose. I say teach the kids the basic fundamentals and take the basestealing out of the game until they get to the next bigger field where the ball now has a chance to beat the baserunner.
Comment by Joey Myers on October 13, 2010 at 3:29pm

You hit the barrel right on the ball. I'm noticing the same routine and pattern with ego-driven fathers/coaches in the Central Valley of Cali. Development at the early levels should be on technique, more quality over quantity. Tennis players in Russia (for the sake of argument on what Russia's real name is), don't get to compete until three years of "technique training." And we all know how frequent we see Russian names in female tennis.

As kids turn into young men, then we can pick up the game (little league to Junior High) don't need to be playing more than 40 competitive baseball games/year. Sandlot and developmental leagues are great, but I know someone who put their 12 year old kid in 170 competitive baseball games in one year! That kid will be lucky to NOT burn out before his 16th birthday.

I think you're on the right path with your son...making sure to sprinkle on another entirely different sport or two along the way. Nice job Andy!
Comment by John A. Baker on October 13, 2010 at 4:20pm
Here's my formula for teaching youngsters to play the game, and better themselves:

1. Invite a bunch of youngsters to a ball field.
2. Dump a pile of balls, bats, gloves, a few hub caps for bases
3. Get in the car - go home.
4. Come back around around supper time, collect the gear and tell the kids you'll be back the next day.

If you looking for more from this game - it's all about you, not them.
Comment by zeninfinity on October 13, 2010 at 4:57pm
Nice article! My 12 yo is finishing up his travel ball season and I have to say he has not improved a whole lot. I agree with your philosophy, however I do not know how to properly teach the finer techniques of baseball. What’s a guy like me to do?
My son is an upper, middle of the roader kind of guy and really needs to learn proper technique and the finer points of ball from a truly experienced/seasoned coach. I'm not a ball player myself, but I did judo at an elite international level as a kid and young adult. The main credo in judo is maximum effect with minimal effort, in a word, efficiency or efficiency of movement. So, I am big on proper technique.
I would also like to note that my original instructor was a very nice person and very knowledgeable in judo, but did not really grasp how to teach "tournament or competitive judo." Sure, our club went to small local tournaments every 2 weeks or so and the "talented" kids would take home the trophies. I started when I was 5 and got my butt kicked for 4 years straight and never won a thing. I think the 1st 2 years I never even won a match. I would estimate that I went to 50 tournaments over those 4 years.
Then I went to a tournament and a Japanese instructor picked up on the fact that I was 1/2 Japanese and spoke to my Japanese mom and said I had potential. Of course she latched onto it and the next thing you know we were driving 45 minutes each way 3 times a week to classes. Within 6 months I was 3rd in the state, next I became East Coast Champion. A year and a half later I was 2nd in the US, then the 2nd in Jr Olympics and eventually a national champ, Pan American gold medalist and Olympic hopeful. Eventually things got out of hand and I burned out at 16. A story we all have heard about again and again. ; ) Sorry I digress.
I also want to note that I was a horrible hockey player and was in the “clinic” as a kid (the clinic is below the “C” team ; ). After 2 years of being horrible my father shipped me off to camp in Canada for 2 weeks. Well what do you know, I made the A team that year. Went to Canada again that summer and then became captain of the travelling team.
The point I am trying to drive home here is the quality of instruction is everything. I am not in the inner circle of baseball. I am quite the outsider and have no idea how to get my son the high quality instruction I feel he deserves. My father was fairly well off and could afford to just ship me off to Canada or whatever. Unfortunately I am not in the same position to do so.
As I stated earlier, travel ball has been a great disappointment. While the level of play is higher than little league, the level of improvement has been minimal. Andy do you have any ideas on what I can do with my son? At the moment I am considering sending my son to this camp that last 3 weeks. But I have no idea of the quality of instruction.
Any feedback on how I could help my son develop his game would be greatly appreciated. The key for me is finding high quality instruction. Thanks for your time and sorry this was so long winded.
Comment by Ryan Solberger on October 13, 2010 at 5:23pm
You make some great points. As a high school coach I find a lot of frustration with travel ball. Yes you can face good competition and get seen but I think these travel coaches put a fear into players that if they don't spend the money to play in travel and showcases you won't get a chance to play college ball. Too many players are refusing to play on their HS summer team and get better as a team because they are scared to death they won't get seen by coaches and scouts.
Comment by Ted Browne on October 13, 2010 at 8:41pm

Ask yourself this question: what motivates a 12 year old to play baseball when he's 14?

At 12 years old, he doesn't need to learn the finer points of the game - he needs to fall in love with the game and play other sports as well. If he's athletic enough to make the high school team, the coaches will teach him the finer points of the game. All these parents that spend thousands on lessons, travel ball, the best gear, etc. are missing the point...develop a passion for baseball by simply letting him play at whatever level he will have fun playing.

As we've discussed on other topics, puberty changes everything. At 12, let him have fun. There's plenty of time to adjust the nuances.

Baker has it right.

Comment by Ted Browne on October 13, 2010 at 8:57pm
@ Ryan

Travel ball is ruining high school baseball because the parents don't realize that if their kids are any good, they'll be "seen" regardless of where they play. The big "secret" is that the real high quality younger players play on MLB-sponsored "scouting teams" anyway - so everyone else is simply playing ball. Here's an example of one regional team (each team has several through the country):

If you go to the roster, you'll find a whole slew of 14 to 17 year old kids.

If being "seen" is the ultimate motivator for playing travel ball, then perhaps you're better off without them on tour team anyway. The only events that are truly "prospect" events are the beauty pageant tourneys. These are often called "showcase" events and aren't held more than a few times per year, and normally have only two or three potential prospects on each team anyway. So the other players play supporting roles, while their parents are told that they have the potential to be "seen". Don't get me wrong - they are good ball players, but their parents typically have unrealistic expectations.
Comment by Greg Lauer on October 13, 2010 at 9:32pm
I agree with much of what you said. My 12u player just got out of a horrible $$$ tournament ball team and has been on other coaches back burners now for years so we went an hour away and out of 80+ kids he was one of 24 picked. He works at home alot on the tee and in our home made cage in the basement and goes for training when we can. It seems round here the coaches kid and friends clique rules. As far as rec ball we have two leauges one for better players and try outs are held (please see first part of sentance) to make it look fair and the rest go to the lower teams. We have been on the upper team since he started playing and thought tournament ball would be different.It was the first year no coaches clique but alot of kids with less talent. then we came back to our local area and made a team made up of the lower kids now when I say this I only mean in our rec local area other towns only have this leauge and have good kids. Well Hilter was the coach and he was the new kid on the block and sat most of the year while kids who ran backwards for fly balls in outfield rather than drop stepping got played? It got old fast especialy when you are paying for it.
This comming season he is on a team newly developed at one of the largest training facilities on the east coast and they are following the NoCal program for all levels. NO DADS AS coaches. and training is included at the facility. it is called a instructional program and we have high hopes for a much better season.
My eyes were opened when we went to a training facility called GO Wags here localy. The use a high speed video camera on every kid private or semi private it doesn't matter. WOW can you tell alot from that. These guys study the mechanics and when they started teaching my jaw droppped. I thought wow he has been taught wrong for so long. Things like step into the outside pitch, drive your top hand, swing level, stay balanced ect. are just not good things to teach a kid. One lesson they video taped his feet! ok, you are asking why right? well they said what is one common thing all great atheletes have? good feet right. the tapeing was to see how much rotation he was getting. Well one year later and he has went from linear swing to a great rotational hitter we just need to work on timing. At 12 he is swinging a -3 and well but it is only to correct his quick hands and I figure if you can swing it go for it it wont be long till you have to, right?
I have taken this knowlege and used it on our fall ball players including using a great little tool called the insider bat. we had three kids in 14-16 fall ball (my kid played up to get used to 90 ft bases) that looked like they had never swung a bat before. So on cage nights I seperated them from the others and coached them on the tee and low and behold you know what we got? real good hitters!
You can get dvds I think if you search the training facility I mentioned. they have one called why and it will change your mind on how to teach hitting. It also shows why the hands must be inside and alot of ather mathmatical, geometrical stuff that is very interesting. Ok, you made it this far so thanks for reading my blabering. and yes we have come a long way from hopping on your bike with your bat and glove and finding a pick up game ahhhh the good ole days.


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