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It is time to look at USA/MLB Baseball's recent report that says, “the need to rethink how we organize, operate and execute youth baseball activities” is more relevant now than ever before.”
You have seen the movie “the Sandlot” I’m sure. I bet that movie relates to a person in my generation (played Little League in the 60’s-70’s) different than it relates to you. And kids of today probably have a completely different perspective of the movie than I do.
See, we lived that movie every day as a kid growing up in my neighborhood. We road our bikes to the playground for a game of “Work-ups” or “Three Fly’s Up”, “Pepper”, “Pickle”. We played whiffle ball in the back yard and the front street. We played driveway basketball and street football.
Hours of impromptu pick-up games were some of our most cherished times in our youth and we made great memories. No adults around to spoon feed our every move or micro manage every mistake. We made our own umpire calls and figured out any disputes on our own.
I can remember during baseball season while in elementary school we would play a game we called “Work-ups”. We would ride our bikes to school and as soon as the teacher on morning duty opened the gate we would all dash toward the playground field and stomp on home plate yelling, “first up. Second ups. Catcher. Pitcher, first base, etc.
There was big two-story old house near the right field fence and if you hit it over the fence you were out because that stopped the game as we would have to go into the old lady’s yard and try to find the ball.
Unfortunately, kids growing up today may never have a chance to experience a movie like ‘Sandlot’ in real life. Today’s kids should have that opportunity or at least something similar.
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I have always thought that youth baseball should look a lot more like the “Sandlot” than what it has fallen into today.
I was reminded recently about a book that was titled “Competition” by Gary Warner and published in 1975 (close to 50 years ago). This was probably a time when youth sports were at a tipping point and the author had early indications that we would be spiraling off the rails into the toilet in years to come.
In one of his chapters, Gary Warner added a quotation from a friend and colleague of his named Bill Harper who was a professor at Emporia State College in Kansas.
“Any time you have games in which the participants have less control than the organizers about how they play, who they play, when the play, then it is not really play.”
Today, youth baseball is organized and structured from top to bottom by the “Big-People”. (referred to the adults from now on).
I have run summer camps for years and one of the main events of popularity is guess what? Yep, the last 45 mins or hour we always break up into age groups and have a coach-pitched sandlot game. The kids love it and have a blast. I have done this type of scrimmage game at all my camps, youth baseball practices, high school teams and the players don’t want the game to end.
So, we are going to share with you what our vision is to rethink how we organize, operate and execute our youth baseball experience.
Mike Matheny wrote the following in his famous letter to parents in the Matheny Manifesto,
“I always said that the only team that I would coach would be a team of orphans, and now here we are. The reason for me saying this is that I have found the biggest problem with youth sports has been the parents. I think that it is best to nip this in the bud right off the bat. I think the concept that I am asking all of you to grab is that this experience is ALL about the kids.”
Yes, nothing here is about the ‘Big-People”. This is all for the pleasure and well-being of the kids. It’s going to be a bit like an auto race—once the race cars are on the track the “Big-people’ take the pace car back to hang out in the pit-row.
The adult roles are now more of support group and facilitator instead of trying to be the ‘big-dogs’ on stage and pulling all the puppet strings. We are going to pull the ‘Big-People’ back into the pit row and off the big stage.
Removing the Big-People’s Emotions
Yes, Mike Matheny hit the nail on the head when he said the parents are the problem. So, what we are going to do is try to reduce the emotional levels for the ‘Big-people’.
First, we want to lower the emotional enticements that largely are the blame for many of the problems in youth sports today. The biggest one is the scoreboard. We keep score during the games, but no tracking league standings, play-offs are just pool play tournaments, and no all-stars play-offs.
Yes, the ‘Big-people’ thrive on competitions, league championships, all-stars play offs. It is like the ‘Big-people’ want to make every youth baseball event like a “March-Madness” Tournament. Or a College World Series or Football Playoffs. Well we are going to eliminate all the “March Madness”, and return the game to the kids to play baseball without all the hullabaloo affiliated with the ‘Big-People’s” very emotional attachment to the scoreboard.
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Introduce Free Play
Project Play introduced (8) items in their 2015 youth sports model for youth sports to try to adopt going forward. Introduce free play is one on their list and we are going to try to help facilitate more free play in youth baseball.
Free play is what kids do when they are playing with each other and don’t have ‘Big-People’ directing every move. It’s like when mom used to say things like, You kids get outside and play because you are driving me crazy in this house!”
You go outside and figure out how to play together. You use what you have and make up free play games and things. You use your imagination and freedom to invent your own entertainment in the realm of ‘playing’. Same thing at school recess. The kids freelance around and play games and activities on their own using their own ingenuity and implements that they have available.
One of the top sports psychologists of our time, Dr. Thomas Tutko, is quoted as saying, “I strongly believe that when we force competition prior to the child’s capability of handling pressures involved, the long-term detriments will outweigh any supposed benefits.”
Kids age 12 and under are not suited for high stress competition yet. They are more suited for more improvised free play. Why do we put kids under all this pressurized play offs and tournament championships? Because the ‘Big-people’s” emotions have to be fed this enormous appetite for “March Madness’ style playoffs and highly charged competition.
We will show you how to move youth baseball’s pendulum to swing back towards lower pressurized, free play style, and away from the current high pressure, win-at-all-costs approach utilized predominantly throughout youth baseball today.
SIDE NOTE: USA Baseball’s report mentions playing more ‘backyard’ baseball games as one of the ways to make the sport more popular and enjoyable to the kids.
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There are a lot of myths going around out there in the youth baseball “Big-people” circles. One of those is that there is a belief by many that kids need to begin specializing in one sport at an early age. And that if players don’t focus on one sport they pretty much throw in the towel on any chance to play higher levels of baseball.
This is fake news. Many in higher baseball positions want to see more ‘well rounded’ total athletes that can play multiple sports. USA Baseball and the Aspen Institute’s Project Play both promote the importance of playing multiple sports and avoiding one sport specialization as long as possible.
USA Baseball’s long-term development program even goes further by limiting youth baseball season to (4) months maximum. That terminates year-around baseball teams and Fall Baseball. Players are highly encouraged to sample other sports in the Fall and Winter months.
This is a topic that I took away from Project Play and one I have been an advocate for a long time. We saw in the survey mentioned earlier by kids that traveling far away and playing in tournaments is not a very high priority on their baseball enjoyment list.
The ‘Big-people’ have chased the out of town tournament model for the last couple of decades. Parents have in their minds, “that we have to travel far away and spend a lot of time and money in order for my kid’s to ever play high levels of baseball.”
This is fake news again. Nobody knows what will happen to kids by the time they are age 14 or 15. Many will not even play baseball by age 14. So, there really is no good reason to spend enormous money and gobs of time away from home before this age of 14. It is more sensible to play local. Play throughout the week and keep closer to home on the weekends.
If you have a child that really takes to the game when they reach high school then you can look for more adventure in travel baseball. In the meantime, keep the local in-town teams and leagues going.
This is another action item from Project Play. And yes, we will follow their lead especially in the under 12 age groups. ‘Thinking small’ means to think about shorter fields or smaller groups, things of this nature.
We will utilize this in T-ball making smaller (6) player teams in our rotations. In addition, we will use my 3-Team format to play intrasquad type sandlot scrimmages as a major part of our practice and player development model. These types of adaptations give kids tremendously more opportunities to ‘touch’ the ball and also highly increase the player’s enjoyment ‘fun’ level.
This is all about development. Not only the physical and mental facets of the game but we want to use the game of baseball as a vehicle to teach more than the game. In addition, we want to give the players room to make mistakes, strikeout, make some errors, etc. without the ‘Big-people’ waiting to immediately pounce on their boo boos and lash out at the kids.
Youth Sports should be a place where families can assemble and gain from the community benefits of play together. Gary Warner wrote in his book ‘Competition’ about the problem and gave us a possible solution.
“When we treat the competitors as people,” he wrote, “this means we loosen up, allow for mistakes, don’t take ourselves so seriously and maybe even have a good laugh.”
As we develop the player physically, mentally and emotionally we thankfully realize baseball gives us a wonderful opportunity to help build young people into strong, well balanced, competitive kids. Baseball has a ton of ways to fail so the game consistently tests our will and ability to ‘shake it off’, ‘bounce back’, ‘get ready for the next one’.
As ‘Big-people’ rather than waiting to immediately ‘pounce’ on kids every time they make a mistake, we should take our focus off the failures and look to emphasize more of the ‘intangibles’ of baseball life.
I call the ‘intangibles’ as things like grit, leadership, playing hard, playing with enthusiasm, having good body language, being a good teammate, respecting the opponents and umpires, playing through rough spots (grit), being humble in victory, determined in defeat, courageous and give all your effort.
These are some of character topics that the ‘Big-people’ should be looking to affirm and expose to youth players. Treat the kids like ‘people’ and not ‘perfect’ little major league ballplayers (which there are no perfect players).
USA Baseball in their recent report came out with recommendations on the amount of competitive games vs the time provided for practice. Basically, the report says to spend 75% of the field time in practice scenarios and 25% of the time in competitive games.
SIDE NOTE REMINDER: It is time to look at USA Baseballs recent report that says,
“the need to rethink how we organize, operate and execute youth baseball activities is more relevant now than ever before.”
Yes, this is definitely a call to rethink how we do youth baseball. Why did USA Baseball think it was so important to focus on practice time and limit the proportion of competitive ballgames?
I think it is because they realize that kids are playing slow moving, not enough action, not enough opportunities to swing at or ‘touch’ the baseball. They would like to see more practice games, practice days, scrimmage sandlot games, action packed practices then going to slow moving competitive games where kids just don’t get to play baseball.
When you see the sandlot style, accelerated development games in action you will quickly see how many more times kids get to swing the bat, field and throw the ball, learn situations, experience multiple positions, enhance their ball-handling opportunities, learn to really run the bases compared to a regular competitive game vs. an opponent.
USA Baseball realizes that youth baseball needs to change their operating model in order to better serve kids. Pivoting to a more kid orientated, sandlot games, better practices, and less focus on photo op, competitive games that mostly serve the emotions of the ‘Big-people’ is the way to go forward.
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