A Better Approach to Weekend Tournaments

  
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I’ve spent the last two articles/episodes talking about how weekend tournaments are ruining youth baseball player development.

Just to clarify one last time - I didn’t say weekend tournaments are ruining youth baseball - I said they are ruining youth baseball player development!

This time, I want to talk about a few things you and I can do to help fix this and allow our players and teams to get the most out of their current experience without sacrificing their long term development.

Listen 🎧 above or read 📖 below! Enjoy!

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Quick Recap of the Problem

The thing is, it’s not really just the tournaments. It’s how we as parents and coaches are doing it. And remember, there are exceptions, however we’re all at risk of falling into this trap.

I went into detail of the issues in part one here and part two here.

Don’t just take my word for it. Check out this comment on the original post that came from a current pitching coach in the Cleveland Indians organization (who is a former college coach and also a dad of good youth baseball players):

Here are the headlines, but listen to the audio version for a quick summary of each:

⚾ Coaches (and parents) chase the wins instead of long term development.
⚾ Young players are not ready for this type of baseball.
⚾ High costs keep many from being able to play.
⚾ Week after week grind monopolizes time.
⚾ Being good and winning doesn’t always equal development.
⚾ It’s not like any other level of baseball.
⚾ Kids don’t get to learn how to be baseball players.

How to Fix or Avoid These Pitfalls

I’ve got a few ideas, and I could talk about this for days.

For now, I’ll break this up into two sections - what I like to call the the strategic and then the tactical approaches.

The Strategic (or Philosophical) Approach

This is your mental approach - your philosophy as a parent and/or coach. Literally how you think and approach the season, the games, the practices, the ups and the downs. This is the culture you have on your team, or in your house.

To figure out what your approach is, and more importantly what it should be, ask yourself, and answer, these questions:

⚾ What are your goals? (check out one of my first episodes about this)
⚾ Is winning going to be the priority?
⚾ What about development? Where does that fall into the priority list?
⚾ How about fun? Where does that fall?
⚾ What do we want to get out of all this time, energy, effort, and money?
⚾ Would I rather be the best team now, or have my players ready for later?

It’s important to actually think about all those questions. Write down the answers. Talk about them as a family. If you’re a coach, talk about them with your team and parents.

Talking about this will help with accountability as you move into the tactical approach, which is by far the hardest, and what I’ll talk about in a minute.

After you’ve answered the questions above, drill down a little further and answer some of these questions.

⚾ Am I okay with a team loss if we’re getting better?
⚾ Will I sacrifice the arm safety of my best pitcher if I get into a situation where not pitching him might cost me the game?
⚾ Am I willing to put the same amount of energy into practice as the games?
⚾ Am I willing to not follow the crowd?

The Tactical Approach (Actually Doing it)

Now, most of us say the right things when asked about the above.

Oh yeah, I am 100% about development. I want to teach the game and ensure my kids are having fun. Winning is great, but not the most important thing.

That’s where the tactical approach comes in, and this is where most of us run into trouble.

It’s always easier said (or thought) than done.

Assuming you answered the questions above correctly (😁) here are some practical things you can do to escape the weekend rat race and avoid being lured into doing things detrimental to long term development for your kids and team.

Be Intentional With Your Schedule

This one sounds easy, but can get out of control quickly.

There are two areas of focus here:

  1. Frequency

  2. Purpose

Frequency

I’m not going to recommend a hard and fast rule on the frequency at which you should play in weekend tournaments. Just keep it balanced.

It’s okay to play a couple, or a few, in a row, just be sure to allow enough time for rest and practice, before, after, and in between.

Considerations should be arm health, burnout, cost, and enough practice time to actually work on things experienced in the games - not just batting practice and some bullpens.

So often team practices aren’t focused on team practice. They’re geared towards individual work - most of which can, and probably should, be done away from team practice.

The other risk here is being lured into the fear of missing out. Fight the urge to join a tournament on a week off just because all the other teams are playing in it or they have cool trophies/rings that go to the winners.

Purpose

This one is harder than the frequency.

Now, I talk a lot about putting development over winning, but let’s face it - we all love to win! And I don’t know about you, but I want to develop winners in the game of life. So it’s okay to want to, and even try, to win!

We should play to win every time we step on the field. I just think we can be selective in choosing when we sacrifice the potential chance to win for the greater cause of player and team development.

We can still pitch our 6th best pitcher and try to win. We just have to have realistic expectations going in, and be okay with the potential short term pain, long term gain outcome.

Here’s what I recommend:

Pick a few tournaments that have more competitive teams, higher team entry fees, and cooler awards for the winners and put your best team on the field. Short of sacrificing arm health and player safety, go ahead and do what you can to win.

Then, pick a few tournaments with less competitive teams, lower entry fees, and closer in proximity to your home, and take a little different approach.

You’re still going out to win every game, but you’re okay with sticking to the plan even if the immediate outcome isn’t favorable.

Doing this will not only boost the energy and enjoyment of the kids who get to move around a little, but you’ll be creating depth and a better chance of overall team development in the long run!

Again, this can be difficult. It means you are okay missing the Gold bracket by a run or two in order to get a few kids some innings on the mound.

It may mean risking a few errors in the infield so your backup second baseman can get some meaningful game experience.

I can’t stress enough how important and valuable this game experience is. Little Johnny who plays outfield all the time, gets a few ground balls in practice, but never sees game experience, is not going to be much help when you really need him in the infield one day.

He needs to experience more than one inning at that position, where he can develop some comfort of the position, the role, and situations that he may find himself in.

Think about it - put yourself in your 9 year old’s shoes who has never really seen much game experience in the infield. All of a sudden he finds himself at second base with runners on first and second.

He’s got the coach yelling at him to move in and out, keep the runner close. Then the ball is hit to the right center field gap. Where does he go? He’s nervous. 75 people are in the stands watching him not know where to go while four different coaches are telling him where he should be and what he should do.

And then when he doesn’t do the right thing because he’s never been in that situation before, the coach gets onto him in front of those same 75 people.

Does he want another ball to come his way? No thanks…

How terrible is that?

So find some of these tournaments, and commit to developing your “second and third string” guys, getting them meaningful game experience. Imagine how much good that’s going to do for both them and the team 3 months from now?!?

Communicate this with your parents too! The worst thing that can happen is everyone’s not on the same page! Ensure there is alignment throughout the organization on goals and development!

What’s the Worst that Can Happen?

Seriously, what’s the worst thing that can happen? If the answer is I get to spend two days with my son playing four games and getting better, then that’s a pretty good weekend!

I’m not saying at 16U when you’ve paid $5,000 for the season! But at 9 or 10U when we’re just trying to get better and learn the game, that’s a good weekend for me!

Consider League Play

This is something that does exist in some parts of the country but not in others, although it’s beginning to become more mainstream.

While it can be fun to play in those multi-game tournaments on the weekend, the structure of them forces coaches to make decisions based on more than just winning that game or development.

Playing in a local or regional league with teams of similar skill level can help balance this.

Every other weekend play a league game or two.

Or once every other week play in a league game.

However it’s structured, that allows coaches to focus on that game alone.

To use the example I’ve used earlier - your team may be up by 12 runs in a tournament and Little Johnny who is your 7th best pitcher is finally going to get some innings. He gives up a couple of runs so you make a pitching change.

Not because you’re afraid you’ll lose the game, but because you’re worried about giving up too many runs and not making the bracket.

Playing in single games like this eliminates those conditions that might lure us into making short term decisions.

In that example, Little Johnny needs the reps and he also needs to experience some adversity so you as a coach can see how he reacts.

Start Your Own League or Series

Some areas have their own leagues for “select” teams to play in during the week.

Other areas have rec leagues that allow “select” players to play in their leagues during the week. This allows them to maybe play with other kids, other positions, etc.

But some areas don’t have or allow either.

So start your own!

In fact, I’ve talked to our head coach about this. What’s stopping us from just hosting our own round robin once a month?

We invite a couple other teams, split the cost of fields and umpires, and play each team on a Saturday. No rings or trophies. Just good old baseball!

What’s the downside?

I honestly can’t think of one.

What’s the upside?

Well, how about you aren’t making poor coaching decisions based on bracket play. You get a less pressure situation to move some guys around. You actually get to pick who you play instead of being at the mercy of some random (or not so random) draw. You can even talk to the other coaches and agree to use this as a development opportunity.

This is a no-brainer to me! Why not do it? If you have a reason to not do this, please leave a comment or send me an email.

Think About Practices Differently

As usual I could talk about this for hours, but I know I’m getting long.

While the structure of tournaments may be more difficult to change, we should focus on what we can 100% control - our practice time, and how we use it.

The hard part about this is balancing individual vs team needs.

The younger the kids, the harder it is to get them to work out on their own at home. I understand that, but it’s a must if they want to get better.

There are only so many minutes I as a coach get with my team during the week, and I need to make sure and get the most out of it.

Kids can hit, throw, field ground balls, and work on many individual skills on their own away from team practice, however they can’t work on the team stuff alone.

Be sure to take notes during every game. Debrief afterwards with your notes and coaches and rank the issues that came up in order of importance.

Choose carefully what you’ll do at the next practice based on that importance as well as what will give the team the most bang for the buck.

It might be situational. It could actually be individual. If you had 9 errors fielding ground balls over the weekend, then maybe that is an individual skill you should work on.

But if your team was confused when the other team bunted with a runner on second, I’d probably work on that. Simulate it and do it over and over.

If you had trouble with pitchers covering first on a ball hit to the right side. Send everyone through some PFPs (Pitcher’s Fielding Practice) for half an hour.

Rarely use team practice time for batting practice. If you want to spend some time running through some hitting stations, I can get behind that. But it’s very hard with one or two practices a week to take team batting practice on the field and it be a good use of your time.

Have one coach throw BP in a cage during the practice rotating kids one by one if you need to hit. I’m not saying to disregard hitting, but you’ve got to spend the time on teaching the game and learning new things to be ready to go again the next week at the next tournament.

Plan your practices - every single minute of them. Have a reason. Have a plan. And then go execute it.

Conclusion

Like I said, we could talk about this for hours. These are just three BIG things you can do RIGHT NOW to make an impact and help your player, team, and family get the most out of this season immediately!

If you have specific questions or would like me to go deeper on one of these, please ask!

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