🎧 Weekend Tournaments are Ruining Youth Baseball Player Development
🛑 Before you go any further - this is part one of a three part series. Links for parts two and three are at the end of this!
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This may be one of the most controversial posts I’ve written or recorded since my Dizzy Dean post that helped kick off the Elbow Up era!
In that article I argued that they, and many other ‘Little League’ type organizations, had doomed themselves with a failure to evolve as the youth sports landscape had shifted.
Now, as those organizations have seen a mass exodus of young players, the pendulum has swung in the completely opposite direction. All we have now are two day tournaments every weekend for 9 months out of the year that is killing youth baseball player development.
The answer is not to go back to the old way of recreational leagues and all-stars, but to find a middle ground that promotes player development AND competition, while remaining flexible and affordable. And that’s going to be difficult.
⚾ The Problem
I’ve been thinking about this for some time, but didn’t really know which angle to tackle it from.
Simply put, the current “select” or “travel ball” environment fails at player development because it puts coaches in a must-win mentality every game, every week.
Coaches are constantly thinking about seeding, the elimination bracket, who they’re going to play next, how many runs can they give up, who might pitch next, and who would be available to pitch then.
None of that is really something that should be a priority week in and week out for youth coaches.
Now before everyone gets upset and sends hate mail, I’m not against tournaments. I’m also not against winning, or playing to win. As I’ve stated on here regularly I want to win every time I step onto the field.
⚾ Young Players Aren’t Ready for this Type of Baseball
Let’s start backwards with the older age groups and more advanced baseball. I’m talking 15U and above select, or travel, baseball.
Weekend tournaments are fine. Teams are typically built for them. By this age, the player pool has been somewhat filtered, and the talent gap has closed (relatively speaking).
Coaches know who pitches and who doesn’t, and the focus begins to shift from fun and development to competition and working on playing in college.
At this age, most kids still playing are playing in high school, they have a primary position or two, and they understand the game (again, relatively speaking). You’ll even see quite a few POs, which is short for ‘pitcher-only.’
Compare that to the 9U and 10U landscape today.
Coaches have zero clue who will be pitchers, players haven’t matured enough mentally or physically to know where they might fit best on the field, and they certainly don’t know the game.
The best teams typically have the best athletes, which is not a good predictor of who will be the best baseball players when they’re 16 or 17 years old.
⚾ Coaches Focus 100% on Winning
This is a tough one. Even the most objective coaches are lured into this trap - myself and my team included!
And when you do find that rare coach who sees the long game and tries to have a development-first mentality, the parents can’t stand it.
We want to win! Why aren’t we doing this? Why aren’t we doing that?
Then they move on to another team and coach.
When you understand the first issue of players not being ready, it’s easier to understand this issue.
Short Term Gain, Long Term Pain
Coaches should be moving guys around, letting many kids pitch, teaching the game. It’s hard to do this when you’re constantly worried about seeding for the next day.
What’s even crazier is how most coaches can’t see the forest for the trees. They stick with their number one shortstop over and over because they need him there.
Then what happens when that shortstop needs to pitch? Now that coach doesn’t have a shortstop because he never developed one.
So instead of moving guys around and getting reps at other positions, you keep your best 9 on the field.
Guess what? The team wins the game and possibly the tournament, and then the players don’t develop and the team suffers in the long run. 🤷♂️ Makes no sense.
Coaching for the Game Win, Every Week
In these weekly tournaments, a coach will make a major coaching decision based on not giving up another run when the game is already locked up. Seriously, who cares if you win 12-2 or 12-6? Well, if you want to be the number 1 seed and not play the early Sunday game, then you do.
Or maybe you’ve got the game locked up but giving up one more run eliminates you from the championship bracket.
How is this helping develop players? You would have won either way.
(Hint: it’s not.) 😡
Not Teaching the Game
Instead of teaching situation baseball, and laying down a sacrifice bunt when the lead off runner gets on first and steals second, the coach tries to steal 3rd because the catcher isn’t very good. Over and over and over.
That only works for another year or two. Then that kid gets thrown out, the hitter never learns how to bunt or what to do in that situation, and the team can’t compete long term. Again, makes no sense. 🤷♂️
How is this helping develop players? You win the game, but then your team/kid falls behind by the time he’s 13.
(Hint: it’s not.) 😡
⚾ Exorbitant Cost
There are many studies that show high costs are a very real barrier to entry for many families in baseball.
I spent $60 a season when my now-18 year old played 7U rec ball.
I spent $95 a season when my now-9 year old played 7U rec ball.
Now our individual player fees are in the hundreds (many teams are in the thousands) and our team will raise thousands more in fundraising.
Why do we need $8,000 - $12,000 as a team?
The number one culprit is tournament fees. For a 9 year old team the average tournament entry fee will be $200-$300 EVERY weekend, not to mention the gate fee of at least $10 per person per day.
Added together, the average cost per player for a season must be well over $1,000.
I don’t have to tell you that millions of Americans just simply can’t afford that.
(this doesn’t even touch on gas money and food while “traveling” for a young baseball team)
⚾ Monopolizes Time
This one is going to ruffle some feathers.
Prohibits Family Time and Vacation
The common response to this is, “well we love being on the ball field all the time!”
Well I do too, but it’s not relaxing to do it 30 weeks in a row. I need a vacation. I need to sit on the beach. I need to spend time with my family in a more intimate and relaxed setting with no scheduled ball game to get to, no herding cats between games in an overcrowded park, dodging foul balls and getting soaked in a rain delay.
I love being on the ball field more than anyone, and I love spending time with my son and family doing it. But we all need a break.
It’s not healthy to play this long every single week without a break.
Breaks are good for the kids too. Every time we’ve ever taken a break, my son (and team) comes back refreshed and better than ever.
Limits Time in Other Activities
This is one that I really do think parents overlook.
Sure, it’s healthy to be outside playing ball. It’s great to be around other kids, learning how to win and lose, how to compete, how to be a good sports. There’s a lot of life lessons in sports (which is one reason I really like kids playing them)!
But it’s also important to do other things.
My son loves to fish, ride four-wheelers, and shoot guns. He even started a YouTube channel where he tracks some of these activities. He’s learning so much recording videos, publishing them, and interacting with others.
It’s also important for these kids to be involved in other activities so their identities aren’t 100% ties to baseball. As I’ve stated over and over, the chances of your son playing after high school are slim, and the chances of them playing after college are even more slim.
What happens when baseball is over for them and they have no interest or experience in anything else?
That’s a real issue, and often the result isn’t positive.
⚾ What’s the Answer?
That’s a great question! And it’s a difficult and complex one to answer.
I have some ideas, but they aren’t easy to implement unless everyone buys in. And the fear of missing out (FOMO) is real. Parents and coaches play earlier, more often, and longer because they’re afraid their son or team is going to get left behind.
There’s also the issue of money. And this time I’m not talking about the team expenses.
These tournament directors are making it - a lot of it! And full disclosure, I’m not against this. They provide a service, and should be compensated for their time. But the more tournaments they have the more money they make.
That’s just not always best for the kids.
That being said, I do have some ideas. I wish I could wave a magic wand and fix the whole situation. Unfortunately, the best I can do is record another podcast and share those ideas!
So tune in next time for a rundown of how I think we could at least start to turn the ship around, and how each of you can make a positive impact on your team and in your community!
What are your thoughts? Agree? Disagree? Connect with me over at the Elbow Up Facebook page here!
Then head over for part two where I talk about a few more reasons why weekend tournaments are ruining youth baseball player development.
And if you read both of these, here’s part three where I gave some practical advice on how to avoid this trap and do games and tournaments better!
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