Written By: John O’Sullivan, Founder of the Changing the Game Project
My friend Jay Coakley is a sport sociologist at the University of Colorado, as well as the author of a book on the intersection between sports and society. In it, he has one of my favorite baseball/softball quotes of all time:
“KIDS IN BASEBALL SAY THEY WANT TO HIT, CATCH, AND RUN. YET, WHAT DO ADULTS DO AS SOON AS THEY TAKE OVER? ELIMINATE THE HIT, CATCH, AND RUN BY MAXIMIZING THE USE OF A PITCHER WHO STRIKES EVERYONE OUT. THEY ELIMINATE THE BASIS FOR FUN.”
Little League is supposed to be about the enjoyment, camaraderie, and celebration of children gathering together and playing a game with their friends. Sadly, all too often it is about adults competing against other adults through their children. If we want to keep growing this beautiful game, we all need to play our part in fixing this. How? Here are the 10 biggest problems in youth baseball and softball, and how we can fix them.
Problem 1: Specializing to get a head start
We are in such a rush to do more, more, more at younger and younger ages, and as a result, our children are getting injured at an unprecedented rate. Children who specialize in baseball and softball before the age of 12 have a 70-90% higher injury rate than multi-sport children. They have twice the rate of overuse injuries. And they are more likely to burn out and drop out than their peers.
Solution 1: Be a Generalist
If you want to have the best 10-year-old baseball and softball players, then specialization is the path. But if you want to have the best chance of those children still playing in high school and beyond, then do not have them specialize. They need a multi-sport, multi-movement childhood in order to develop as an athlete first, and a baseball or softball player second. The best athletes will eventually catch up and surpass those without the athletic ability and possessing only baseball or softball skills.
Problem 2: Training children like they are adults
The British Olympic coach Ian Yates said in a recent interview, “Many parents want me to train their 12-year-old like I train my Olympians. What they never ask me to do is to have their 12-year-old do what those Olympians were doing when they were 12!” This is an issue in youth baseball or softball as well. A child is not a small adult. Children have different physiological abilities, and as they grow, we must be very careful in monitoring their training, especially in a sport such as baseball or softball, where one-sided movements such as throwing and hitting can create physical imbalances.
Solution 2: Train them like children
Young baseball or softball players must monitor their workload and receive adequate time off, full body movement and conditioning, and opportunities to simply “play” baseball or softball and not just “work” on their game.
Problem 3: Too many games; not enough practice
We too often use the adult, professional game as a model for how many days a week games should be played, but think about it … During a game, a child might see 8-10 pitches, catch 3-5 balls, and be involved in a small percentage of the offensive and defensive plays. If the goal is to make them better baseball or softball players over the long term, this is a poor use of time compared to quality practices where players get many more reps.
Solution 3: Find a better practice to game ratio
Many sports industry experts advocate for a 2-to-1, and up to a 4-to-1, practice-to-game ratio for young players. This takes the emphasis off results and ensures every player gets the adequate number of reps in all aspects of the game, under less pressure than a game. This promotes long term love and enjoyment of the sport.
Problem 4: Putting an emphasis on tournament play and All-Star teams, rather than the Little League experience as a whole
While the Little League World Series is what most people think of when talking about youth baseball and softball each summer, the tournament season is only a small piece of what the entire Little League experience is all about. It is important that coaches and parents are not emphasizing success by a player’s selection to an all-star team or ability to win a tournament, but rather by the life lessons and experiences learned from those opportunities.
Solution 4: Find additional ways to create the excitement of tournament all throughout the year
The truth is, only a select few teams will make it to a Little League World Series event each summer, and while that experience is one that will be remembered forever, it should not be the focus for coaches, parents, and volunteers all year long. It is important to find ways to bring the excitement of the tournament season into the day-to-day of the regular season and explore additional ways to recognize the success of all of your Little Leaguers® throughout the year. Celebrate all of your league’s achievements and recognize each and every player for the contribution they have made to writing the next chapter of the Little League story.