Will We Ever Put Development Ahead of Games?

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(c) Liz Zenobi Photography

No sooner had the folks at TeamSnap posted “Do We Play Too Many Games?”, an article I wrote about the erosion of player development as youth sports schedules are increasingly loaded with games, than I received my daughter’s 8U fall travel softball schedule.  In an eight-game season, seven games where packed into the first 15 days.

We play in a self-billed developmental league, but I’m not really sure anyone really knows what that word means.

DEVELOPMENTAL

1 a:  of, relating to, or being development; broadly:  experimental 2   b:  serving economic development

2:  designed to assist growth or bring about improvement (as of a skill)

Source: Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary

I was able to reschedule one doubleheader, though doing so was torture.   Upon settling on a date and time with the coach of one of the teams who also didn’t want to play a doubleheader, I contacted the league to let them know.  After agreeing to pay the umpire (though the umpires are paid for by the league and I wasn’t adding a game I was just moving a game I figured it was easier to agree to pay) and supply game balls (also included in the league fee), I found with these gems in the final email from the league “allowing” the game to be moved:

“Double-headers at the 8U level are the norm, not the exception. . . . Just wanted to make sure you were aware of all the angles.”

Angles?  It’s an 8U fall softball game, not game seven of the World Series.  No one is losing TV or advertising revenue, but some seven- and eight-year-old girls playing coach-pitch softball for the first time just might have a better experience and not come to think of softball as a nonstop chore.

The real issue is the thinking that doubleheaders make sense at the 8U level in the first place.  The trend of jamming game upon game into the schedules of even the kids just starting out is troublesome.  Players get better at practice not in games.  You have to play games because they are fun and there has to be a carrot for the practices.   But in a game, particularly a coach-pitched 8U softball game, a player might get to the plate four times.  What’s that going to amount to, seven swings?  If she’s lucky she’ll have two balls hit her way in the field.  That’s simply not enough “touches.”  Plus, games are not an occasion in which you can really stop and teach or make real corrections.

Leagues and programs need to understand the need for a tiered schedule.  Not every age group needs to play the same number of games.  The younger they are, the fewer games they need.

Parents need to recognize they are putting their kids on the fast track to burnout if the kids’ first taste of a sport is playing four to five days a week.  Sometimes less is more.

We made it through our schedule, which, if not for one rescheduled game, would have included an 11 day stretch between games seven and eight.  Then we waited 14 days after our last game for the playoffs to begin.

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Are Travel Teams Right for Your Young Athlete?

The folks at TeamSnap published an article I wrote for them on the TeamSnap blog.

It’s a question that swirls around in parents’ heads the way midges swirl around the pitcher’s mound at Progressive Field. In today’s manic, ultra-competitive youth sports culture, some parents fear their children will fall behind if they don’t play on a travel team.

Soccer Ball ParentsOf course, there are no have-to’s or cookie cutter approaches to youth sports. So, no. Your child doesn’t have to play travel.

But the reality is if your child has enough talent and has the desire (their desire, not yours) to play beyond recreational leagues, travel sports are in their future.

Click here to continue reading on the TeamSnap blog.

When Being the Good Spectator is Wrong

A-League Rd 5 - Central Coast v BrisbaneA player dribbles up the sideline and pushes the ball past the defender in a U12 soccer game.  The defender tries to kick the ball; he’s late, too late, and kicks the dribblers shin pad instead.  The dribbler continues up the sideline without missing a step.  Another play that happens a thousand times and has already happened a dozen times in this game.  Yet the referee sprints to the defender and starts yelling at him.  The defender is only nine-years-old and the ref towers over him.  So the ref bends down so his face is inches from the defender while he is yelling at him.  Now the referee is pointing his finger in the defender’s face.  All the while, play is going on, not that the referee seems to care.  When it’s finally done, the defender is in tears.

I would like to say this is an article I read about some game somewhere, but it’s not.  It happened in my son’s last soccer game as I watched from the sideline.  I’d also like to say I said something to the referee though the defender was my son’s teammate not my son but I did not.  Truth be told, it wasn’t until well after a player from the opposing team had climbed into the referee’s car and the car was long gone out of the parking lot that the reality of what I witnessed really hit me.

This isn’t a post about bad or biased officiating.  It’s about a bully, much as I hate that word because of how we overuse it today, who has no business being anywhere near a youth sports field let alone refereeing a game, and how immobilized we all were.  In no universe is this behavior remotely condonable.  In no way should this person be allowed near young athletes.  The referee’s role is to officiate and perhaps to help teach and there were two appropriate approaches here.  In terms of officiating, if he believed the play warranted discipline for any reason then he should have blown the whistle and given card.  In terms of teaching, whether he handed out the card or not, if he thought it was a dangerous play, he still should have blown his whistle and used it as a teaching moment to explain to the kid or his coach or both where the issue lay.  Instead, he berated and belittled a young athlete.  That is inexcusable.

To be honest, I’m not sure what could have or should have been done.   And I’m not sure what I should have done differently in the aftermath.  I thought the boy’s father handled it well and I agreed with him when he told me, “I’m biting my tongue.”  But now I’m not sure any of us handled it correctly and I wonder if it’s because the news surrounding parents at youth sports is so prominent and not in a good way, we’re no longer able to identify when a situation calls for intervention and we’re paralyzed by the fear of being the “bad” youth sports parent.

What I do know I witnessed a bully bullying a young athlete and did nothing.

The Once and Future . . .

046-the-once-and-futureWhen I started 8U Travel it was meant to be an outlet as I rediscovered baseball through the eyes of my son and as I gained an understanding of what my old man experienced and a backdrop for his behavior when I was a young ballplayer.

What I “discovered” was a world where the kids, you know, the ones actually playing, are secondary to the needs and power trips of the adults.  We all see the headlines every day, everywhere in every youth sport.  And so 8U Travel often turned to attempts to wrap my head around that.

The more I wrote though, the more I came to see there were three undeniable truths which made the writing feel pointless.

It’s Truly Hopeless

We like to believe the crazy behavior we see on the sidelines of our kids’ games is something that has been born out of the explosion of the club/travel scene.  We like to “remember” how much better it was when we were little leaguers.  Well, the nostalgia has fogged our memories.  The behavior has been going on since someone first got the idea to take kids games from the sandlot and organize them.

It’s 1979 and I am ten years old.  It’s my second year in kid-pitched, organized baseball, and I play for the Gold team.  My dad is a coach, we are the best team in the league and I am the best player in the league (I’m not being conceited – I was, but as I’ve said repeatedly being the best at ten means just that and nothing more.  I would have much rather have been the best when I got to college.)  The next best team is the Orange team.  There has been some sort of feud between the coaches since the season began though, at ten, it’s beyond my grasp.  It’s a playoff game and I am pitching and, it being 37 years ago, I cannot remember the details other than there is a play at the plate and I am covering the plate and I get barreled over.  Perfectly legal play, but I can’t breathe.  The wind has been knocked out of me.  I have no idea what is happening and I’m scared.  As my dad is rushing over to me, the opposing coach yells out “We got him!  We got him!”

An isolated incident in a meaningless game in the long history of youth sports?  It would be nice to believe so, but who are we kidding?

It’s the adults.  It always has been.  And the behavior of some has always been atrocious.  We just didn’t have the internet or social media or mobile phones, let alone mobile phones which are mini-supercomputers, to publicize the lunacy.  So we can tweet about it and blog about it as if it’s all new, but it’s been going on forever and it always will.  I ended up going to school with that coach’s kid the next year and we got along famously.

So sure I could have written about the tournament game in which coaches were jumping all over the umpire on every pitch that wasn’t called their way or the four of them who came out to argue with that lone umpire a call on a tag-play at second base or their parent in the stands who berated the umpire in a game we were winning by 15 runs.

But to what end?

As for the fact we’ve gone over the top with “elite” travel t-ball teams and playing 600 games a year.  I don’t agree with so many aspects of it, but it’s hard to deny there are some benefits.  Giving kids a chance to play into the summer as opposed to the “April, May and see you next April approach” is always going to help kids improve.  Moreover, travel-mania is here to stay.  You just have to figure out how best to navigate it and not get caught up in the hype – your ten-year-old doesn’t have to play baseball year-round to “succeed.”

Fast Path to Pariah

As much as I remove names and specifics and anything else I think might give a hint as to the identity of anyone or the location of the events, it’s not too hard for anyone close by to decipher the what, where, when or the who.  I live in a “small town” when it comes to baseball.

046 The Once and Future.pngIt was all too clear I would be calling out more and more people and putting out an even greater “air of superiority” (basically a “my [expletive-deleted] don’t stink” inference) the more I wrote.  I am going to see those very same folks for years to come, our kids are going to interact and I am likely to coach their kids at some point.

There was a post back in the spring which I edited down to the point where it became fairly meaningless as far as I was concerned.  But my wife and a friend a trust both kept telling me the original draft was too much.  Knowing they were right didn’t make it taste any better, but I still don’t like it.

So I could have written about the sublimely comical time an opposing parent told a parent of a player on my son’s rec team before our game, “We know what you do.  We’ve scouted you.  We know you bring Johnson in to pitch the last two innings.”  Leaving “scouting” 9U rec teams alone, Johnson faced 75 batters over the course of the season, getting 72 outs on 71 strikeouts.  Coaching isn’t exactly rocket science when he’s on your team.  But anyone in our “baseball family” could easily discern who Johnson is and which game I’m talking about and instantly know the backdrop.

I’m No Different

Mamma bears protect their young fiercely.  I’m no different.  I am going to do everything I can for my kids and everything I can for my players.  And I’m going to react if I think someone is pushing them around.  I think the same things any parent or coach thinks when there is a bad call or I feel like someone is taking advantage of them.

I think it is insane to spend anything north of $100 on a bat let alone $280 for a Mako, yet there is a Mako on its way to my house as I write this.  I got it cheap enough for sure, but it’s still a Mako when I sincerely believe a kid who can really hit can hit with a broom handle.  The bat doesn’t make a difference and if it does the kid isn’t that good a hitter to start with.

When I coach, I am going to use every inch of the rule book bound only by what I believe is fair play for the age level.

In a rec game, an opposing third base coach sent his runner home on an overthrow on a steal of third which is not allowed by our league rules.  As the runner was slowly making his way back to third, I had my shortstop tag him.  The umpire called the runner out, game-over and that set off the aforementioned post-game incident which I watered down when I wrote about it.

I’ve thought about that play a lot in the intervening time and whether I did the right thing.  And every time I ended with the same conclusion: I would do it exactly the same way if we did it another 1 million times.

So I’m no different than anyone else though perhaps I’m a bit better at keeping my mouth shut.

And the point?  The point is it’s been a huge drag knowing I am only going to continue to witness and to have to deal with the insanity of youth sports as my kids continue their journey wherever it make take them and for however long they can or choose to stay on the ride.  But it’s also been a drag not writing about it.  So despite knowing it’s a losing battle and knowing it’s a battle I have to not lose within myself, it’s time to start writing again.  After all, just because it’s been going on forever doesn’t make the world in youth-sports-ville any less surreal.