Youth baseball is a pastime shared by millions. In virtually every town in America on a summer evening, a baseball game is probably played. Perhaps, 10,000 or more games may be played even simultaneously and the outcomes while important to the participants ultimately have little significance in world affairs. Still, many young people and their parents devote countless hours to the preparation, practice, transportation, and games of baseball because they enjoy the game. Dreams of becoming professional ball players abound for pre-teen and teen players. However, the reality for millions of these players is few will actually realize a big-league dream.
The talent and skills necessary to become a professional player are scarce and only found in a select few. Of these players with a chance at a big league dream, the way to realize the dream requires hours of practice and playing hundreds of baseball games during a youth career. The only way to improve at the game is playing it. Repetition is the secret to becoming better at anything. Playing baseball and practicing baseball makes average players become good players and good players become great players or even exceptional players. Playing time mixed with consistent practice is often a recipe for success. In warm weather climates, players usually play longer seasons and have a stronger advantage over players in cold weather climates. In order for cold-weather climate players to improve, they have to play more games in compressed periods of time. To improve, players seek the best competition during these compressed periods of baseball worthy weather. However, some argue there may be too much baseball if five, or six or even ten games are played in a week for an 8-12 week period in the late spring and summer.
How much baseball can a young player play? Does playing five or six days a week make a player better? Is there something to the mental toughness a player develops by playing the game everyday and even for more than one team? What other intangible attributes are learned, mastered, and developed when a player plays “a lot of” baseball? Does a player become more confident, exude stronger leadership, and maybe even have more fun through more involvement with his/her friends on multiple teams?
This spring and early summer, I discovered some of the answers to these questions while coaching my son in three baseball programs simultaneously. While my son and I did not originally set out to become involved in three programs at the same time, opportunity and whispers from divine places seemed to indicate this was a path to take at this time in my son’s life in the game.
Another aspect related to this decision was my son’s age and the milestone leap he was moving into and leaving in the game of baseball. As a twelve year old 7th grader, he has played with boys mostly a year or more older than him. Since the age of eight, he was playing 9U baseball and continued playing with older boys through his baseball career. When boys move on to 13U baseball, as many involved in the game know the field dimensions change to Pony dimensions with longer bases, 54-foot pitching distance and deeper fences. The game takes on larger proportions. The 12U fields are approximately 10-15% smaller on average and this can have notable outcomes on the players’ effectiveness and contribution in the game.
Recognizing this time as a one-year window for him to play both dimensions and perhaps have some great experience being a mentor and leader on a 12U team while playing 13U baseball also, we decided to pursue the challenge to play on two travel teams in the spring and summer. Moreover, because of the rules of our village, my son would also be required to play on a house league team during the months of April, May, and early June. Therefore, he would be on three teams simultaneously while most boys would only play for two teams.
The schedule would be rigorous from early April to late June, playing over 60 baseball games in this short 10-11 week period. The average player would play 30-35 games. There would be a number of days he would play 3 games in one day for two different teams or maybe even all three teams. Some parents and coaches would question whether this is possible to do without too many game conflicts ensuing and conflicts would usually occur if some preplanning and scheduling did not happen. In order to make this happen, we examined the usual routine of our house league and the beginning and ending seasons of the two travel teams for which he played. While there was some overlap, we recognized most of his house league games would be played on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from mid April to mid June. Therefore, his travel games with his 12U team could be scheduled for Saturday and Sundays and some Tuesdays and Thursdays. He would have games 5-7 days a week on average with some double headers on weekends with tournaments etc.
To make this program of baseball work, we had to have agreement from coaches that my son would miss some house league games to play with his 12U team in travel games and also his 12U coaches would not expect him to make every practice scheduled during the playing season. Additionally, he had to make his 13U team a priority if they had a game and miss 12U games if there was conflict with a 13U game. In total, during the months of April, May, and June, approximately 8-10 game conflicts arose and the agreement was fulfilled by my son to play where he suppose to play.
One of the most interesting challenges in coaching him and helping him navigate this process was switching between different uniform and equipment needs for the different teams. Baseball in 13U uses metal spikes and 12U still uses cleats so he needed two pairs of shoes. He had four different uniforms, one uniform for house league, one for 13U, and two for 12U (one for home games, one for away games). Many times we had to pack three uniforms and head out the door. We had to make sure he had both pairs of shoes, both batting helmets from his two travel teams, and all his gloves.
As a parent and head coach for one of teams and an assistant for the other two teams, I also had to be very organized. I laid out all my equipment daily and prepared all my line-ups in advance. Communication via email was pivotal to the success of this endeavor. Using GPS to find travel games all over our region was also a necessary component. My wife and other family members showed patience while I participated with my son in these games. Getting rides from other coaches and parents also become necessary at times because of various work conflicts, which arose.
In assessing the value of the experience for my son, my conclusion is he benefited from the intensity of the experience and the repetition of the game. He was given great responsibility to help his 12U team and afforded the opportunity to play in virtually every position on the field because of his skills. For his 13U travel team he usually plays second base only and pitches occasionally. By playing all positions in the field, he learned the game from numerous perspectives and became a smarter baseball player. He also developed his defensive acumen of the game and became a stronger field general on the infield and outfield. He came to enjoy playing catcher; a position for which he had shown little interest in before and he showed great skill when given the chance by playing 12U baseball. His hitting improved in his house league over previous seasons and his confidence at the plate improved. While his overall batting numbers did not jump off the page, his quality at the plate improved by having a better ability to foul off pitches, make contact with the ball, and find ways to get on base.
There were some small consequences of playing so much baseball in that he had little time for some of his other friends or interest during this time. He also was tired at times and perhaps felt some reservation about throwing on the uniform and playing once again. However, he always moved forward and when he got to the field, he went about his business and gave his best on the field. I believe he learned a great deal about himself in this process. He learned he is capable of doing more than he thought. He realized he could be a leader on a team and others looked to him for leadership. He had enjoyment through his interactions on and off the field with 34 other players from three teams. Some of the core intangibles his 12U coaches shared with me are how his presence on the field inspired his teammates to improve their awareness and game skills. Having him around gave them more confidence.
My hope is the experience will translate for him to more success in the game of baseball and in his life. While it is too early to know if he has significant future in baseball, the odds are not likely, I know he has a future path in life. The lessons learned on the diamond this year, I am certain will translate into leadership in some future endeavor. I always like to think that we never know how far reaching something we say or do today may have on someone or something in our lives. This past baseball season is reminder of this belief.
Dr. Warren Bruhl is a practicing pediatric chiropractor in Glencoe, IL. Dr. Bruhl has coached youth baseball for 11 seasons and spent thousands of hours developing youth baseball players. Dr. Bruhl is available for questions and comments at [email protected].