What I've Noticed
When people ask me about travel baseball I often compare it to watching television. There are tons of channels on the guide but few you would actually direct your attention to. Travel ball has exploded over the last decade or so to include just as many "useless channels" as television programming.
Don't get me wrong, I am not saying all travel ball programs are useless. There are some quality organizations out there who have a reputable staff that focuses on quality instruction and player development -- not just winning a tournament.
With so many "travel" teams out there the quality of instruction and player development aspect has dwindled. Some "travel" teams are merely over-priced rec ball teams with fees up to $2000 to play in "elite" tournaments. They don't practice and if they do practice it is very unorganized. They don't have an arm-care program, they don't have a strength/agility program, they don't measure player development, but they do play in a ton of games and overuse their players to try and win the Firecracker Classic. No, it is not a good idea to let your 13U player throw 160 pitches in a weekend while playing multiple positions with no arm conditioning program and no recovery program (running poles is not a recovery program).
I have heard stories of players in middle school/high school ball having to leave one practice to go to another practice in the same day. A player plays 3 school games a week and then plays in a 4 game tournament on the weekend. YIKES - recipe for disaster! Players should not be playing on multiple competitive teams in the same playing season!
Somewhere along the line travel ball took an awful path. When I see things like 8U elite tournaments I question the integrity and purpose of all parties involved. How does one classify as "elite" at 8 years old? Not to mention the 5U national rankings that are being released by these "sanctioned" tournament organizers.
The kids play 70-80 games a year and never learn the ins and outs of the game. They get to the high school level and don't have the baseball IQ or game knowledge they should. They lack proper awareness and the game often moves faster than they can process. Playing games alone will not build baseball knowledge. Baseball knowledge is developed in a practice setting where situations can be explained, practiced, and decision-making can be processed. Instead, travel ball has largely come down to playing in as many tournaments as possible, winning every game, getting ranked, and comparing one player's ability to another.
This path has led to the extinction of growing up in rec ball and the local little league - or just going to the park to play ball. These days, parents are quick to bounce their son/daughter from team to team and when things aren't going how they would like they just start their own team.
Players in high school have lost the sense of teamwork and competition. The local pride of competing for your high school and your community is not the same as it was years ago. Kids used to grow up with all of their high school teammates and by the time high school baseball came a long everyone was like family. Now, guys grow up doing their own thing. They know guys in the opposing dugout better than they know some of their own teammates. They don't know how to be a good teammate, a good competitor, a ballplayer, all they know is how to "showcase."
Youth sports should focus more on opportunities to teach kids the game and develop their skills. Of course winning games is a goal, but at the youth level it should not be at the expense of developing players. No player has ever earned an opportunity to play high level ball based on his youth coaches win-loss record.
Kids will never learn what adjustments to make unless they are allowed to make mistakes along the way. Knowledge of the game and how it is played is enhanced by being able to play multiple positions growing up. When players miss the cut-off or make a mental mistake these are great teaching opportunities; however, most of the time coaches miss the teaching moment because their focus is simply winning.
A Better System - Youth Instructional Leagues A better option to glorified travel baseball is a youth instructional league. Good programs have a staff that remain up to date on topics related to the sport itself, fitness, nutrition, injury prevention and recovery. Running a youth instructional league would be a great idea for a high school or college program as this is a great opportunity to provide for the local community, raise funds for your program, and have a direct impact on kids that may eventually play for you.
A good instructional league would consist of:
-Affordable playing fee (way less than $2000 to play travel ball)
-minimum of 12 players per team
-2 to 3 games a week
-PitchSmart pitch count guidelines
-Innings would be rolled over after 5 or 6 batters to keep the game moving
-Opportunities for instruction during the game
-Running batting order
-2 to 3 practices a week (120 mins) 30 minute position specific skill-sessions and a 30 minute team fundamental (relays, bunt defense, baserunning, etc.)
Of course, this is just one method of providing an instructional league. It could be modified in many formats.
My advice for parents is to choose your child's youth experience carefully. Too many kids are becoming "burnt out" or injured by the time they reach middle or high school baseball. If you are considering joining a league or team ask questions about player development and practice schedules, fitness training and recovery methods.
Not all travel ball is bad and not all travel ball is good. I think it is important that youth are allowed to grow and develop in a competitive atmosphere that teaches the fundamentals of the game while allowing each player to learn from their mistakes and become a well-rounded ballplayer and teammate.