Youth development in baseball and softball seems to revolve around travel ball - joining a team for a fee and playing lots of weekend tournaments at various places. While this can sound like a great idea from the outside looking in, there are some things that are key to long term development that need to be considered.
The calendar year should be planned for athletic development and many teams or programs make the mistake of confusing game play with development. Teams or organizations schedule a lot of games and leave little time for actual physical development related to sport specific skills, strength, speed, and overall athletic training
Here’s a rough example that most teams follow:
February/March weekend tournaments begin with 4 or more games played each weekend.
April - July weekend tournaments continue.
September - November more games on weekends.
That’s a lot of game play and very little training. We seem to be confusing playing games with getting better. There has to be an off-season that includes growing sport related skills along with improving strength, mobility, and speed. Baseball and softball players need the off-season to improve overall athleticism, clean up swing flaws, develop and condition the arm, get stronger, get faster, and become better athletes.
One thing you cannot get back in athletic development is time. In private instruction, I see it too often when players come to me for hitting instruction as a high school athlete and they lack size/strength, have significant swing flaws, but have played a ton of games since they were 9/10 years old.
Travel ball tournaments are designed to make money for tournament directors. These tournaments often include too many teams within a 2 or 3 day event and have time limit games. Often times a kid may get one plate appearance each game and time expires. Kids would get more out of playing wiffle ball in the backyard.
Let’s look at another model that promotes player development.
August - baseline testing / tryouts & evaluations. This is the time to test your athletes skillset related to bat speed, exit velocity, running speed, strength, throwing velocity, etc. You can measure these things with bat sensors, ball flight monitors like rapsodo or hittrax, stop watches, and radar guns. Baseline testing shows where athletes are and allows you to create training plans and goals for improvement.
September - October skill development and intrasquad competition. Small group and team sessions to develop pitching, catching, throwing, hitting, defense, and athleticism. Intrasquad scrimmages allow for controlled competitive repetition while allowing players to get live at-bats, learn different positions and improve baseball or softball IQ.
November - December strength, speed, and mobility focus. Athletes from 9-18 years old can all train to improve strength speed agility and mobility. Younger athletes may start out with body weight exercises and add med balls or other simple resistance methods as they learn form and technique. Older athletes should be working within a proper weight training program. All athletes will benefit from speed/agility drills and plyometric exercises.
January - February skill development and team practice. 8 weeks to condition arms properly for throwing and pitching, develop sport skills such as hitting, throwing, catching, base running, and work on team offense and defense.
Baseline retesting is also important to check player growth within all of their baseline measurements at the beginning of the fall training season.
March - May spring season. Middle school and high school athletes play with their schools. Youth athletes play within their recreational leagues and play some weekend tournaments.
June - July summer tournament season for all athletes.
The second model obviously has less tournament games throughout the year but has a huge emphasis on long term athletic development. Youth athletes need a sports model that will help them have the most amount of fun while providing the best opportunities to grow their skills over time. Youth travel organizations and academies should be development focused and need to be careful not to mistake 10 months of tournaments with development.
Long term athletic development means focusing on skills that benefit players as they get older and grow through the game of baseball and softball. It means using training programs that build upon each athletes skillset and tracking progress along the way - making adjustments when needed. Prove improvement by measuring and tracking performance outputs.
I hope this helps.
See you on the diamond.