Thursday, March 11, 2010

When the Going Get’s Tough; The Tough Get Going: Why Do Baseball Players Quit?

I was doing a little research on the internet looking at local little leagues for my seven year old son. As a former high school baseball coach, one trend really struck a cord with me. Looking at the league’s tee ball/coach pitch section the teams numbered 13-15 per division. If each team consisted of 12-13 kids, that would mean almost 200 participants. For a local little league, I thought that was pretty good.

The league had a much smaller 13-14 year old division. That group only had two teams, a big difference from the first group of young kids. I was shocked; in the matter of 5-6 years, almost 85% of the kids quit baseball. I am sure some of these kids could have helped out their high school team someday, especially in the urban area where the league was located. What was going on that soured kids on the game?

I went to other league websites and they illustrated the same trend. By the age of 13, many kids were done with baseball. Why? Interested, I started to do a little snooping around. This was not scientific, but I started talking to some people to see what I could find out. Participation is vital in helping the game of baseball continue to grow.

One big roadblock for baseball is other sports, particularly football and basketball. With an abundance of summer camps, these sports lure participants away. Many feel guilty about missing summer games and practices so they decide to quit. Although their absence may frustrate coaches, these players need to be encouraged to continue playing.

In high school, many of these players realize that their athletism does not translate to success in basketball or football. Depending on the competitive level, both of these sports require athletes to be or adequate size and strength. What if any athlete stops growing? What if they can’t put on the bulk that is necessary for these sports? Having continued with baseball, their skills might be a better fit with better.

Having written on this subject before; improvement is imperative to getting kids to continue with baseball. If kids start the season not being able to catch; they better learn by the end. If not, they wouldn’t be back next year. If they chose to volunteer, coaches have a responsibility to their players to think of ways to improve their skills. Many times, traditional methods may not work with players. Coaches must look outside the box to help players refine their coordination, balance, and vision.

Boredom is another problem baseball was encountered. In some cases, the games and practices move slowly. Kids just stand around waiting for some action. Coaches need to find ways to speed things up. Having equipment set-up, enough adult assistance, and scheduled activities planned should help things move faster. Games are always an awesome way to keep kids involved in what is going on. If a coach becomes creative, they can use games to help teach any situation.

Self-image is another concept that coaches must be aware of when dealing with young kids. When players are young; they view themselves as great. No matter where their skill level is at. This naivety is awesome because kids go out in the yard pretend to be Ken Griffey Jr. or Derek Jeter. Sometimes, they even view their future profession as a “ballplayer”.

Here is example of how things may be taken a little too far at a young age. Last fall, I spoke to a neighbor whose son had not been picked for a league’s All-Star team. I think the kid was like seven years old. She said he always thought of himself as good; but now he didn’t want to play anymore. To make things worse, besides three kids, his entire team made the All-Stars. Wow, is that really an All-Star team?

During our whole conversation, I never told the lady I coached baseball or anything like that. I just listened to her story. After awhile, I began to wonder who else had story like this lady. Our conversation forced me to take time to analyze what she said from a coach’s viewpoint. Who was right; who was wrong?

Is 7 years old too young to start labeling kids “All Stars”? Is it more for the parents than the kids? How many other kids quit because of a similar situation? Finally, do these youth All-Star come out better when their careers are over? I pondered all of these questions as I thought about player development.

I remembered a unique article I read in the local paper about a year earlier. The story followed three successful Omaha pitchers. Each player had been cut at the youth level from the elite “select” teams. All three of these players ended up on the same team as young kids. The ironic twist to the article is that these players now pitch professionally in the Twins, Yankees, and Phillies organization. Even after being cut during their youth; these guys were the best at the end.

What does that mean? I am not real sure; obviously these kinds of examples are found on both sides. As an urban baseball coach, I shudder to think kids are being “run off” at such a young age; especially kids that could someday contribute to a HS program. On the other hand, if I’m a coach at a place where numbers aren’t a problem Darwin’s “Survival of the Fittest” mentality might be a better way to trim the fat.

In the end, I guess there has to be a happy medium where kids are allowed to failed but not be labeled a “loser” just because there slightly behind as a 5-6 year old. If it happens too much, baseball will continue to lose players to soccer and other youth sports that are more inclusive. As a fan, I desperately do not want that to happen!!

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