Travel baseball- a flawed system?

travel ball2

In my opinion –

By Larry Owens – Head Baseball Coach – Bellarmine University

It starts early.

Travel Baseball picked up steam about 20 years ago. As I look back today, it is much easier to see its transformation over the years. As a young college baseball coach in the mid 90’s, you could see the summer baseball weekend tournament format begin to trickle down to the younger age groups. In my opinion, “travel baseball” has spiraled out of control in several areas.

There are several travel baseball organizations that do a great job with the model from which they have to work. I want to be clear that I feel most of the people involved in travel baseball absolutely want what is best for the kids. However, currently the model makes it extremely difficult to allow for what is best for the kids; player development. This is in no way a criticism of the people involved, but rather the structure.

For many, today’s thought process is that the earlier we present “competitive” opportunities for the so called “elite” player, the better it will be for their development. In my opinion, travel baseball will not help the player develop in this way, but conversely stunts the baseball player’s growth, if not coupled with proper player development.

The two main problems I see with travel baseball is not enough practice as a team and the focus on winning is too great. Playing games alone is not the road to better player development. There are numerous opportunities for today’s youth player to receive individual skill instruction from local pitching, hitting, fielding and strength & conditioning coaches. This development is important and individual skills may be better in most of the youth players today, but the knowledge of team fundamentals and how to the play game is, however, lacking greatly.

The professional level requires time spent on player development. We were often teaching things to young minor leaguers that we felt they should have already known.  I feel the lack of game knowledge in today’s youth player is a byproduct of the youth player playing game after game throughout the year and not practicing enough as a team and focusing on the specifics. We also face the issue of the environment- when youth players enter high school feeling that they must attend multiple showcases and play on the so called “best travel team.” The player does so with the belief that they will get an opportunity to be seen by college and professional scouts to advance his baseball career. Without a doubt players get more exposure, but at what expense?

In the travel team’s defense, it is a lot to ask of a 10 year old and his family to practice 2-3 times a week and then play the demanding weekend schedule that can be 4 or more games in two days.  Here lies the problem.  The main focus continues to be on the number of games they play, winning tournaments and comparing one kids’ ability to others. The focus should be on player and personal development. The need to play on these teams to get opportunities down the road is simply not true at such a young age.

The high school aged player may never have one team practice with his travel team the entire season. It is unfortunate that time and time again recruits tell me they don’t practice with their respective summer travel teams at all during the season. All of the team fundamentals- which are the key ingredient to slowing the game down for the players- take a back seat.

Once again, it’s hard to blame the travel teams for not practicing enough, when some of the team members may reside hours away from each other. I get it.

Everyone wants a quick fix, a magic pill, the secret to success. It isn’t out there in that form. There is no magic formula to produce the next Bryce Harper or Clayton Kershaw.

If there is a formula to improve the state of amateur baseball, it is by working hard, working practical and working smart. It also involves a little luck and good genetics from time to time. It isn’t as easy as simply playing against good competition.  If it were, everyone would develop into a very talented player with the ability to play at the highest of levels.

Let’s take a look at the average professional day during the summer at the lower levels in the minor leagues. A full season team will play 140 games in a season. They pack 140 games into 5 months. Days off are precious so there are no team practices on those days. So when do they practice? They practice before games. When a roving instructor is in town, there will be early work in a specific area. There are rovers for pitching, hitting, infield, outfield, catching, bunting and base running. For instance, when the catching coordinator is in town, the catchers will come out for early work. There is, on occasion, more than one rover in town at the same time. After early work, the team will work on a team fundamental. Two times a week, the pitching coach will get the pitchers out early for some PFP’s. Some organizations require the team to take infield every day or every other day.  The team will then take batting practice, eat and dress for the game.  Players are usually required to be on the field 30 minutes prior to game time. It is important to play games to gain experience and apply what has been worked on. It is necessary to work on team fundamentals as well as individual skills in order to develop the player. It is done at the highest levels, but not done at the “Elite” level.

At the college and high school levels, it is commonplace for the team to either have a game or practice 6 days of the week. This affords them the opportunity to work on all aspects of the game. A typical week would include 3-5 games and 2-3 practices each week, with a common day off each week. In high school, the common day off is usually Sunday and in college the common day off is typically Monday. All other days, the team is usually practicing or playing games.

As parents and travel baseball coaches, we attempt to mirror baseball clubs at the highest levels as much as we can. The uniforms, the nice baseball fields, the bats, the balls, the wrist bands, the eye black, the equipment bags, the sponsorship, the travel, the over-night trips staying in hotels etc. We try really hard, but we are missing the key ingredient: practice as a team and working on team fundamentals. We need to focus on developing team players with baseball knowledge.

travel ball

It is easy for a travel baseball team’s coach to acquire the information needed. Coaches at all levels are willing to help, if asked.  We need to work on a system that encourages coaches to at the higher level to work with travel programs to place an emphasis on baseball development.

Another concern we need to address is putting too much emphasis on winning tournaments. It is important to win, but not at the expense of opportunities to develop players and the game losing kids because of disinterest.  Coaches that call every pitch, pigeon hole kids to certain positions at too early of an age, never let the kids make decisions running the bases and positioning players every hitter, stunt player development.

Kids will never learn and develop unless they are allowed to make mistakes. Their knowledge of the game and how it is played will not be enhanced if they only play one position the entire year. There are many things to learn from failing, losing, making errors, missing the cut off man, giving up home runs, looking at strike three with the game on the line and walking hitters. Far too often, these times are not used as learning opportunities because the focus is on winning is too great.  We need to encourage travel team coaches to take the time to teach in these situations.

Baseball players develop at different stages in life. The determining factor in your child’s ability to play in high school, college or professionally will not solely be because he played travel baseball. It has everything to do with player’s opportunities to develop. Cutting kids from “select” teams may discourage them from playing altogether. They will also not develop if they constantly hit 9th and play the same position all summer.  Work to let them play other positions. What’s the worst thing that could happen? You might lose a game? Heaven forbid!

Youth sports should focus more on providing opportunities to develop and making that development fun. We need to teach kids what it’s like to depend on your teammates just as they depend on you. Teaching accountability and creating confidence should be a priority. The result will be that kids will learn what working individually and as a team can accomplish. This can be one small piece of the child’s development in a small window of his life.  We can send him on his way to become a productive citizen, good spouse, good parent and good person.

Our children’s growth from a baseball perspective is being stunted because the system puts too much emphasis on winning tournaments when they are nine years old.

This would be my option to travel baseball: Youth Developmental Instructional Leagues.

We ran this concept while I was coaching college with great success and more importantly I ran a fall youth league like the one I am about to describe and the kids and parents loved it! It is also a great way to keep kids in their own community which can bring us back to the days of kids playing for their hometown and/or community. What a sense of pride it could bring to small towns and suburbs around the country.

In baseball it is actually quite easy and if I were a HS coach I would love for this to be done in my community, as it would have a direct impact on the kids that would eventually play for me. In fact if I were the HS coach I would run the league myself. We actually stole the idea from Birmingham Southern I believe. I was coaching at Austin Peay State University at the time and we loved the format.

You need an even number of teams. Let’s say 8 teams in each age group, with 12 players each. Each team plays 3 games per week. 

Below is a sample week: Small group instruction on weekdays only. Teams that play the first games on M, T, W and Thur would get small group instruction after their game. Teams that play the second game would get small group instruction 30 min after the 1st game begins.

Monday:         Tuesday:        Wednesday:   Thursday:      Saturday:

1 vs. 2             5 vs. 6             3 vs. 2             7 vs. 6             1 vs. 5

3 vs. 4             7 vs. 8             4 vs. 1             8 vs. 5             3 vs. 7

2 vs. 6

4 vs. 8

  • 8 Team format – 12 players on a team.
  • Cost $150 per player. This could pay the staff for working and could also be a fund raiser for the program.
  • Each team will play 3 games per week.
  • Games will be played on Mon, Tue, Wed, Thur and Sat.
  • With the 8 team format there will be 2 games each weekday and 4 games on Saturdays.
  • Games will have a 1 hour 45 min hard stop.
  • Innings can be rolled over after 20-25 pitches to keep the game moving.
  • Games are instructional in nature and can be stopped for instruction.
  • There will be a running batting order to ensure everyone gets equal plate appearances
  • Everyone will get small group instruction either before or after their game depending on their game time.
  • The small group instruction will change each week and will be offered in 3 areas of the game ie. Pitching, Hitting, Fielding, Catching, Bunting, Base-running, Holding Runners etc…
  • Before each game the teams will practice a team fundamental for 20 min. Team Fundy examples are cuts/relays, bunt def, 1st and 3rd def (incl 1st and 2nd), Fly ball priority, team pfp etc…
  • The high school players could run the game from the dugout and make sure players play positions they desire.
  • The High School coaching staff could set up the pitching each week.

Here’s the schedule we ran at Bellarmine University for our Summer Instructional League last summer.  Our league was 8 weeks with each team playing two times each week.

Date Teams Game Time SGI Time
June 8th 7 -vs- 8 3:30pm 5:30pm
June 9th 9 -vs- 10 3:30pm 5:25pm
5 – vs- 6 5:30pm 4:00pm
June 10th 4 -vs- 3 3:30pm 5:25pm
1 -vs- 2 5:30pm 4:00pm
June 15th 7 -vs- 3 4:00pm 6:00pm
June 16th 1 -vs- 6 3:30pm 5:25pm
  2 -vs- 9 5:30pm 4:00pm
June 17th 5 -vs- 10 10:00am 11:55am
  8 -vs- 4 12:00pm 10:30am
June 22nd 4 -vs- 5 10:00am 12:00pm
June 23rd 9 -vs- 8 3:30pm 5:25pm
  10 -vs- 1 5:30pm 4:00pm
June 24th 3 -vs- 2 10:00am 11:55am
  6 -vs- 7 12:00pm 10:30am
June 29th 9 -vs- 1 4:00pm 6:00pm
June 30th 3 -vs- 5 3:30pm 5:25pm
  4 -vs- 7 5:30pm 4:00pm
July 1st 8 -vs- 6 10:00am 11:55am
  10 -vs- 2 12:00pm 10:30am
July 6th 10 -vs- 7 10:00am 12:00pm
July 7th 6 -vs- 2 10:00am None / Games only
  8 -vs- 3 12:00pm None / Games only
July 8th 4 -vs- 1 10:00am None / Games only
  5 -vs- 9 12:00pm None / Games only
July 13th 5 -vs- 8 10:00am 12:00pm
July 14th 4 -vs- 10 10:00am 11:55am
  2 -vs- 7 12:00pm 10:30am
July 15th 9 -vs- 6 10:00am 11:55am
  1 -vs- 3 12:00pm 10:30am
July 20th 6 -vs- 4 10:00am 12:00pm
July 21st 7 -vs- 9 3:30pm 5:25pm
  1 -vs- 5 5:30pm 4:00pm
July 22nd 10 – vs- 3 10:00am 11:55am
  2 -vs- 8 12:00pm 10:30am
July 27th 3 -vs- 9 10:00am 12:00pm
July 28th 8 -vs- 1 10:00am 11:55am
  6 -vs- 10 12:00pm 10:30am
July 29th 2 -vs- 4 10:00am 10:30am
7 -vs- 5 12:00pm 11:55pm

Week 1 – Small Group Instruction (SGI) could be Pitching, Catching & Hitting

Week 2 – SGI – Infield Play, Outfield Play & Hitting

Week 3 – SGI- Holding Runners, Bunting & Hitting

Week 4 – SGI – Base-running, Footwork at 1B & Hitting

Weeks 5 thru 8 mirror Weeks 1 thru 4 but touching on different topics within the given areas of instruction.

We also practiced a team fundamental with the two teams together prior to or after each game depending on the game time.

This format is less costly that travel baseball. No hotel, gas, food, time away from other children and overall stress. The parents can sit back in a relaxed environment where their kids can have fun, learn and develop.

It is developmental in nature and winning is not the emphasis.

If more communities would embrace this format or a similar format it would be far better for the kids in every way.

These are nothing more than my opinions but I feel they are at least educated opinions and I hope I have provoked some thought on the topic. Should you be a travel ball coach please do not take offense. I don’t question the motives of the great majority of travel ball coaches. I do ask that you be open minded to my concerns. I don’t have all of the answers but I do feel there is a better way than the current structure of the “travel baseball team.”

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21 comments on “Travel baseball- a flawed system?

  1. Ernie DeTrinidad says:

    Coach Owens,
    Your comments are indeed thought provoking. We have a 12 year old son that has been playing “travel” for a few years now. We have seen all types of coaching. I stopped coaching him 2years ago myself, as I believed his and teams were beyond my skill set abilities. Most coaches do have the players best interest at heart but as you mentioned it’s the aggressively competitive environment that prevents them from always “developing”.
    Including the extremely competitive parents. That along with imitating the big leagues style has overtaken the true intentions of developmental years.
    Most regions could easily install your very interesting format but some regions just don’t have the numbers to even come close.
    Keep up your vision and hope some day see you on the field.
    Ernie

  2. George Herbig says:

    What age level was the instructional league?

  3. Troy C says:

    Great article, coach. I live in suburb of Houston and travel baseball is big business here. Parents can spend big $ and time doing travel ball. My 14 yr old decided not to play this Spring, which kinda upset me in a way. We played travel ball for the previous 7 yrs or so. We had a great team/parents. No team hoppers. No bad attitudes, etc. Spent lots of time/money together. But, like all good things, it came to an end. One parents felt their kids needed to be challenged more, win more, and ended up leaving team. Team fell apart after. I was the team manager, handling all the money and most of the scheduling. We played only in Spring, except a couple of fall ball leagues. Played in avg twice a month and practices 2 times a week. Field rental is big $ here because lack of property/fields. We paid anywhere from $600 to $1000/ months to utilize a field twice/week. Paid extra if we wanted to use an indoor batting cage. As you can see, it cost to practice and play. Tournaments on avg were $500 entry fee. Crazy. This doesn’t include personal instructors and trainers. Another big business here. Former major leaguer, college, etc players giving lessons for kids charging anywhere from $75 to over $100 per. One thing I didn’t like about the system/organization,we played in here “Nations Baseball” is the fact that for pitchers, they kept track of “outs” during a game. Easy to track, but not a true picture of how many pitches a kid would throw. They set a limit on “outs” made during a weekend tournament, but not pitch count limits. It was up to the coaches to track pitches. A kid could pitch/make 18 outs in a single game, but could throw over 100 pitches! You see how this could be a major problem. Good thing, our coach kept a pitch count and followed it strictly, depending on the kids ability-size, and strength.
    Anyway, I enjoyed your article and wish, in a perfect world, that your suggestions/plan could take root and help, fix, change the world of travel baseball.
    Thanks,
    TC
    Spring,TX

    • Larry Owens says:

      Thank you very much TC! The evolution of youth sports in general is crazy. Thank goodness they are playing.

      LO

  4. Terry H says:

    LO,

    Great article!

    Terry Haselden, (David Haselden’s dad)

    • Larry Owens says:

      Thanks Terry! Great to hear from you and I’m glad you enjoyed it! Hope David is doing well. Give him my best!

      LO

  5. Gregg Harris says:

    I love that. It nails it. It is about getting better. Not winning focused. It’s about team. I love the instruction after the game. That way, important facets are not lost over time, rather everyone learns immediately. I like the format of learning throughout playing the game. Good concept.

    Imagine how much longer the “love of the game” will continue to live.

    Love it.

  6. Old School says:

    Thanks Larry.

    You hit a home run.

    Here in Northern California an entire generation of players have lost out on team fundamentals. It is nothing but a money grab by almost everyone involved.
    From Little League to our four year universities, every instructional activity has a fee. Kids playing for the love of the game vanished years ago.
    Now, this generation of coaches know only about tournaments, showcase events and when is my next private lesson scheduled?
    Many players are just not students of the game and few have ever been taught as a team together. They bounce around from team to team and coach to coach with different teammates at each stop. It is as if these young players are free agents each season.
    Please bring back player development and team fundamentals to Northern CA.

    Old School

    • Larry Owen says:

      Thanks Old School,

      It’s quite sad. All of the lack of teaching or leaning the simple team fundamentals spills over to the HS/Coll/Pro levels. I was 100% serious mentioning in the article that were teaching things to kids at the minor league level things we felt they should have already known.

      It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse. I hope it changes.

      Thank you for your kind words.

      Take Care,
      LO

  7. LeBon Joye says:

    Larry, I have been a Recreation Professional for 34 years and a professional scout the last 19. I also played at Austin Peay in ’80 & 81″ and was drafted twice. I have preached the same things you discussed here. There is no time for development due to no practicing as you mentioned. As a scout, I have great access to prospects at weekend tournaments for 15 & up. To this day, I have never been assigned to cover any kid 14 & under. Not too many 15 or 16’s either except to get a glimpse and then follow over the next few years. Problem with what you are discussing is the parents don’t think it applies to their kid. Their’s are special. Let’s face it, their kid is probably not getting drafted or signing D1. Also, this focus on travel ball will lead to many arm injuries in pitchers and player burn out. It’s one reason Tommy John surgeries have sky rocketed over the past 15 – 20 years. My focus as a coach of young players (8 – 10) is to teach the game, and teach them to play it the right way. Practices are where they learn the game (all aspects), and the games are where they showcase what they’ve been taught. We don’t teach during the games. Glad to respond to a former Governor.

    • Larry Owens says:

      APSU!!!!

      Thanks for the comment.

      With out a doubt HS/College/professional teams are receiving damaged goods and a huge culprit is the travel ball system. The teams are not large enough to carry the arms required to cover the innings they have to cover over these weekend tourney’s….Then most of the kids only throw when practicing once a week with their team then it’s back on the mound again the next tourney……

      It’s out of control. Many clueless but well intentioned folks are not helping matters.

      Thanks for your comment and my best to a former Gov!!!

      Take Care,
      LO

  8. Larry,

    This article is packed with great information and great advice. Thanks for taking the time to share them.

    Pat Northam

  9. Great article, I shared with my Travel Teams….and with those who are interested.

  10. Carlos Contreras says:

    Coach, we ran a successful travel ball team with a family atmosphere with accountability. Started when the boys were 8 and cut them lose after the last tourney when they were 13. We practiced 2 times a week and played on weekends. Some mid week games were 5 batters per pitcher show case style to get everyone experience. We carried 13 and never cut anyone of them. If a player left for personal reasons (we only lost 3 kids moved away or stopped because of family scheduling) we would replace open spots with kids who practiced with us. we allowed kids to practice with us free of charge and gave them a spot if one opened up. We rotated everyone into several positions and had developed 8 catchers from the 13 players. 3 were lefties and couldnt catch. we batted everyone all the time and if the last out of a game was the 7th hitter, we would start the next game with the 8th hitter leading off using the same line-up. some may say, well you probably lost alot of games. well i can say we won 2 usssa state championships, and played in several more only to fall short. Top teams hated playing us. But here n lies the REAL success of our program: 2 just graduated from police academies, 1 from fire academy, 7 are in their junior or senior year of college pursuing their degrees, 1 is a personal trainer and 2 are working full time. all success stories in their own right. And only 2 of the college kids are still playing baseball. Everyone of them has volunteered to help with local baseball clinics to give back. If done correctly, it can be a blessing. But too much “win at all cost” and “my kid is the best” looking for bigger better deal. Life is bigger than baseball, reality is that most wont be playing after HS, so enjoy it all while you can.

  11. Jason says:

    This is one of the most spot in posts I have seen on the issues with travel baseball. Way to much emphasis on winning and near zero time spent developing players. My son has played on a travel team for the past year (9 yr old). At practice they never work on fundamentals. They tend to focus on “trick” plays that might help win 1 game if we pull it off. The coaches tend to write off players quickly if they have a weakness instead of praising what they are good at and working on their weaknesses. It has been very frustrating to watch. They also allowed 1 kid to throw 160 pitches over 2 days just to try to win. That is absurd for a 9 year old and does not develop other pitchers. I’m sure not all travel teams are run like this, but we will likely go back to league ball and I will continue to help my son develop at his own pace and focus specifically on his needs. There is not a high school or college coach on the planet that cares how many tournaments you won at 9 years old. Baseball at this age should be about fun and development. Period.

  12. Carmen Montero says:

    Great post! But how do we change the mindset. My fear is that it does spill into the HS level and kids that haven’t played travel will not get a fair opportunity. I’ve been frustrated with our league over this for quite sometime and seems like a losing battle.

  13. JR Ziegelmann says:

    I was curious if you could run this program with one field? With a indoor facility at the same location??

    Thank you

  14. John says:

    Great article. My son just started club/travel ball this year at age 11. The team he was first on had a 14 kid roster and then for tournaments the coach would add 2 “ringers” to the roster and only bat 9. It was awful. He is now on a new team that has only an 11 kid max roster and they bat everyone. They practice a couple times a week but have a facility that we can use whenever we wish. The coaches focus on development over winning and make the practices fun. It’s been a great experience. My son will still play Little League in the spring which most kids in our area do (little league and club). His club coach is actually the president of his Little League which makes playing both easy.

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