Travel baseball- a flawed system?

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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.

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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.”