One of the things many people do after being involved in something worthwhile for a long time is to reflect upon how things could have been better – what we did well and what we wish we would have done differently. As a baseball coach and youth mentor for 35+ years, I find myself very reflective about my time in the game. It has undoubtedly been fun and extremely rewarding, but I think it could have been (and still could be) much better. In particular, I think changes should be made at the youth level for the long-term benefit of the players and for the survival of the game. Here are some truths which I think make evident the need for change:
1. Youth players want more involvement and action in the game. Many parents had a rewarding experience in our game, so they sign their child up to play baseball. Unfortunately, the video game culture of today’s youth causes players to find baseball not engaging enough, so they leave the sport by middle school age for other sports such as lacrosse. This exodus and detachment has been so extensive that many would say baseball is no longer America’s Pastime.
2. Volunteer youth coaches have very limited time to teach players, so they prioritize how to win games instead of improving the athleticism and sport skills, which deters the long-term development of the players.
3. As players “progress” year-to-year in a league, fundamentals are taught inconsistently, causing confusion, dissonance, dissatisfaction and ultimately, frustration with the game. As a result, some parents hire private trainers to help, which can exacerbate the conflict in messaging.
4. Life skill development is learned secondarily through the ultimate experience of failure and losing rather than being proactively taught as a part of the preparation process.
I know suggesting change to our beloved game of baseball is sacrilege to many coaches, so when deciding upon what changes are appropriate for you and your league, here are some guiding principles to keep in mind. The ultimate goal is to answer the question that ‘in the minds of the players, do the changes make the game more fun? In other words, if you were that age, would you be excited to participate in that practice?’
Do the changes…
1. Actively and consistently engage more players?
2. Result in better player development, not just team development, in the long-term?
3. Mean the entire league is stronger, not just one team or one division?
4. Make the people involved better persons and athletes, not just better players?
My list of specific suggestions for change could actually be quite long, but here are a few thoughts:
1. Separate the developmentally advanced and more committed players into a different division from those who are learning to love and play the game. This has essentially been done in many places, with extended seasons for all-stars.
2. No walks, no strikeouts, no outs and no score for part of the season. Out of the box enough for you yet?
3. Everyone plays and everyone bats every inning.
4. Host league-wide ‘coaches clinic’ sessions for every team.
5. Every clinic, team practice and game should include athleticism training.
6. Educational talks and role plays should be programmed proactively into all training sessions to increase the baseball IQ of the players and to teach them life lessons within the game for beyond the game.
Please don’t let your disagreement with some of my suggestions divert your attention from the need for change in general. The important point is we should challenge all conventions and assumptions about the way things are and should be done. We need to open our minds and be creative. The future development of our players, and ultimately, the survival of our game depends on it.
Adam Sarancik is the owner of Elevate Sports Academy which trains youth in sport skills, athleticism, nutrition, and career and college counseling. He is the author of Coaching Champions for Life – The Process of Mentoring the Person, Athlete and Player and its companion book, Takeaway Quotes for Coaching Champions for Life.