Focus on the Kids that Aren't Playing
Back in 2016, HSS (Hospital for Special Surgery) found that about 60 million children and teens from age 6 to 18 participate in organized sports each year. Of those, about 27 percent are involved in only one sport, according to the National Council of Youth Sports. Increasingly, they're training or competing year-round, often on multiple teams (Intensive Participation in a Single Sport: Good or Bad for Kids?).
I have spent the last few days following a thread on Twitter that focused on the issue around kids specializing in one sport at too early of an age. The thread began with a question from a parent of a 14-year-old asking if his son should be attending showcases or play in tournaments that are attended by college coaches. The parent was worried about missing out on having his son recruited. The responses mostly focused on playing multiple sports and whether specialization was bad for kids. Some favored specialization while others favored playing multiple sports. I read through the responses and felt compelled to add my thoughts; but opted not to because my mind quickly drifted away from the topic and onto one that I feel is more important. The growing trend of specialization may be problematic; but what is more of a worry to me is the fact that millions of kids aren't playing sports at all.
The Aspen Institute, through its Project Play initiative, found that only 38% of kids aged 6-12 played team sports on a regular basis, which was down from 45% 10 years earlier (Aspen Institute 2018). Personally, my stance on specialization is that kids shouldn't do it until they get to High School; and even then, they should still be playing other sports in a recreational way (say pickup basketball games or weekend flag football, etc). But, we need to get the kids that are no longer playing sports back onto the field.
I will address this topic by looking at what I have seen in youth baseball in the areas where the Angels program operates, which is in the suburbs of Philadelphia and Washington DC. Kids, between the ages of 8 and 12, have two options. They can play travel ball or they can play in a recreational (Rec) league. In most cases, the recreation leagues now have a travel team within their organization. A parent can pay north of $1,000 (per season) to play travel or they can pay anywhere from $100 - $300 (per season) to play rec.
The pool of kids that can play travel baseball is much smaller due to cost. Not skill; but cost. Any parent can start a travel team, regardless of their child's ability. But many cannot pay the fee; or don't find the value in travel ball worth the fee. "Travel" does not mean "higher skill level". I've seen several cases where travel teams would struggle to be competitive in a rec league. On the other side, the pool of kids that can play rec baseball is much larger. It's more affordable and the time commitment is much less, and more desirable for many parents. There is generally a "scholarship" component to rec leagues, where parents can request financial assistance if they cannot pay the registration fee. So, why are kids not playing rec ball?
There is no reason why a youth baseball practice should ever have 1 kid hitting and 11 kids standing around in the field. But, unfortunately, these practices still exist and happening too often. Coaches that run practices like this are lazy and/or believe that kids are incapable of doing things on their own. With today's technology, one can easily find practice plans and drills online with just a few clicks. And you don't need to be a former professional or collegiate player to know the game. The next time you see a practice where this happens, look around at the kids. You'll see many of them not paying attention. One may be sitting down; one may be picking grass; one may be throwing their glove in the air; two may be having a conversation; and the list goes on and on. The bottom line...kids that participate in these types of practices will become very bored and have no chance of improving their skill.
When the season ends, there is a good chance the 'bored' kid will not want to play again. And, there is a good chance that the kid who hasn't improved, and strikes out most times they hit will also quit. Why would they play again? It's not fun for them and they are not good; and in fact, they struggle.
Then you have the better players or the kids that may not be that good but really like to play the game. These kids become frustrated when on a team where practices follow the agenda listed above. They want to be challenged. They want a faster paced practice. They also then get frustrated when surrounded by players that have little or no skill; or have no interest in the game. They feel these players hold them back. And this is actually a big reason why kids turn to travel teams. Travel teams are usually comprised of kids that have a passion for the game and want to be around like-minded kids.
It's hard to place blame on the coaches. They are volunteers; but they really should know better. They have to realize that kids are bored. They have to realize that kids aren't actually getting any better. A kid that goes through one of these practices may get 8-10 swings the entire practice. They may throw a half dozen balls. They may never field a ground ball. Outside of the social aspect, what benefit is there to playing for these teams? Then there are rec-league games. I've rarely ever seen a team get in a good pre-game workout where players hit and field. Some show up and never even play catch! Then they get in the game and may get 3 at-bats. And they very likely won't get a ball hit to them. So, it's very likely that some kids will not throw a ball between the time they arrive and the time they leave. And in between, the coach may never teach them anything about the game. So, when you think of it, what value are you getting for your $200?
If we as a society really want to keep kids playing the game of baseball; or if we want to get kids from low-income households interested in playing the game, we have to take our most affordable option (which is rec ball) and add significant value to it. What good is making something affordable (or even free) if there is no value to the individual? They may try it but they won't stick around.
All rec leagues should hire someone to take charge of Player Development. And do not tell me that they can't afford it. YES...THEY...CAN. The individual responsible for Player Development should show coaches how to run a proper practice, where kids are challenged and get in enough reps where they feel as though they actually did something. They should attend games and spend time in each dugout talking to kids about the game and situations that come up in the game. They should be everywhere! But, here is the difficult part. You need to find an individual that is willing to work with ALL kids. Many baseball coaches or instructors like to only work with the talented players. They don't put much serious effort into helping the kids that may not know the game, or lack the skill set to do drills, or seem disinterested. They need to put the same effort into coaching the best player in the league as they do the worst player in the league. You just never know when it will 'click' for that player.
AT the end of the season, parents should have a sense of fulfillment, and that the money they just spent was worth it. Kids should feel as though they got better, even if it's only by a small fraction. But, this isn't being done today.
I really do believe that specialization at an early age does hurt the kids in the long run. There is simply no need for it. But, the more pressing issue that I'd rather try to solve is the need for kids to engage in the game, and then stay in the game. Create an affordable program and then provide a level of development that puts no doubt in the parents' and kids' minds about whether they want to come back for the next season. If kids see value in something, they will push their parents to register them. If parents see value in something, they will register their kids without even asking if they want to do it. If we do this across all sports, we will immediately see an increase in participation across all socioeconomic classes.