Youth Athletes Need to Understand They Don’t Need a lot of Money to Improve Their Game

“Words can inspire.  And words can destroy.  Choose yours well.” – Robin Sharma

The World Cup has come and gone but I think many people, especially Americans, will continue to think about it.  Not in a sense of France capturing the crown, but because shockingly, the United States did not qualify.  Many have offered various reasons for why the US did not qualify but one reason seems to be a common point: that the talent at the youth level has declined due to the rising costs of the sport.  Forbes posted an article on July 16 titled, “What’s Killing Youth Soccer in America Is Also Hurting Most Every Other Sport.”  The article cited a New York Times piece that raised the issue of a decline in participation at the youth level, specifically targeting the poorer communities, “The exodus of players in youth leagues has drawn recriminations over clubs and leagues that have pushed and profited from a pay-for-play model that has turned off parents and kept out talent from poorer, underserved communities.”  The Forbes article also goes on to reference recent comments by Hope Solo, the goaltender for the reigning US women’s World Cup team.  Solo has been very outspoken recently in her views that her family “would never be able to afford” the costs of playing soccer today if she had started playing today.  Essentially, people are saying that the cost of the sport is driving kids away.  And quite possibly, the kids being driven away could have been part of the future of the sport.

These comments, and these views, are not only reserved for Soccer; but for other sports as well, including Baseball.  In an August 2017 Time Magazine piece titled, “How Kids’ Sports Became a $15 Billion Industry”, they reference that “families can spend more than 10% of their income on registration fees, travel, camps and equipment.”  And in an ABC News piece in September 2017, they stated that “Some parents have even turned to crowdfunding, using sites like GoFundMe, to support the sports-related costs incurred by their children.”  The youth sports market is expected to reach $41.2 billion by 2023 (WinterGreen Research – September 2017); so, these likely won’t be the last articles that reference the rising costs of youth sports.

My fear is not that the youth sports market is growing at a rapid pace.  My fear is that these articles, and the words within them, can be seen as a deterrent to many kids that may be interested in sports (or a particular sport).  Parents may be less likely to push their kids into sports when they believe it’s too expensive.  A separate Times piece was titled “The Astronomical Cost of Kids’ Sports”.  How does Webster define “Astronomical”?  They define it as “enormously or inconceivably large or great”.  Why would parents want to introduce their sons or daughters to something where the costs are “inconceivably large or great”?  They may not have any knowledge on the cost of the sport in their area; but they see this headline and they are influenced by it.

Ben Franklin once said, “Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”  A parent or a child that is of a low-income household may see these words, and hear people talk about the high cost of a sport and be immediately influenced by what they hear.  The result may have them searching for another sport, never knowing whether they would excel at the sport they just steered away from.

We need to adjust our narrative.  Yes, it’s ok to state the fact that youth sports are expensive; but you do NOT need to go the expensive route.  And this is where many make a mistake at the youth level.  As a youth baseball player, you do not need a lot of money to work on your game.  You need a baseball, a tennis ball, an inexpensive glove, a whiffle ball bat and internet access.  You have these items and you can practice all day long.  Do you need a $200 glove?  DEFINITELY NOT.  Buy a used glove and you’ll be fine.  Why internet access?  Well, that’s where you will find the drills you will need to do to get better.  You do not need access to a state-of-the-art facility.  Find a park and begin working.  Find a brick wall and throw the tennis ball against the wall all day long to practice your throwing and fielding.  But, let me be clear.  One has to be willing to WORK to get better.  And I think that is where the current youth lose it in today’s world.  They fail at ‘working’.

Now, about teams.  Expensive ‘travel’ teams at the youth level are simply over-rated.  Paying for out of state trips, or all-day tournaments is not needed.  If you want to do that because you enjoy it, great.  Have at it.  But, the narrative is that you need to play for these travel teams if you want to get better.   That is simply not true.  You need a good coach to get better.  And I know plenty…PLENTY of bad coaches at the travel ball level.  Parents also believe that their kids need to play for travel teams if they want to advance their son’s chances at the next level.  They believe that paying a steep fee for a travel team will somehow help them down the road when it comes time to secure a college scholarship.  Being a former college baseball coach; and knowing many that are still in the field; I can say that you will NOT find a college baseball coach scouting a youth baseball game.  Tiffanie Wen (BBC October 2017) wrote an article titled “The Psychology Behind Spending Big” and stated “Research into how cost affects our perceptions shows that price matters so much to our understanding of value that we sometimes rate pricey things as superior or more effective, even if they are the same quality as the expensive option.”  We need to stop insinuating that kids should play travel baseball if they want to get better or advance their careers.  A parent that ‘buys into’ this narrative will NEVER have their son play baseball if they cannot afford it.

It’s ok to enroll your son in Little League or a local Recreation league.  Yes, you may find that there are more less talented players in Rec leagues than in Travel teams; but your son is doing something that is needed; he is playing the game.  Sometimes it is hard for more talented players to continue playing in Rec leagues because the competition may be watered down.  They may not feel as challenged.  They may become more frustrated that kids on their team don’t care as much.  But, this actually presents a great opportunity for your son.  It’s an opportunity for them to work on being a leader and a great teammate.  Your son can help these players learn the game by helping them understand the value of hard work and better focus.

Parents and their kids are generally looking to play youth sports for one of three reasons: to stay active, they love the game, or to play at a higher level.  I think most start out playing to stay active or they love the game; but as years pass, some will look to play at a higher level as they begin to see their skills develop.  I believe that it’s at the point where kids have a desire to play the game longer where parents begin looking into ‘better’ options for their kids.  And this is when parents begin to look into travel teams, thinking that travel teams are the answer.  I’ll say it again, kids do NOT need to play travel before the age of 13.  What they need to do is to learn the game.  And learning the game requires work and discipline.  It doesn’t require spending thousands of dollars to play on a team where the instruction provided by the coach is something you could get on the internet.

What I would love to see are more stories of how kids make it to the Pros where they spend time in their backyard hitting by themselves for hours.  Or how they go to the park with their mom or dad and field groundballs for hours.  We need this to be the narrative.  We need to talk more about success stories where kids didn’t pay thousands of dollars to gain success.  We all know that many travel teams are way over-priced.  Why do we need to harp on it?  We need kids and parents to hear that they can make it without spending so much money.

We have to get away from thinking we need to pay for success.  We need to go back to the narrative of success favors those that work hard and are determined to make it.  Our words have to change because I feel the narrative we are presenting is pushing kids away from the game before they even know if they will ever excel at it.

Coaches Clinics Need a Makeover

“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.  Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” – Chinese Proverb

I had just turned 24 and was in my second year coaching at The College of William & Mary when I received a call from a gentleman running the VA State High School Baseball Coaches Convention.  He mentioned to me that they had a speaker cancel at the last minute and needed a replacement.  The Convention was in a few days, so they were in a bind.  Of course, I obliged.  I’d be speaking alongside some well known individuals in the Baseball world.  The main speakers for the event were the staff of LSU.  I saw it as a great opportunity for me to network with some great individuals.  Before we hung up, I asked, “Who will I be replacing?”  His response, “Tommy John.”  My response, “Huh?”  I remember my immediate thought, “They want me to stand in for Tommy John?  Are they nuts?”

During the convention, I would be responsible for speaking on two topics: the proper way to throw a change-up and conditioning for a pitcher.  I consulted with Jim Farr, an ex-MLB pitcher and at the time was the Head Coach at William & Mary.  He provided me with some great bullet points to address for each topic.  Of course I was nervous heading into the event; but felt I was pretty well-prepared.  My sessions came and went, and I feel like I held my own.  I’m not sure how valuable I was; but not sure I cared too much about that at the time.  I was more interested in getting through the sessions without embarrassing myself.  I saw plenty of coaches taking notes so I think some attendees got something out of it.  It was either that or they were playing hangman.

Reflecting back to that time gets me to thinking.  I’m sure glad no one asked me to work with a player throwing a change-up during the session.  I would have had no idea what to do or say to the player as he worked on his throwing mechanics.  Sure, it was easy for me to talk about a change-up; but actually working with someone would have been a different story.  Finishing my career as a catcher, I could tell you if I thought a player had a good change-up; but discussing what makes that change-up any good is a different skill all in itself.

As I think more about Coaches Clinics, I think more and more about why they are needed.  Is it really the best way for coaches to learn more about how to throw change-ups; or how to lead pitchers through a conditioning program?  I’m not so sure.  In today’s world where everything is a click away, a coach could go online and get insight from many coaches on how skills should be taught.  Do I really need to spend money to go hear someone talk about bunting technique when I can sit in the comfort of my home and watch hours of video online and likely learn more?  Probably not.  So let’s call Coaches Clinics for what they really are…A Coaches Networking Event.  For me, the true value of current Coaches Clinics is actually in the Vendor showcases; or in the networking opportunities.  Walking from table to table looking at the various innovations in uniforms and equipment provide more value than listening to coaches speak.

So, should we do away with Coaches Clinics?  Definitely not; but we need to change their structure.

In today’s world, anyone can get up and speak about anything and come across as an expert.  As mentioned earlier, knowledge is just a few clicks away.  Research a topic enough and you can convince anyone that you know what you are talking about (as I did!).  The real value is not in what we know as coaches.  The real value we provide is in how we transfer that knowledge to our players.  Anyone can stand on a stage and show a group of coaches a series of base running drills they can use.  BUT, what I want to see is how the drills are communicated to a group of players.  I want to see how the Coach manages the drill.  I want to see how the coach responds to the players when one or more don’t get it right.  I want to see how the coach responds to players that may not be paying attention while the coach is explaining the drill; or how they respond to a player (or players) that are clowning around.  These are all things that happen during the practice that could jeopardize the effectiveness of the drill.  So, how does a coach respond?  Drills are only as good as the coaches that run them.  Would I have rather seen Kevin O’Sullivan speak at this past ABCA Coaches Convention; or would I have rather seen him work with a hitter on his hitting skills.  I can’t imagine someone preferring the former.

Angels Baseball will be offering a new model of Coaches Clinics this coming Winter.  Attending coaches will watch the Angels staff run a team through a practice for 90 minutes.  Coaches will get to see how the Angels staff manages time, the drills, and most importantly, the players performing the drills.  The drills the coaches will see will be the same drills they likely see coaches speak about at any Coaches Convention across the country.  But again, that is not the point.  The purpose of the clinic is for the attending Coaches to see how the Angels Staff runs the practice so that those drills become effective.

Before signing up for another Coaches Clinic/Convention, think about why you are doing it.  If you are going to network, or meet up with a Vendor; go for it.  If you are going to hear a coach talk about their philosophy on hitting or see them demonstrate a drill; do yourself a favor and save your money and spend a few minutes on the computer.  Chances are you will find what you need.