SportStars Magazine

CLEMMENS: Single Sport Overload

It’s Friday morning and I got a text from a good friend whose pre-teen son plays travel baseball.  Later in the day I received a phone call from a successful and long tenured high school head coach regarding some challenges he’s dealing with in his program, directly related to players/parents from the travel ball culture.  When that coach called me, I had already written this piece earlier in the day, regarding much what he was calling to chat about. Funny how the world works in regard to timing sometimes.

My friend’s text was telling me about the amount of games some kids on his son’s team have played over the years.  Apparently USSSA tracks the ‘record’ of each player who is on a roster of a team that plays in their tournaments.  One of the players on his son’s team has a ‘record’ that indicates he’s played over 375 USSSA games in the last 4 years.  What is the rational explanation of why a pre-teen has been allowed or exposed to 95 games a season since his age-9 season?  If we consider regular season spring baseball, it’s possible that CHILD has been playing around 120 games a season.  Read that again.

That total doesn’t take into account scrimmages or practice time or private training.  It’s simply the games, outside of local recreation league baseball… you know, like Little League, the organization that has been good enough for just about every American born professional, collegiate, and high school player EVER. 

Now, I have no idea how many innings he has played in all those games or what position he plays, how much pitching or catching he’s done.  I don’t even know the child’s name.  What I do know is that kids burn out on sports, activities, or hobbies they are overexposed to. 

Pokemon cards?  It’s a fad that comes and goes.  Riding the scooter?  Kids get bored and go to the next thing.  Then they come back to it, if they liked it.  They come back to hobbies or activities they enjoy because they start to miss them, or they rediscover them.  At recess during the school year kids play LOTS of different games.  They play one thing for a few weeks, get bored, do something different, and basically have a cycle of games/activities they move themselves through.  Remember the saying, ‘If you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever.  If it doesn’t, it was never meant to be.’  I believe it when it comes to youth sports. 

I have an 11-year old son who is active in sports.  He plays Little League in the spring, he plays rec league soccer in the late summer/fall, and he plays CYO basketball in the winter.  He genuinely enjoys each of them and just about the time one sport is about to end, he starts to look forward to the next one.  Because baseball is his favorite sport (and also the one he’s best at), I haven’t let it become his only sport.  I KNOW playing soccer helps him be a better baseball and basketball player.  I know that playing basketball has made him a better soccer and baseball player.  I also know that playing baseball doesn’t do anything for his soccer and basketball abilities.  I enjoy watching him do different things, having different teammates/coaches and making new friends, and experiencing different challenges.  As a parent, I enjoy being around different parents from one season to the next.

People occasionally ask me what I have against travel ball.  My answer is three fold: 

“I don’t accept overuse in ANY sport for pre-teens because I KNOW overuse leads to injuries.  I believe that overexposure to a sport or activity will and DOES lead to burnout.  Finally, I don’t believe that playing a massive amount of games in one sport makes a pre-teen a better player. “

Yes, it is true that my son is a good young ballplayer and his dad played and coached baseball at a pretty high level.  We do occasionally play catch in the offseason, he does take some swings and work on fielding. We don’t shut down the game, rather, I TEACH him the game outside the regular season and he works to improve his SKILLS and make his talents more usable for when the next season comes around.

Lest you think I’m judging what other parents do, I’m simply sharing my beliefs and letting you know that I live what I believe.  My intent is to let other parents know that no matter how much your child loves baseball (that is the most common thing I hear when I ask my friends why they have their kid playing so much travel ball, “but Blaine, he LOVES baseball”… maybe), many kids will STOP playing earlier rather than later if they are overexposed. 

Of course a 9-12 year old who likes baseball will want to play a lot, kids are supposed to like things they do, in particular the things they do well.  That’s normal.  What is also normal is developing other interests, playing with other groups of friends, spending family time at home or in the community, bopping from activity to activity when their interests move in another direction, and then coming back to an activity they dropped some time ago, when they feel like it.  That’s what kids do.  That’s what kids have ALWAYS done.  That is changing in the world of youth sports.

Oh, one more thing.  I’m not just some dad saying bah humbug to the current travel baseball culture.  I am a former D1 coach, a former MLB scout, a respected resource for coaches and scouts and players and parents in the game.  My opinions are firmly in line with thousands of industry professionals.  Yet for some reason, many parents of pre-teens in 2017 seem to believe that MORE baseball is the answer to whatever future they dream for their kids.  My disagreement with their rationale is not a judgement of the way people raise their children.  That’s not for me to judge, as I’m far from a perfect parent.  But I am questioning the choices being made relative to the topic of this piece.

I also believe in the Lennie principle.  You just said, huh?  What is that?… Remember Lennie from Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”?  Remember how much Lennie loved tending rabbits?  Remember what happened to the rabbits he loved so much?  We have a saying in our home for when our kids get obsessed with a toy or something and then break it… we say they ‘Lennie’d’ it.  Please, for the health (mental and physical) of pre-teen baseball players and for the health of our great game, don’t ‘Lennie’ the game for your kids.  

Lastly, I am not advocating for the end of pre-teen club baseball.  People have businesses and they feed their families with their business income and so long as it’s something actually GOOD for the kids, I am all in.  Some people I know are running models of club /travel ball in a totally different manner, stressing skill development vs game play, and doing a great job.

I AM advocating for LESS travel baseball and shorter windows for how long pre-teens play during a year.  I love when players are exposed to higher levels of competition and hopefully higher levels of coaching.  On the other hand, I shudder at the thought of kids playing excessive amounts of games while facing average (or below) levels of competition, while also often getting inferior coaching.  I think it’s fantastic when travel/club teams truly represent elite levels of talent playing together and pushing each other to be better.  I am advocating for exposure to a wider variety of sports and activities for pre-teens. 

I am for the long term health of kids and for the game I love.  The kids don’t know any better, but parents, we do… or we should.

In a future piece, I will discuss the issues raised by that high school coach I referenced.  They are related to what I’ve written here, but it’s another can of worms that has been opened. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *