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How Can We Improve the Player’s Experience?

Babe Ruth League is supposed to be about the enjoyment, camaraderie, and celebration of children gathering together and playing a game with their friends. Sadly, sometimes it is about adults competing against other adults through their children. If we want to keep growing these games, we all need to play our part in fixing this. How? Here are some of the bigger problems in youth baseball and softball, and how we can fix them.

Situation 1: Specializing to Get a Head Start
We are in such a rush to do more at younger and younger ages.  As a result, our children are getting injured at an unprecedented rate.  Children who specialize in baseball and softball before the age of 12 have a higher injury rate than multi-sport children. They have twice the rate of overuse injuries. And they are more likely to burn out and drop out.

Solution 1: Think Beyond the Moment
If you want to have the best 10-year-old baseball and softball players, then specialization is the path. But if you want to have the best chance of those children still playing at age 13 and beyond, then do not have them specialize. They need a multi-sport, multi-movement childhood in order to develop as an athlete first, and a baseball or softball player second. The best athletes will eventually catch up and surpass those without the athletic ability and those possessing only baseball or softball skills.

Situation 2: Training Children Like They are Adults
A child is not a small adult. Children have different physiological abilities.  As they grow, we must be very careful in monitoring their training, especially in baseball and softball, where one-sided movements like throwing and hitting can create physical imbalances.

Solution 2: Train Them Like Children
Young baseball/softball players must monitor their workload and receive adequate time off, full body movement and conditioning, and opportunities to simply “play” baseball or softball and not just “work” on their game.

Situation 3: Too Many Games; Not Enough Practice
We too often use professional game as a model for how many days a week games should be played. But think about it -  during a game, a child might see 8-10 pitches, catch 3-5 balls, and be involved in a small percentage of the offensive and defensive plays. If the goal is to make them better baseball or softball players over the long term, this is a poor use of time compared to quality practices where players get many more reps.

Solution 3: Find a Better Practice to Game Ratio
Many sports industry experts advocate for a 2-to-1, and up to a 4-to-1, practice-to-game ratio for young players. This takes the emphasis off results and ensures every player gets the adequate number of reps in all aspects of the game, under less pressure than a game. This promotes long term love and enjoyment of the sport.

Situation 4: Putting an Emphasis on Tournament Play, Rather than the Babe Ruth League Experience as a Whole
While the Babe Ruth League World Series is what most people think of when talking about youth baseball and softball each summer, the tournament season is only a small piece of what the entire Babe Ruth League experience is all about. It is important that coaches and parents are not emphasizing success by a player’s selection to an all-star team or the ability to win a tournament, but rather by the life lessons and experiences learned from those opportunities.

Solution 4: Find Additional Ways to Create the Excitement of Tournament Play Throughout the Season
The truth is, only a select few teams will make it to a Babe Ruth League World Series. While that experience is one that will long be remembered, it should not be the focus for coaches, parents, and volunteers. It is important to find ways to bring the excitement of the tournament season into the regular season and explore additional ways to recognize the success of all of your players. Celebrate all of your league’s achievements and recognize each and every player for the contribution they have made.

Situation 5: Focusing on Results Too Early
Baseball and softball are unique in that one player, especially the pitcher, can completely dominate a game and prevent the rest of the children involved from doing what they love the most, which is hitting, catching, and running bases. When coaches are focused on only the outcome and result of the game, it often results in reduced playing time for less able players.  It prevents those players from trying different positions or batting at the top of the order. As a result, pursuing short term wins often causes children to walk away from the game for good.

Solution 5: Be Outcome Aware, but Purpose and Process Driven
It is okay to win your games but do it the right way. Let every kid try different positions, mix up your starters, and let players bat at different spots in the order. Understand that everyone develops differently, and your job is to keep them in the game long enough to develop the tools the need to enjoy the game.

Situation 6: Forcing Children to Play the Professional Game Too Early
Professional baseball and softball with higher-level rules and game strategies is designed for the most skillful and mature players, not for children. The children’s version of the game is not supposed to look like the adult version.  We must be patient and adapt it to their needs and understanding of the game. Sure, we want to win, but at what cost?

Solution 6: Be Patient with Modified Rules and Field Sizes
It is a mistake to think that kids are falling behind if they are not pitching from a full distance baseball mound or allowed to take leads and steal bases at will because the catchers cannot throw to second base. It is not necessary to implement professional level game strategies into your 12-year-old’s game. The fact is, we do not force kindergartners to sit in full size chairs and at big desks, and we should not be in a hurry to see our young players play the full version of the game.  Not until they are physically, tactically, technically, and psychologically able to do so. Babe Ruth League’s Rules and Regulations are in place to provide the best long-term experience for all of its baseball and softball players, both on the field and off. To help with this on the baseball field, Babe Ruth League also provides its players with the opportunity to easily transition from the smaller diamond to the full-size diamond through the help of its Cal Ripken Major/70 division during the age when transitioning fields makes the most sense. The rules, regulations, and resources that Babe Ruth League has developed for your children provide structure, but also give leagues and families flexibility to help ensure they enjoy the Babe Ruth League experience now so they can remember it for years to come.

Situation 7: Parents Living Vicariously Through their Children
Youth baseball and softball should be your child’s journey, not a continuation of your own. Too many parents steal the enjoyment of the sport from their children by living vicariously through them and attempting to accomplish unfulfilled dreams of their own through their children. If children do not have ownership, enjoyment, and intrinsic motivation, they will quit sports.

Solution 7: It’s Their Game
“We” didn’t strike out 10 batters, Joey did. “We” didn’t get three hits, Jessica did. Release them to the game and let it be about their needs, values, and priorities. Accept their goals and reasons for playing. Let them participate, and just be a fan!

Situation 8: The Ride Home After the Game
Many children say that the ride home is their worst memory of youth baseball and softball. They are physically and emotionally exhausted, as are mom and/or dad.  Yet too many parents choose to make this a teachable moment. Our kids tell us this is often the least teachable moment. Parent intentions are often great, but our timing can be terrible, so consider their emotional state before you decide to teach/critique.

Solution 8: Give them the Space and Time Need to Digest the Game
Unless your child brings up the game and asks to talk about it, you should not bring it up. Agree ahead of time when is a good time to have that conversation.

Situation 9: Untrained Coaches
Recent studies have demonstrated that of children who play for a coach who has been trained in practice design and motivational/communication techniques will return the next season. Children who play for an untrained coach do not return. While we appreciate that our coaches are volunteers with other full-time jobs and things to do, that cannot be an excuse for not training them and mandating coaching education. Just because you played does not mean you can coach, as doing and teaching are two different things. Plus, if you want your players to be open to learning, why not model the same behavior?

Solution 9: Mandate Training for all Coaches
Babe Ruth League requires all coaches to successfully complete and pass coaching education and certification.  Coaches need to educate themselves on the game so they can provide their players with the best possible experience, both on and off the field.

Situation 10: Lack of Respect for the Umpires
Without umpires, we will not have any games. Yet first-year umpires drop out at an even higher rate than players. As coaches and parents, we must model respect and restraint with the umpires, many of whom are new, or very young and are learning just like your kids are. They will never be perfect, but they are human beings, and the disrespect many of them are treated with is shocking. We must be better.

Solution 10: Know Your Role
You can be one of four things at a youth baseball or softball game. You can be a player, a coach, an umpire, or a fan. You can never be two of those. So, if you are a fan or a coach, let the umpires be the decision makers, and respect their decisions. Especially with the young umpires, stand up for them and protect them from any negativity or abuse.  Imagine if it was your child who made a bad call? What would you say?

While the issues in youth sports are not limited to the above items, if we work hard to improve these areas, our game will be better for it. It will be more enjoyable for the kids. And it will turn our long afternoons, evenings, and weekends into a less stressful, more enjoyable time for all.