Monday, October 20, 2014

10 Truths for Baseball Travel Ball Parents

Authors are often asked about their interactions with the protagonists of their books. Would they be friends in real life? How autobiographical are the details of the protagonist’s life? What advice would they give to them?

My book, KEEPING SCORE, is a bit autobiographical – my protagonist, Shannon Stevens, is the mother of a 9-year-old boy playing travel baseball for the first summer, and she gets completely caught up in it. That was me 10 years ago. With years of hindsight, I would like to offer Shannon and all other travel ball parents of kids in the 8-10 year old range the things I’ve learned since then:

Winning isn’t anything. It’s been said that winning isn’t everything, and while that’s undoubtedly true, at this age it means very little. Travel ball is a step or two above Little League and other “rec” baseball programs because it offers more practices and more games. The more practices and games a kid plays in, the better he/she’ll get. Of course it’s a lot more fun to win games than to lose them, but there’s always another game tomorrow, and you can use what you learned from the loss to win next time.

Being on the best travel team doesn’t mean that much. So your son’s travel team won ten tournaments when he was 9. Do you think that will mean anything when he’s trying to play college ball? No. It won’t even matter when he’s trying out for his high school team. The only thing that matters is skills. Yes, there’s a chance that winning all those tournaments developed your son immeasurably, but there’s also a chance his team played weak competition, or he was sitting on the bench for most games. Enjoy those trophies but know they’re not worth the plastic they’re made out of.

Since winning isn’t anything, and being on the best travel team doesn’t mean much, pick the team where you and your son are the happiest. He gets a lot of playing time. He’s learning and improving. The coach knows his stuff. The other kids act like teammates. The other parents are fun to be around. They win enough to keep it fun but not so much than winning becomes the most important thing.

It is better to get a lot of playing time on a mediocre team than to sit on the bench of a championship team. Bragging rights do not trump time on the field.

How good a player your son is at 10 has no bearing on how good a player he’ll be at 15. Or 20. Many kids who dominate at age 10 are just closer to puberty than their peers. Or they’re short and fast and comfortable in their bodies, which will betray them when the hormones kick in. Or for some reason they never make the transition to the “big field” – the 90 foot diamond, which comes into play in the 7th or 8th grade. The best kid on your son’s 9U team could be completely out of the game by the time high school rolls around, and the bench warmer could end up a varsity star.

It’s okay to join another team. He’s 10. Travel ball is supposed to be a happy, fun experience. If it’s not, and his objections are valid, find him another team. There are plenty out there.

Arm health is sacrosanct. Conventional wisdom says a boy shouldn’t throw a curve ball until he needs to shave, although some pitching experts claim there are “safe” curve balls for the younger set. What isn’t up for argument is the importance of pitch counts. While some organizations count innings, a pitcher could presumably throw only 3 pitches in an inning, or dozens. Parents need to keep track of the number of pitches their kid throws, especially if the coach likes to use him a lot, or if he’s on more than one baseball team. It’s wonderful to pitch in the winning game in a championship tournament when you’re 10, but if it means not playing high school ball because you needed labrum surgery at 15, was it really worth it?

It’s okay to miss a few games. Tell the coach first, of course. But it’s more important to take a family vacation, go to your cousin’s wedding, or just take a weekend off and stay home than to make every single tournament! He’s nine! Travel ball tournaments can be important, fun family time, but they can easily take over your life. Many teams play every single weekend in May, June and July, take two weeks off in August, and then begin practicing for the fall. Make travel baseball part of your life at this age … not your whole life.

Use the travel ball experience to teach your child about responsibility. He needs to show to practices and games early (and you need to get him there). He needs to pack and carry his own bag. He needs to communicate with his coach directly when he knows he’ll have to miss a game. He needs to speak up when he needs more work with a specific skill.

Have fun, and take lots of pictures. Whether or not your son continues to play baseball, these years will be some of the most memorable in his and your life.

I hope Sam continues to play baseball and Shannon gets a chance to learn these lessons. My son Alex played on three different travel teams before high school – his father was the coach for the last one. But that’s a whole different story…

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