Baseball gets serious fast enough. As coaches, we need to recognize this and do our best not to put too much pressure on young, developing baseball players. These days it’s not uncommon to see 8-, 9-, and 10-year-old kids playing 40 or more baseball games in a summer for their local travel teams. In some ways this is great. Youth players today have opportunities to play baseball that we never had. If the kids wake up every day and all they talk about is that day’s game or practice—if they’re truly excited to get out on the baseball field that often without being pushed—then, by all means, let them have at it.
The truth of the matter, however, is that for most kids that’s too much baseball. When kids get to be 11 or 12 years old, they begin forming their own likes and dislikes. Kids at this age start making their own decisions on what they want to do. If they don’t want to play that many games, they won’t; it’s as simple as that. Younger children are not so independent in their thinking, however. Most of them still want to do what makes mom or dad happy. So, the danger is that there will be kids who really do enjoy the game of baseball on a recreational level and will keep going out there to play on a travel team every day because it’s what their parents want. At some point, usually when they turn 11 or 12, these kids will get sick of the sport and look for other ways to spend their recreational time. This is dangerous for the future of baseball.
You also have the other extreme, which is just as dangerous. Many kids enjoy baseball or are at least curious about the sport. They want to be part of a team and to learn and enjoy the game in a structured environment. We call these kids recreational or in-house players. However, if you look at these kids as the seeds representing the future of the game, it’s very important to nurture them properly, just as you would water the grass seed in your front yard or the seeds for the flowers you’ve planted in your garden.
Children don’t mature at the same rate physically. Plus their interest levels and attention spans vary considerably from age group to age group. If a player is interested in baseball at a very young age but is not as physically prepared to play as some of his or her peers, that player’s interests and needs must be considered. If that player has a positive experience, he or she is likely to stick with the sport. At some point he or she is going to mature and might turn into a heck of a ballplayer. If he or she is neglected or has an otherwise negative experience early on, the sport of baseball loses out on a potential superstar or, at the very least, a potential lifelong fan. Neither of these outcomes is good for the game.
Similarly, if a player is only moderately interested in the sport, it’s important that his or her interest be cultivated and maintained. There are a lot of activities competing for the attention of the young people in this country. If I’m an active 10-year-old and can play basketball, baseball, football, or soccer, I’m probably going to give them all a try to find out which ones I like. Initial experiences and impressions significantly influence how a child feels about something. If football practice is more exciting than baseball practice, I’m probably going to make sure I make it to football practice every time. I’ll go to baseball practice when I feel like it or if it fits into my schedule.
With all this in mind, it’s easy to see that youth baseball coaches—most of them volunteers trying to balance their own work and family lives with coaching—play an enormous role in shaping a child’s on-field experience. Almost all male adults played baseball at some point in their lives. It’s one game that everyone seems to think they know something about. So, when our kids decide to play T-ball or baseball, we feel confident that we can get out there for a few hours a week and make a positive impact by coaching their teams.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Baseball is a game that lends itself to some standing around. A lot of the strategy and thinking involved in baseball takes place in between the actual game action. As we get older, the strategic part of the game becomes very appealing to us.
Younger kids are not built that way, however. Attention spans are short at the younger ages, and energy levels are high. If these factors aren’t considered by the youth baseball or T-ball coach, their players’ earliest experiences can be negative.
So, as you can see, there’s a fine line to walk as a youth baseball coach. Again, think of the kids as seeds that need to be nurtured. Every seed is a little bit different and needs its own personal attention. You’re not going to treat grass seed the same way you treat a pumpkin seed or a geranium seed. If you treat them all the same way, some will grow and others will die. Likewise, if you try to handle every kid at every age the same way, you’re going to kill some of the kids’ interest along the way, and participation will decrease.
Motor skill development is age-specific. Sure, you’re going to find some advanced 5-year-olds who can catch thrown and hit balls pretty regularly. But, for most kids that age, catching is one of the hardest skills to develop. As coaches, we need to be able to cater to the needs of the kid who can’t catch one ball and still make baseball fun and exciting for the kid who can. It’s a difficult balance but one that’s important to understand at all age levels.