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Does Youth Baseball Have the Courage to Change?

One of the things many people do after being involved in something worthwhile for a long time is reflect upon how things could have been better – what we did well and what we wish we would have done differently. As a baseball coach and youth mentor for 40+ years, Adam Sarancik finds himself very reflective about his time in the game. It has undoubtedly been fun and extremely rewarding, but he thinks it could have been and could be much better. In particular, he thinks changes should be made at the youth level for the long-term benefit of the players and for the survival of the game.

Here are some truths which Sarancik thinks makes the need for change evident:

1. Youth players want more involvement and action in the game

Many parents had a rewarding experience in thier game, so they signup their child to play baseball. Unfortunately, the video game culture of today’s youth causes players to find baseball not engaging enough so they leave the sport by middle school age for other sports such as lacrosse. This exodus and detachment have been so extensive that many would say baseball is no longer America’s Pastime;

2. Volunteer youth coaches have limited time to teach players

Volunteer coaches prioritize teaching how to play and win games and not on improving the athleticism and sport skills of the individual players to the detriment of the long-term development of the players;

3. Conflicting messaging can be confusing to the athlete.

As players “progress” year-to-year in a league, what and how fundamentals are taught are inconsistently and contradictory causing great confusion, dissonance, dissatisfaction and, ultimately, frustration with the game and their performance. As a result, some parents of players hire private trainers to help them improve their athleticism and sport skills (which most players cannot afford). Many times, this exacerbates the conflict in messaging between the private trainers and the league’s coaches.

4. Lessons of life from sport

Life skill development is learned secondarily through the ultimate experience of failure and losing rather than it being proactively taught as a part of the preparation process.

Sarancik understands that suggesting change to our beloved game of baseball is sacrilege to many coaches. However, honestly, if you listen with an open mind and heart to the feedback from youth today, you will hear them state unequivocally that 1-4 above has been and is their experience.

When deciding upon what changes are appropriate for you and your league, here are some guiding principles to keep in mind:

  •  In the minds of the players, do the changes make the game more fun? In other words, if you were that age, would you be excited to participate in that practice?
  • Do the changes actively and consistently engage more players?
  • Will the changes result in better player development, not just team development, in the long-term?
  • Will the changes mean the entire league is stronger, not just one team or one division?
  • Will the changes make the people involved better persons and athletes, not just better players?

Sarancik says that his list of specific suggestions for change could actually be quite long. However, he states “I know that to most of the die-hard traditionalists out there, the longer my list, the more steadfast the opposition will be.

Here are a few suggestions Saranik says will work and, that he has seen be quite successful:

1. Divide the team based on commitment and developmental ability

Separate the developmentally advanced and more committed players into a different division from those who are learning to love and play the game. Not all the changes need to apply to all the players. Do not rely on All-Star teams to accomplish this purpose. All-Star teams may only last a couple of weeks.

2. Change the rules to accommodate the level of play

No walks, no strikeouts, no outs and no score for part of the season. After a pre-determined number of pitches, e.g., three, if the ball is not hit into play, a player will hit a ball off coach-pitch, a machine, a tee, or soft toss or however to put it in play. What is more fun and engaging for the players, “walking” to first base, “striking out” or hitting the ball and running the bases? What is better for the long-term development of the players than having to make a baseball play for every hitter? Yes, they need to learn from the failure of not throwing strikes and not hitting the ball, but why not save those “life lessons”, keeping score and “winning” games for an end of the season tournament when “traditional” baseball can be played? At the developmental levels, and maybe all U12 levels, what is more important for most of the season, the short-term wins of one team or the long-term development, fun and engagement of all players?

Everyone plays and everyone bats every inning. One of the most common complaints about baseball from those just learning to love the game is that it’s “boring”. What is the basic source of that boredom? Sitting on the bench waiting to hit or play on defense and standing in the field waiting for the ball to be hit to them. One solution to these things, as mentioned above, is every batter hits a ball in play every at-bat. Another solution is allowing every player to play in the field, e.g., most teams have 12 players so why not have four outfielders, five infielders and a player backing up first base (this player could switch places with first baseman every six batters). Another complaint of baseball players is they don’t get enough at-bats. Allow all 12 players to bat every inning. Limit the number of pitches before the ball is hit into play and shorten the “game” to five innings. There is no reason that 12 players cannot hit 5 times in five innings in the 2-hour time limit, so they get an extra at-bat or two every game.

3. Develop individual skills

Have at least two league clinic sessions for every team practice each week prior to the end-of-the-season tournament. Players need to spend more time every week developing their individual skills. Period. The youth today are very smart. Learning to “play” the game is not nearly as difficult as learning to master the skills to play it well. And there is no greater self-esteem builder than mastering a skill that is difficult to learn. Yet, the facts are that most youth volunteer coaches do not have the time and knowledge to teach individual skills. And, sadly, most think they know what and how to teach regarding fundamentals and mechanics, but they do not. The high school varsity coaches should hold clinics, many and often, for the league’s coaches so that when the players get to the high school program the coaches simply need to refine not re-teach. The league’s coaches should decide their strengths, divide into groups (coaches for infielders, outfielders and hitting), pool their equipment resources, and at least twice per week, should hold clinics for all players on those facets of the game. However, the coaches leading the clinic sessions need to remember the most important thing – make the sessions fun, i.e., all players moving and always engaged and competing with and against one another as often as possible! The players should stick with one group, infielders, or outfielders, for one-half of the pre-tournament season and then switch to the other group for the second half. They should play all infield and outfield positions in games throughout the season. Pitchers and catchers clinics should be held as an optional third league clinic session each week for the more advanced and/or committed players.

Only one team practice should be held each week for team-building activities and simply learning to play the game. Leave the teaching of the throwing, fielding and hitting to the more knowledgeable and skilled teachers at the league clinic sessions and simply teach the game’s rules, strategies and tactics, including baserunning, in the one team practice each week.

4. Include athletic training

Every clinic, team practice and game should include athleticism training. The best athletes have the potential to become the best players. Athleticism training transcends all sports and benefits the players and coaches in their next sports season. And yet, this is the area most neglected by youth coaches. You do not need an advanced strength and conditioning credential or degree to learn how to teach a youth player the basics of crawl, walk, march, skip, bound, sprint, jump, hop, backpedal and shuffle. These basic movements should be taught to and perfected by every player and incorporated into every clinic, practice, and pre-game routine. They should be a part of dynamic movement routines which should precede all baseball activities. Preparation, anticipation, reaction and action must be taught and incorporated into as many training drills as possible. The best fielding and throwing mechanics in the world are of no use if the player cannot get to the ball on time and cannot coordinate and control his body when he gets there.

5. Take time to raise the player's baseball IQ

Educational talks and role plays should be programmed proactively into all training sessions to increase the baseball IQ of the players and to teach them life lessons within the game for beyond the game. Sarancik loves to use quotations and acronyms for these purposes and has written two books to help coaches do these things.

Here are two quotes Sarancik uses to illustrate this point. “Coaching is simply teaching life lessons using sport as the vehicle. The quality of the person, not the player, is the most significant outcome.” “Positive thinking requires a person to prepare for what to do and how to do it when facing adversity, not just believing that everything will work out all right.”

Sarancik says “Please don’t let your disagreement with some of my specific suggestions for what needs to be done to improve the teaching process and the players’ experience in the game divert your attention from the need for change in general. The important point is we should challenge all conventions and assumptions about the way things are and should be done. We need to open our minds and be creative. The future development of our players, and ultimately, the survival of our game depends on it.”

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