Baseball first began in the United States around 1790 meaning that this great game has been around for over two hundred years. Known as the National Pastime, Baseball has been an American game that has spread to other countries around the world. With that being said, you would come to think that the United States would be the top program in the world at this game. With the results of the previous Baseball World Classics and Olympics, the United States is not. The game has even seen such a decline that it has been dropped from the Olympics. Now is the time more than ever to make a change and grow for the better.
Author Gail Sheehy once said, “If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow we aren’t really living.”
Growth comes from change and change is the only way to boost this great game of baseball. It must begin with the youngest age groups and systematically progress through all age groups.
The movie Sandlot is a great example of the romanticized ideals of baseball at its height of American popularity. Unfortunately, baseball no longer has this type of popularity among the youth in America. For those who don’t remember the movie, you had a young kid that was new to the neighborhood who knew nothing about the game. His skills were awful and even had no clue who Babe Ruth was. What is amazing is that a passion for the game was developed. This occurred because of the unstructured play that occurred everyday, all day during the summer. There wasn’t a day that went by where these kids weren’t playing baseball on their own. There were no coaches telling them what to do and there were no parents putting stress on them to perform. The experiences that occurred created a love and passion for the game. The movie ended with this kid, now grown announcing the Dodgers game, still excited about the game he fell in love with as a youngster. This situation no longer exists here in the United States. How often do we find any kids playing pick-up baseball? The answer is never. Everything today is structured (however poorly structured) with immense stress put on the kids to be the next Derek Jeter. Most kids struggle to find a passion so they stop playing and find another sport or activity that creates a positive experience in their mind, hence the popularity of non-parent led activities like skateboarding or bike riding.
Why are other countries surpassing us in this great game created here in the United States? The answer is simple; they are currently following a model where unstructured play is at an all-time high. In the South American countries, kids are playing a form of baseball wherever they can with whatever they can find. Most never use a ball, a bat, or even a glove. Games are played with however many kids are available using sticks and cardboard. CLICK HERE to see Yankee legend Mariano Rivera make a glove out of cardboard. I highly suggest watching this video as it is quite amazing the creativity used to make this glove and ensure it remained usable each and every day. He used this while growing up in Panama and this assisted him in creating the passion for his sport. He played the game every day as a kid and could not afford a glove, ball, or bat so the kids had to make their own. Please think how this passion was developed the next time you are at a sporting goods store buying your child a $300 baseball glove that they may or may not really want…
Growing up our dad loved the game of baseball. If it wasn’t on tv, then he was listening to it on a portable radio. Because of this love he had, both Brad and I fell in love with the game. He exposed us to this game very early, however he never pushed us to play. What we did was similar to the model found in the Sandlot. Brad and I would play a 1 v 1 game of whiffle ball in the backyard. We had ghost runners and pitchers poison. Much like the Sandlot we even had a rule that if you hit it over the fence, you were out because there were two mean dogs that caused the game to stop until we could find another whiffle ball. If friends were around, we would play games like 1 v 1 with all-time pitchers or 2 v 2 and 3 v 3 games. Nobody ever told us what to do or how to play. We used our own creativity – the wash pole was first base, a tree was second, third was a picnic table. Home plate was just in front of the wood pile that blocked the ball so we could get it back to the pitcher faster.
With the way society is today, kids do not play the way we did when we were young and are really only picking up a ball and bat at the game they attend once per week. That means that their experience around the game is based off of the 2 or 3 at bats they get and the 1 to 3 balls they may field per week. The games are highly structured and involve tons of stress because they don’t want to let their parents, coaches, or teammates down. These observations are occurring at every level of the game, from coach pitch to little league and up through high school. Next time you are at the ball field, step back and just soak up all that is occurring. You will often see kids standing around, coaches yelling at the players when mistakes are made, parents blaming umpires for bad calls, very little enthusiasm coming from the dugout, and very little developmentally appropriate skill mastery.
With these observations, it seems simple to understand that this game needs to change and modifications need to be introduced. If we know that experiences create passion, then this must be the focus. A coach’s goal regardless of the level of play should be to create an experience that is never forgotten. If you as a coach were able to create this type of experience each and every day, just imagine the passion that would develop. In turn this passion results in greater skill development as an intrinsic desire to become the best you can be is created. Your athlete is now investing time working on skills because they are fun.
For the younger age groups we must create opportunities for kids to express themselves however they seem fit. We must provide opportunities in small groups where the stress of performing does not out weight the fun of playing. Skill development is not at the forefront of importance. Activities do not need to even resemble baseball. They can easily incorporate basic concepts of throwing and striking in a fun environment. As a parent, you do not have to be a baseball guru to make this happen. Create silly activities that the kids can relate to.
An example that might get some thoughts about how this can be accomplished at the T-ball ages. Let’s give the day a theme – Jake and the Neverland Pirates. Today all of the kids are going to be Jake or Izzy or Cubby and their 1st mission involves collecting gold doubloons (aka baseballs). Now the activity can begin by running around and collecting the baseballs (gold doubloons buried in the sand). The coach could ask the participants how many doubloons they can hold at one time. Go wild when they can hold 3. Ask if anybody can hold 4 or 5 or even 6. Kids love this type of enthusiasm and it only makes them enjoy the activity at a greater level. You can have them return them using different locomotor patterns (running, walking, shuffling, etc). Eventually they can work to throwing them in the treasure chest (soft toss screen) so they can take them back to their island. Just then, Captain Hook and Smee (coaches) take the treasure to another island. On this island the kids scare Hook with Tick Tock Croc (a player) so they can get their treasure back. The only problem is that it’s too heavy to carry so they must throw the doubloons (baseballs) back to their island (1st base). The skies the limit with the creativity that can come from this where fun and excitement can be had by all.
Unstructured play is at the forefront of creating players that are passionate in all sports. In 2014 coaches have to artificially create this type of play at training sessions in order to ensure a future of success within the sport.
CHANGE = GROWTH which will foster PASSION
Thanks for reading this blog post. We are very passionate about these topics and hope that you will provide a comment following reading this passage.