My wife and I recently traveled to another state to watch our son play in his collegiate summer league. She posted pictures of the trip on her Facebook page, which spurred a high school friend who has a son in Little League, to ask advice on the value of private lessons and playing in competitive, or, travel leagues. Below are his questions and my response:
Thanks again for sharing the pics! I love seeing kids succeed at what they love to do. One thing I was wondering was what path he took to get there. How old was he when he started travel ball? How much private coaching did he get over the years?
I’m trying not to burn Cole out, especially since he’s a pitcher and they tend to get hurt young. I’m holding off on travel ball for now and focusing on private instruction (he’s working with a former MLB All-Star). Just wanted to get your son’s history and your opinion. Cole’s always been the big fish in our small pond, but his performance at a summer camp has me thinking that maybe he has a future. I temper that statement with the fear of becoming one of “those” parents, as I’ve had a belly full of obnoxious parents and we’ve only been playing sports for 5 years (I shudder to think of what you’ve had to endure).
I will try to address your questions, but there are no easy answers or clear path to take. And your son’s being a pitcher does make it more complex.
First, my boys started playing travel ball when they were nine, but I coached the team and, therefore, controlled the number of games and tournaments they played so it wasn’t crazy. Also, this was eleven years ago and travel ball was really just starting to become popular, so the expectation to play every weekend wasn’t there. You could still make a high school team back then if you didn’t play outside of Little League. Unfortunately, that’s probably not the case anymore.
My oldest son was always one of the best players on the team, but as you illustrate, that was the big fish in the small pond. So we took him to tryout for a very elite team that pulled other kids as good as him from all over the area and traveled to Orange County, (90 miles away), almost every weekend for tournaments. He made that team, but when all was said and done, we decided that we were not going to force the other three younger ones to dedicate their lives every weekend to being lugged up to some hot baseball field to spend their entire Saturday and Sunday watching him play double headers. We know some people who did it, and their kids got really good, but they only had the one child so it was easier to make this kind of commitment. We just couldn’t do that to our family. If you asked him, he would say he’d be better if he’d had a chance to always play at the highest level and he’s probably right.
Because he was having success, I saw no reason to spend the money on private lessons. I always subscribed to the “If it isn’t broke – don’t fix it philosophy.” Plus, because I took them out every Saturday and Sunday pitching them endless BP, they were getting more reps than anyone. I figured that was good enough. But I found out later I was wrong. His swing was not mechanically sound and, while he was able to dominate in Little League on pure talent, by the time he got to high school a lot of kids who had been taking private lessons for years had caught up and even surpassed him. I began to realize that if he’d played on that Orange County team against the best of the best, and if he’d been taking private lessons, he’d have been much better in high school.
With all that said, he’s playing in college now and doing very well. He’s basically self-taught. So, would he be further along if we’d done all of that stuff when he was 12-16? I think so. I think the higher level a kid plays at, (small fish in a big pond, not vice-versa) the better he’s going to be in the long run. But at the same time, it’s all about potential and while he may have reached his potential sooner if he’d had the lessons and the higher caliber play, as long as he can reach it someday I’m hoping it won’t matter. He can still get much better and there may be a lot of guys he’s playing with now who have maxed out.
And yes, you do want to consider burnout. I know all of my three sons are different. The oldest one would never have burned out even if he played a double-header every day, seven days a week. When he was in grade school I told him about how in Cuba, they take the best players at a young age and send them off to athletic training camps where they practice baseball all day instead of go to school. I immediately became afraid he might be the first American to take a raft to defect to Cuba. He’s just wired that way. The other two…I think they would have backed off if we put too much baseball on their plate. Oh, and also, they all played football and basketball in addition to baseball. I’m a huge believer in playing them all, especially at Cole’s age.
Because you’re talking about pitching, you obviously want to keep an eye on how much that arm is used. I think that the lessons are a great idea, I’d keep him playing rec ball, but I think he has to play travel ball or he’ll fall behind. I’d look into a travel team with the understanding that there are guidelines on the number of innings or pitches he’ll throw for that team.
And last, remember that at 12, it is still too early to tell how good a kid will be. We know lots of kids who were great at 12 and peaked – that was their glory year – and some who didn’t even make the all-star team at 12 who are now really good players in high school.
Hope this helps and good luck.