CoachDeck

What Are We Doing to Our Youth Baseball?

By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck LLC

Recently a friend sent a document he thought I might be interested in. It was a proposal developed for a youth baseball league intended to address a steep and several years-long decline in player participation. As I read through the suggestions the document put forth, I became more and more concerned, and wondered if this mindset is pervasive in youth baseball. If so, we’re in trouble.

So, let’s examine the issue. Here are the player participation numbers for the league broken down by “House” (also known as, “Recreation” or “Rec”) and “Travel”:

Year

House

Travel

2011

1853

Unavailable

2012

1986

Unavailable

2013

1784

Unavailable

2014

1723

Unavailable

2015

1696

251

2016

1227

244

2017

1223

264

2018

1088

239

2019

1050

257

 

My first question, looking at these numbers, and something not addressed in this proposal, is what happened in 2016? There had been a minor decline in the House numbers leading up to that year, but nothing to cause any alarm. Then they dropped off the map between ’15 and ’16, like an asteroid hit. What changed? I am wondering if a new sports organization came into being, maybe lacrosse. If this league does not know what happened that year, then they need to investigate and make the answer to that question part of this proposal.

Next, we are provided with a breakdown by age group and year. Having the numbers prior to the asteroid would have been helpful:

Year

House

K

1st

2nd

3rd

4th

5th

6th

7th

8th

9th

Travel

2016

1227

190

195

230

147

125

109

87

73

60

11

244

2017

1123

298

82

160

181

108

94

76

59

52

13

264

2018

1088

174

190

178

145

138

95

69

67

24

8

239

2019

1050

188

157

180

144

112

109

74

51

31

4

257


The proposal mentions that in 2017 the league offered the kindergarten division for free, resulting in 100 additional registrations. It then goes on to incorrectly assert that those additional 100 players did not correspond with an increase in first grade the subsequent year. In 2017 there were only 82 first-graders in the program. The next year saw the numbers jump by more than double to 190. It seems clear that bulking up that Kindergarten class had a substantial positive impact the following year.

This begs the question, why did free registration bring in so many more players? I come from the Sales field. Sales 101 teaches that when a customer says they don’t want to buy, find out what the one, true objection is. They may offer many excuses but only one is the real reason. So, with that in mind, is money the reason more kids do not join? In other words, parents might say, “He doesn’t like baseball,” or “He says he doesn’t want to play,” etc. But now that its free, they sign up. That tells me the true objection for many parents is money. Therefore, I would look very hard at continuing with free Kindergarten or offering more scholarships. Minimally I’d look at a substantial reduction in fees. If this needs to be offset by extended sponsor outreach and/or fundraising, so be it.

The author acknowledges that other sports organizations (hockey, basketball and football) are seeing a similar decline in numbers, except for two: Soccer and Lacrosse. Those sports are growing. So, what are those two organizations doing right? Are they doing a better job reaching out to schools? Are they somehow making the experience better for the kids? Because think of the advantages hockey, basketball, baseball and football have over soccer and lacrosse. When is the last time anyone watched a nationally televised soccer or lacrosse game? But the other sports? Much bigger deals in most households.

And, what constitutes growth? Lacrosse may have started with 70 kids and is now at 100 three years later. While, from a percentage standpoint that is a nice increase, from a net standpoint it is only 30 kids. If four sports have lost a total of, say, 1000 kids and two other sports have picked up 100, that still means 900 fewer in total. This might indicate something entirely different such as a simple reduction in the overall pool of available players. I am not suggesting that I know this is the case, but the global numbers need to be taken into account for one to make an accurate assessment of the issue.

But here is where this proposal went off track for me. The solutions proposed were not an effort to bolster the House numbers. Instead the suggestions were to increase the emphasis on travel and phase out House at early ages, as young as 10 years old.

Scroll up and take another look at the numbers above. Do you notice anything about the Travel numbers? They are consistent year-after-year. That is not where the issue lies. Taking away opportunity for kids to play House, to force them to migrate to a choice between Travel or nothing, is going to cause even more kids to say no to baseball. In this league, Travel has always been available, yet every year the same number of kids participate. My guess is there will not be more kids suddenly opting for this simply because the league decides to make that the emphasis. And even if there are more, those gains will be more than negated by the loss on the House side which means, in the end, we net fewer.

Here are some of the factors presented by the author to advance this theory:

He claims that in surveys done of parents in previous years, the reasons given for leaving the league were, among others:

Other summer programs, namely hockey, basketball and soccer, conflict. He acknowledges that the growth of lacrosse has been a factor. Also mentioned is “lack of practice”, “desire to play with friends” and “lack of quality instruction”.

Not explained is how converting to Travel is going to alleviate the issue of competition from other sports taking place at the same time. I assume “lack of practice” is code for, “My kid wasn’t getting better”, as is “Lack of quality instruction”. And “desire to play with friends” sounds a lot more like Rec than Travel.

The author says he reached out to other communities to ask how they handle their House programs and if they have seen similar retention issues. This was frightening: “All programs indicated a reduction in registrations and many of these programs have removed their house leagues all together (sic) and have focused on expending (sic) their travel program to include such kids.” (Also not explained is what who “such kids” are).

He says, “The reasoning for transferring the kids out of house and into travel varied but there were a few constant themes:”

“Kids were provided better instruction and commitment to improve their baseball development.

Kids were better prepared to play baseball in high school and succeed playing longer.

Kids were able to play more equitable talent and the disparity between teams was eager to manage.”

Here we go.

I have been hearing it for years in various forums from parents who are leaving community-based recreational baseball for competitive travel. The mantra is always the same: “The coaching is better. My son/daughter was bored playing Rec. He wasn’t getting better. He isn’t challenged.” Etc. Etc. Etc.

This author also included a long section about high school baseball and how Travel supposedly gets players more ready for that level. He states that if every 8th grade player in the league were to try out for the four high school freshman teams, two schools would not even have enough to make up a roster. Which begs the question, which is more important? Quality or quantity?

If the high school coach were saying, “Look, every year 100 kids show up at tryouts and only five of them know how to play,” then, yes, we have a quality issue. But that is not the case here. The problem is, lots of kids who might grow and develop into good high school players never make it past sixth grade.

But I digress. Because the reality is the goal of a community-based recreational baseball program like this one IS NOT TO DEVELOP HIGH SCHOOL PLAYERS! It is to get as many kids (of all abilities) as possible, to play as long as possible. That’s it. That is the mission statement. And converting to Travel emphasis will not only not accomplish that mission, it will have the oppositive effect.

So why do leagues constantly go in this direction to the detriment of young players who don’t want to travel, don’t want to play every Sunday, who don’t want to have to go to the cages on weeknights…who just want to have fun? Here’s why:

Because most baseball leagues are run by parents who are Travel parents. They’re the ones who love winning championships, who can’t wait for their kids to play for the local high school and maybe even beyond. They are the ones coaching, volunteering, and investing time because it is important to them. Is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely not. But does it skew their perspective as to what is best for the bulk of the players? Absolutely.

Think of it like a public swimming pool. If the city said that in order to get in the pool you have to be an expert speed swimmer and they conducted timed tryouts to determine who was allowed in, that would be good for the kids who aspired to be Olympic athletes. They would have the pool all to themselves. But the majority, who just wanted to splash around, laugh, do some cannonballs and beat the heat would be left standing outside, looking in. They might not be very good swimmers, but a swimming pool doesn’t have to be about winning and losing. And besides, how are they ever going to learn?

If baseball and softball leagues become more exclusive there are two types of kids we are going to lose. First, we will lose the kid like Brock who I coached in Little League. Brock was not the most talented player, but he had a huge heart. I drafted him when he was 11 and loved having him on the team. He bought into the team concept and knew his role. A small, speedy kid, he didn’t hit much but when he got on base he was a terror and many times helped us win with terrific baserunning. He played for me as an 11 and a 12 and when I had coached him for the final time his dad, Tom, came to me with tears in his eyes to shake my hand and thank me for what I’d done for Brock. Of course, I thanked him for what Brock had done for me.

This was 15 years ago, and I’ve only seen Brock one time since. A few months back, out of the blue, he sent a message to one of my sons telling him that he now worked for a large tech company we all use every day. Brock apparently did a corporate presentation, which he said he was not at liberty to share, about how I had impacted his life and helped him get to where he is now. I don’t think I need to tell you that if our league had “transitioned” to Travel at age 10, Brock and I would never have met.

And we will also miss out on the late bloomers. I can cite example after example of kids I know who were not all-stars at age 9 and 10, far from it, who either grew or picked up skills in their early teens and ended up playing high school baseball, (and it’s not easy to play high school baseball in Southern California). Again, these kids would have probably either dropped out or not made the Travel team in fourth grade. So even if all you want is for the league to be a funnel for quality high school players, remember that quality is derived from quantity.

So, if you’ve read this far, you know I steadfastly disagree with this league, or any league, reducing or eliminating their recreational baseball in favor of a greater emphasis on Travel. What I have not provided yet are any suggestions for how to stem the losses on the Rec side and to even see increases. That is what I will attempt to in the next installment.

Brian Gotta is a former youth baseball coach and volunteer Little League board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels and a baseball coaching book which can be found at www.booksbygotta.com. He can be reached at brian@coachdeck.com

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