10 Things Wrong with Youth Baseball and Softball (And How We Can Fix Them)

Little League Baseball player swings at pitch

Written By: John O’Sullivan, Founder of the Changing the Game Project

My friend Jay Coakley is a sport sociologist at the University of Colorado, as well as the author of a book on the intersection between sports and society. In it, he has one of my favorite baseball/softball quotes of all time:

“Kids in baseball say they want to hit, catch, and run. Yet, what do adults do as soon as they take over? Eliminate the hit, catch, and run by maximizing the use of a pitcher who strikes everyone out. They eliminate the basis for fun.”

Little League is supposed to be about the enjoyment, camaraderie, and celebration of children gathering together and playing a game with their friends. Sadly, all too often it is about adults competing against other adults through their children. If we want to keep growing this beautiful game, we all need to play our part in fixing this. How? Here are the 10 biggest problems in youth baseball and softball, and how we can fix them.

Problem 1: Specializing to get a head start

We are in such a rush to do more, more, more at younger and younger ages, and as a result, our children are getting injured at an unprecedented rate. Children who specialize in baseball and softball before the age of 12 have a 70-90% higher injury rate[1] than multi-sport children. They have twice the rate of overuse injuries. And they are more likely to burn out and drop out than their peers.

Solution 1: Be a Generalist

If you want to have the best 10-year-old baseball and softball players, then specialization is the path. But if you want to have the best chance of those children still playing in high school and beyond, then do not have them specialize. They need a multi-sport, multi-movement childhood in order to develop as an athlete first, and a baseball or softball player second. The best athletes will eventually catch up and surpass those without the athletic ability and possessing only baseball or softball skills.

Problem 2: Training children like they are adults

The British Olympic coach Ian Yates said in a recent interview, “Many parents want me to train their 12-year-old like I train my Olympians. What they never ask me to do is to have their 12-year-old do what those Olympians were doing when they were 12!” This is an issue in youth baseball or softball as well. A child is not a small adult. Children have different physiological abilities, and as they grow, we must be very careful in monitoring their training, especially in a sport such as baseball or softball, where one-sided movements such as throwing and hitting can create physical imbalances.

Solution 2: Train them like children

Young baseball or softball players must monitor their workload and receive adequate time off, full body movement and conditioning, and opportunities to simply “play” baseball or softball and not just “work” on their game.

Problem 3: Too many games; not enough practice

We too often use the adult, professional game as a model for how many days a week games should be played, but think about it … During a game, a child might see 8-10 pitches, catch 3-5 balls, and be involved in a small percentage of the offensive and defensive plays. If the goal is to make them better baseball or softball players over the long term, this is a poor use of time compared to quality practices where players get many more reps.

Solution 3: Find a better practice to game ratio

Many sports industry experts advocate for a 2-to-1, and up to a 4-to-1, practice-to-game ratio for young players. This takes the emphasis off results and ensures every player gets the adequate number of reps in all aspects of the game, under less pressure than a game. This promotes long term love and enjoyment of the sport.

Problem 4: Putting an emphasis on tournament play and All-Star teams, rather than the Little League experience as a whole

While the Little League World Series is what most people think of when talking about youth baseball and softball each summer, the tournament season is only a small piece of what the entire Little League experience is all about. It is important that coaches and parents are not emphasizing success by a player’s selection to an all-star team or ability to win a tournament, but rather by the life lessons and experiences learned from those opportunities.

Solution 4: Find additional ways to create the excitement of tournament all throughout the year

The truth is, only a select few teams will make it to a Little League World Series event each summer, and while that experience is one that will be remembered forever, it should not be the focus for coaches, parents, and volunteers all year long. It is important to find ways to bring the excitement of the tournament season into the day-to-day of the regular season and explore additional ways to recognize the success of all of your Little Leaguers® throughout the year. Celebrate all of your league’s achievements and recognize each and every player for the contribution they have made to writing the next chapter of the Little League story.

Problem 5: Focusing on results too early

Baseball and softball are unique in that one player – the pitcher – can completely dominate a game and prevent the rest of the children involved from doing what they love the most, which is hitting, catching, and running bases. When coaches are focused on only the outcome and result of the game, it often results in reduced playing time for less able players and prevents those players from trying different positions or batting at the top of the order. As a result, pursuing short term wins often causes children to walk away from the game for good.

Solution 5: Be outcome aware, but purpose and process driven

It is OK to win your games but do it the right way. Let every kid try different positions, mix up your starters, and let players bat at different spots in the order. Understand that everyone develops differently, and your job is to keep them in the game long enough to see if they have the tools to be good at it.

Problem 6: Forcing children to play the adult version of the game too early

Professional baseball and softball with higher-level rules and game strategies is designed for the most skillful and mature players, not for children. The children’s version of the game is not supposed to look like the adult version, so we must be patient and adapt it to their needs and understanding of the game. Sure, we want to win, but at what cost? Sure, that pitcher could strike out every kid on the opposing team, but will that get them all to come back next season?

Solution 6: Be patient with modified rules and field sizes

It is a mistake to think that kids are falling behind if they are not pitching from a full distance baseball mound or allowed to take leads and steal bases at will because the catchers cannot throw to second base. It is not necessary to implement professional level softball strategies into your 12-year-old’s Little League Softball game. The fact is, we do not force kindergartners to sit in full size chairs and at big desks, and we should not be in a hurry to see our young players play the full version of the game, not until they are physically, tactically, technically, and psychologically able to do so. Little League’s rules and regulations are in place to provide the best long-term experience for all of its baseball and softball players, both on the field and off. To help with this on the baseball field, Little League also provides its players with the opportunity to easily transition from the smaller diamond to the full-size diamond through the help of its Intermediate (50/70) division during the age when transitioning fields makes the most sense, just before starting high school baseball. The rules, regulations, and resources that Little League has developed for your children provide structure, but also give leagues and families flexibility to help ensure they enjoy the Little League experience now so they can remember it for years to come.

Benefits of the 50/70 Division

Problem 7: Parents living vicariously through their children

Youth baseball and softball should be your child’s journey, not a continuation of your own. Too many parents steal the ownership and enjoyment of the sport from their children by living vicariously through them and attempting to accomplish unfulfilled dreams of their own through their children. If children do not have ownership, enjoyment, and intrinsic motivation, they will quit sports. Those three things are the currency of performance.

Solution 7: Release them to the game

“We” didn’t strike out 10 batters, Johnny did. “We” didn’t get three hits, Katie did. Release them to the game and let it be about their needs, values, and priorities. Accept their goals and reasons for playing. Let them play, and just be a fan!

Problem 8: The ride home after the game

Many children say that the ride home is their worst memory of youth baseball and softball. They are physically and emotionally exhausted, as are mom and/or dad, and yet too many parents choose to make this a teachable moment. Our kids tell us this is often the least teachable moment. Parent intentions are often great, but our timing can be terrible, so take into account their emotional state before you decide to teach/critique. Ignore this advice at your own peril.

Solution 8: Give them the space and time needed to digest the game, and then they will be ready to learn

I have written about this extensively, but in a nutshell, unless your child brings up the game and asks to talk about it, you should not bring it up. Agree ahead of time when is a good time to have that conversation. So, what can you do in the car? You can say two things. “I love watching you play” and “what would you like for lunch?”

Problem 9: Untrained coaches

Recent studies have demonstrated that 95% of children who play for a coach who has been trained in practice design and motivational/communication techniques will return the next season. Sadly, 26% of children who play for an untrained coach do not return.[2] While we appreciate that our coaches are volunteers with other full-time jobs and things to do, that cannot be an excuse for not training them and mandating coaching education. Just because you played does not mean you can coach, as doing and teaching are two different things. Plus, if you want your players to be open to learning, why not model the same behavior?

Solution 9: Train all coaches

Throughout the world, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. everyone allowed to supervise and teach children is required to have high level degrees and education. At 3 p.m., oftentimes the only qualification is “are you available?” We owe our kids more than that. Coaches should take advantage of the free education tools and resources available through Little League University and educate themselves on the game so they can provide their players with the best possible Little League experience, both on and off the field.

Problem 10: Lack of respect for the umpires

Without our umpires, we will not have any games. Yet first-year umpires drop out at an even higher rate than players, with some places reporting 50-70% dropout rates for first year umpires.[3] Coaches and parents, we must model respect and restraint with our umpires, many of whom are new, or very young and learning just like your kids are. They will never be perfect, but they are human beings, and the disrespect many of them are treated with is shocking. We must be better.

Solution 10: Know your role

You can be one of four things at a youth baseball or softball game. You can be a player, a coach, an umpire, or a fan. You cannot ever be two of those. So, if you are a fan, or a coach, then let the umpires be the decision makers, and respect their decisions. And especially with our young umpires, stand up for them and protect them from any negativity or abuse. Abusing children seems to be off limits in every arena, even politics, but in sports it happens all the time. Imagine if it was your child who made a bad call? What would you say?

While the issues in youth sports are not limited to these 10 things, if we work hard to improve these ten areas, our game will be better for it. It will be more enjoyable for the kids. And it will turn our long afternoons and weekends into a less stressful, more enjoyable time for all of us!

This article is part of a content partnership with John O’Sullivan, Founder of the Changing the Game Project, to provide its parents and volunteer coaches with educational resources and guidance to create a better Little League experience for all children.

[1] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130419132508.htm

[2] http://youthreport.projectplay.us/the-8-plays/train-all-coaches

[3] https://globalsportmatters.com/youth/2018/09/20/high-school-sports-struggling-with-shortage-of-officials/