Thoughts on Travel Ball

My 10-year-old has caught the bug. He’s a baseball junky. He can’t get enough. And so, this weekend we started down the dark journey that’s been described to me in horror by friends and in disgust by sage old ball coaches that know better; the scourge of travel ball.

There’s no turning back now…

If you’re not familiar with it, travel ball is the broad term used to describe private, for profit organizations that allow little league aged and older kids to participate on club teams, outside of the structure of Little League baseball for a not insignificant fee. And if you live in Southern California and your kid plays little league, it’s likely that you know they’re everywhere.

There are a few common arguments against travel ball that I’ve spent some time thinking about since he asked me if he could play this year. When I pulled them apart and thought a bit about them objectively and asked some folks who are actually participating in the programs, I came to two conclusions. The first was that travel ball is not the societal evil some might think. The second is that there’s a whole lot of forces at work in travel baseball that are also at work in broader society. That second conclusion is worth unpacking a bit.

-Travel ball is yet another structured activity helicopter parents use to keep their kids occupied. Too much structure is what’s wrong with kids these days.

We’ve been coming up with what’s wrong with kids these days since there were kids. It’s our own evolutionary way we get to recognized the accomplishment of not being one. It’s not obvious that we’ve gotten any closer to a meaningful insight over the millennia though. Presently one belief, among others, about what’s wrong with kids these days is that we’re saddling them with so much structured activity that we’re robbing them of independent play where they get to explore on their own and learn life’s lessons by virtue of trial and error.

Kids these days just aren’t learning independence and problem solving. And they’re turning into adults that can’t do either.

First, I served in Iraq and other places abroad with this terrible generation of non-problem solvers. They solve problems just fine. The idea of too much structured activity is worth some reflection though. If I think back on my childhood, and then what my kids experience and bounce it off what many experts express about the importance of independent play, it’s pretty clear that kids have much more structured activity and much less time alone outside the house. I’m pretty certain that the cause isn’t structured activities though. In fact, structured activities are perhaps the last line of defense against the great culprit.

Consider the following thought experiment. We all decide to leave every 12 year old boy at home for a long weekend on his own unstructured time. They’re free to do whatever they wants. No restrictions…free range kids.

What do they do?

Do they set out on their bikes to meet up with neighborhood friends for adventures unknown like I would have? No. They cycle back and forth between Youtube and Fortnight. And if we went hard core free range and took the filters off the internet, a good deal of porn. And they do it, not because we’ve finally found a true crappy generation that will fulfill the prophesy of ruining mankind. They do it because they’re part of a generation that is growing up when this stuff exists.

The best and brightest minds in the world are making the most money in the history of money achieving a common goal. Holding our attention on screens. And our caveman brains are no match for what they’ve come up with. It’s not just kids. Drop in on any Thanks Giving dinner aftermath and you’ll see a handful of septuagenarians, shoulder to shoulder on a couch, glued to their phones liking and sharing snarky memes about what’s wrong with kids these days.

Structured activities like club baseball aren’t the problem. In fact, they’re one of the few arrows in the quiver parents have to fire at an onslaught of industries designed to take our kids out of the world atoms and into the world of bits. And while it’s easy to tell folks to just keep their kids off technology, that’s where the world is today. And denying access to where culture, learning and eventually their careers will be isn’t realistic. The tech genie isn’t going back in the bottle. Today’s world is different than the past. Just like the near past was different than the less near past. Structure is a solution to a unique, modern problem. Not the problem itself.

-These leagues are selling parents on the dream that their kids will make it to the majors.

No one I talked at any of these groups told me my kids would make it to the majors.  No parents I talked to thinks their kids are going to the majors. What these groups told me, is that their program would prepare them to play at a higher level than they are playing now. And what every parent I talked to told me was that their aim was to help turn their child’s passion for baseball into an opportunity to play baseball competitively in high school. As playing a sport in high school makes one more marketable for college admissions. (that’s another blog altogether).

If the question then is less about an unreal caricature parent insisting their child is the next Mike Trout than it’s really about whether or not what’s being sold has value. I can say from first hand experience, the kids that play in these travel leagues have better baseball skills than the ones who don’t. If for no other reason that they play more.

The Malcolm Gladwell case study from the book Outliers in which he points out that there are few pro hockey player born after march because of when the youth hockey age cutoffs are and how when you’re 7, being 7.7 makes you 10% older than your competition and 10% better enough to make the all-star team which makes you better the next year and you make the all-star team again…and so on.

The answer to the question of whether or not the service provides value is yes. The answer to whether or not it’s fair that people of means can buy their kids into being better baseball players than those without is no. It’s not obvious how less opportunities to play baseball is the answer to that problem. As with most things, blaming the producers of those things that are unevenly distributed doesn’t solve much.

Focusing on one sport leads to a less well-rounded kid and leads to burn out.

Like the straw man parent that mostly doesn’t exist that insists their child is going to the majors, so does the straw man teenager who once loved baseball and had a bright career but simply played it too much and had to quit because, you know, too much baseball.

Nearly everyone stops playing baseball before they’re 18 years old. They always have. And they always will. They’ve always lost interest. They’ve always moved on to other things. Or they’ve always risen to the point of failure where it just wasn’t fun anymore. Assuming this is some new phenomenon assigned to travel ball and focus on one sport would need to be supported by some reduction of skilled baseball players in America. The opposite is happening. High school, college and professional American baseball players have never been better or more competitive. The production engine is working just fine.

As for burnout being an increasing contributor to kids quitting than in the past, then one would expect that to be a result of increased youth sports participation. Youth sports as a whole has seen a reduction in participation in recent decades.

So, which one is it?

We can’t have both sides of the narrative. We can’t be both burning out kids because of too much baseball and having less baseball being played.

As for the one sport focus, I don’t come across many kids who just play baseball, even if they play baseball year-round. In fact, they play club baseball, club basketball, football, lacrosse or whatever they can get to. The kids who play organized sports play organized sports all the time. I reference the increase in structured activities already covered. That these kids choose baseball is a function of their passion.

I’m sure there are exceptions. But they are exceptions.

-People shouldn’t profit off kids sports. 

This one’s pretty easy. We are automating jobs as a society hand over fist. Some estimates are 30% over the next 20 years. Other more dire ones are 80%. The jobs that are being automated are repetitive task labor and low skilled information jobs like data entry. The last things to go will be jobs of complex expertise. Coaching baseball is complex expertise. If there’s a way to match demand with need that creates a new service sector jobs like more professional baseball coaches, than that’s a good thing. Full stop. We’re all going to be hair dressers, tattoo artists and musicians in a hundred years if we don’t start creating more jobs that allow people to make money with expertise.

It’s fairly easy to substitute just about any sport or recreational activity really into these arguments. In reality, we live in a different world than the one I grew up in. And so we respond to it differently. Things like travel baseball evolve because they address issues families face today. And in the grand scheme of things, too much baseball is a risk I’m excited to take on. The risks that come with it are the ones inherent in having kids. Crazy parents who do lousy things to their kids don’t need baseball to do that.

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3 replies »

  1. My son’s baseball experience ended with tball. We were going to do Little League one year and the age cut off then was April 30. His birthday was after that and he would have been playing with kids a grade younger which he didn’t want to do. The he lost interest.

    I looked up Mike Trout. Gasping at how much money he makes.

    My son is going to be a senior in high school this fall. He has tried his hand at a variety of sports but now has it whittled down to just football.

    If we had it to do over we might have pursued more sports opportunities outside of what we did enroll him in. Never did anything similar to travel ball though.

    He stopped playing basketball after his sophomore year. Would more exposure to basketball at a younger age made him good enough to get some varsity playing time. Hard to say. Honestly some of the opportunities we didn’t know about until they were too late.

    There is one kid who plays varsity basketball who spend part of his childhood in France and had never had much exposure to basketball. Because of his height the coach was insistent that he play. He was brand new to basketball and now is doing really well. But for most kids today you have to put in a lot of time/years to expect to play in high school.

    I do think there are more parents out there who are trying to set their kids on a certain track than one would imagine. I live in a university town with a decent football team. I’ve met more than one family who starts planning a path for their kids when they are young. Dads who are insistent that their kid will be the only quarterback on the sixth grade team, etc. I’ve met more than one family who really thinks their kid can play college football.

    I’d definitely rather have a kid in sports than coming straight home to play video games.

    My daughter played clarinet starting in elementary through high school. If I could go back I would have tried to find a way to get her more private lessons than what I felt we could afford at the time. So I definitely agree that the money/time thing crosses over to other activities.


  2. All three of my children played sports. Two played in college and the third was recruited at that level but chose not to play varsity but rather club since she did not want to commit the time and sacrifice the other activities to play varsity.

    Each also played multiple sports growing up soccer, T-Ball, swimming. They each chose to specialize about junior high/high school to specialize in one. Swimming, soccer, and volleyball but each kept doing a second, usually swimming, the one who chose swimming was a soccer referee as well.

    The risk in overspecialization at a young age is not so much burnout but repetitive stress injuries. Overworking the same muscle groups and joints with pitching a baseball or rebounding for example can cause significant problems. My wife the PT sees it all the time.

    There is also more money in academic aid than athletic scholarships. A 529 plan might be a much better investment than ten thousand dollars in coaching fees.


  3. As a parent it’s always been about helping your kids identify a passion and pursuing it. Funny thing is when you chase a passion, along the way you discover a whole lot of other things that you might want to do in a passionate way. Travel sports was just a mechanism that provided a path to chase a passion. That path also ingrained in my children the concepts of fair play, collegial interaction, the success of hard earned and well played competition and yes, about losing. All that goes to strengthen character and prepare your children for things to come when you’re not around to drive them from soccer game to soccer game to soccer game. It’s not about the sport, it’s the gift of parenting as you prepare your children to compete at a level where they can make a difference and impact the people around them.