There’s A Lot Wrong With Youth Sports

It’s a beautiful day for baseball on a hot, August day in the midwest. As part of the opening ceremonies of the 12U baseball tournament I was attending, players were being introduced one by one, while the public address announcer told the crowd who the kid’s favorite player was, where they were from, what position they played and the like. And then I hear them begin to tell the crowd the kid’s “national” prospect ranking, their potential college choices and majors, and their high school graduation date. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

    “These kids are TWELVE years old”, I thought to myself. I didn’t know what college I wanted to go to until well into my senior year, and definitely hadn’t figured my major out until a couple of years into college. But one could make the case that it was all in good fun, “part of the experience” per se, so that’s not the part I really took issue with. The whole thing was a bit corny for my liking, to be blunt, but I’m a traditionalist when it comes to sports.

The real issue I found came when I caught a glimpse of the rosters. Each kid (keep in mind they are between the ages of 9 and 12), not only had their national prospect ranking next to their name, but their high school graduation date in place of their age. Are you kidding?

First of all, I would really like to know how you rank thousands of twelve year olds in terms of talent. Do you have “scouts” that go watch every Little League game in America? Do you base it merely off statistics that could easily be skewed? Is there some sort of showcase that thousands of the kids attend? I have coached this age group for five years now, and I’ve been involved in baseball for nearly twenty years. When it comes to 8-12 year old kids, there are really two categories that they can accurately be divided into at each aspect of the game:

  1. Hitting: They can hit well or they cannot hit well.
  2. Base running: They are fast or they are slow.
  3. Pitching: They can throw strikes or they cannot throw strikes.
  4. Infielders: They can field a ground ball or they cannot field a ground ball.
  5. Outfielders: They can catch a fly ball or they cannot catch a fly ball.
  6. Catchers: They are comfortable behind the plate or they are uncomfortable behind the plate.

That’s as far as you can break down this age group, in my opinion. Obviously, you’ll have some kids that have all the tools of a good ballplayer…but at this age, so much can change even in a year. The kid that looks like he can do it all at age twelve may not be able to adjust to the faster pitching he will see in high school. And sometimes, the kid that looks like he couldn’t hit his way out of a wet paper bag at age twelve will blossom into a fine ballplayer by the time he’s in high school. Why rank these kids nationally? What good does it serve, other than to unnecessarily bolster the (most times already large) egos of these kids? These are not MLB prospects we are talking about…they are children. And this applies to kids in ALL sports.

When I was twelve years old, my team played at a local baseball camp every week. The camp would take the best players from that age group, form a team, and play my team of local kids. For two consecutive summers, we got thumped. And when I say thumped, I mean we won probably one or two games every year. But it made us better, because my team, out of southwest Missouri, was facing some of the best talent the country had to offer. Once we got to playing other local teams, we were succeeding because the talent level drastically dropped off. We went from facing the kids that could hit, throw, field, and run well…to facing kids that couldn’t.

Which brings me to my next point: statistics say 1 out of every 100 high school baseball players will go pro. That does not mean they will make it to the Major Leagues, that means they will play professional in some capacity. There are 22 other professional leagues outside of Major League Baseball in America, which means high school baseball players have a <1% chance of going to the MLB. So one player out of every 5 high school teams will play in one of those 23 organized, professional baseball leagues. Those aren’t good odds.

Now, I’m not here to crush kids’ dreams. Obviously, pretty much every MLB player would say being an MLB player is what they always wanted to do. There is nothing wrong with having that goal and chasing after it…but at some point, you have to be realistic. And I’m not talking to the kids here, I’m talking to the parents. Parents need to understand a few things about sports. 

First, parents need to understand that at this age, there is no way to tell whether or not a kid will be the next Nolan Ryan. I get it, your kid can throw 60+ miles per hour and has a curveball. First of all, your kid shouldn’t be throwing a curve ball at age twelve. Not even for the sake of preserving their arm, but rather because they first need to learn the importance of how to use a fastball. As a coach for this age group, I don’t want to see your curveball or your best Tim Wakefield knuckleball, I want to see if you can effectively use your fastball and changeup to keep hitters off balance. So no, I don’t think your kid is a Division I talent. I don’t care if he’s a 6’4 basketball player, or can run a 4.8 40-yard dash with football pads on. He’s twelve.

Second, parents need to understand that spending thousands of dollars for your kid to play on travel teams does not guarantee your kid a seven-figure MLB contract. For some reason, youth sports parents think that the more money they shell out for their kid, the more likely it is that their kid will be buying them a big house on the beach someday. As I said earlier, facing good competition is a good thing. But if your kid can’t hit against the local pitcher from the American Legion team, more than likely he is going to look confused when he goes to the plate in a tournament two states to the east. Out-of-state tournaments are great team building experiences, and are a lot of fun for the kids. But the ulterior motives I have seen are that parents are making these tournaments less about fun and more about improving their stats.

Somewhere over the years, youth sports became less about the kids having fun and developing their technique and more about the parents grooming the next big leaguer. A parent’s role in youth sports should be encouragement and support. Not screaming at your kid to throw strikes when he’s on the mound. Not reminding him that he’s hitting .358 against left handed pitching, and has only ten RBIs through five games. If you’re a parent-coach, coach the kids on the basics but teach them to have fun and cherish their time on the field. Teach them life skills like hard work, humility, sportsmanship. Throw away the stat sheets.

If you want to make your kid a better ball player, let them have fun. Teach them to be gracious in victory and defeat. Send them to tournaments to have fun, not to improve their draft stock. Buy them a batting tee and let them hit into a net until they can’t swing the bat anymore.

    Kids will have plenty of time to spend in the weight room and perfecting their craft. But for now, let them be kids. After all, that’s exactly what they are.




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