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Sunday Youth Sports: Are parents taking early training opportunities too far?comment (1)

April 10, 2014

By Jennifer Davis Rash


Sunday Youth Sports: Are parents taking early training opportunities too far?

School, wolf down a snack in the car, ball practice, wolf down a burger and fries in the car, arrive at the training facility for the hour of individual instruction your dad reserved for you, home, shower, homework, bed. Maybe a few minutes to watch a game on TV or text your friends if your homework load is light.

Wake up, rush around, head to school and repeat the cycle — or at least some version of it. Until Friday that is, then it’s game time as is Saturday and most likely Sunday.

It’s the life of a travel ball team player. It’s about commitment, sacrifice and doing it the right way to get ahead for the years when it really counts — college and the pros.

But is the “all-in” commitment to the ever-expanding travel ball society really worth the exhaustion, stress and restrictions it places on the family? And more than that, is it actually the smartest strategy for the future athlete?

Many parents, players and coaches will proudly and loudly say it is absolutely worth the costs and is the only option.

But an increasing number of major league scouts, professional athletes, sports experts, former players and parents of travel ball players are not so sure. Some even think the thousands of “all-in” families in the state could be getting duped into thinking they are getting ahead when it is actually negatively impacting many of the young sports stars’ potential.

“It has developed into a business,” said Jeff Crane, father of two youth baseball players and member of First Baptist Church, Centre. “We thought we had to get our kids involved in travel ball because they want to be competitive, but it wasn’t long before we realized we were totally caught up in it,” he said. “You can schedule everything around it if not careful ... and easily allow it to become idolatry.”

Crane grew up watching his father play softball and played baseball himself at the Division III college level. 

“You want so much more for your kids than you had yourself, so you push them,” he said. “But you have to back away sometimes or it becomes too much like a business. It is hard to allow them to just have fun.”

Another Jeff Crane in the state actually owns a business that benefits from the popularity of travel ball.

General manager and co-owner of the Montgomery indoor baseball and softball training facility Capital Strike Zone, Crane said parents and coaches should always keep their priorities and motives in check.

“Many parents are not putting in perspective what should be important. It is about the development of skills, not just to win at all costs,” he said, noting he has seen coaches and parents encourage kids to practice throwing curve balls before they are ready to give their team a better chance to win. “It is taxing on their elbow and actually harmful to them.”

But that’s not all that is harmful, said Crane, who was part of a 1991 NCAA regional team while playing baseball with the University of Alabama. He also served in coaching and recruiting roles at the collegiate level before and after becoming a major league area scout for the Los Angeles Angels. 

Father of 5-year-old Jack and 3-year-old Ava, Crane said, “I’m speaking from experience as a scout and father who would want what is best for my own son.

“Until kids are 17 or 18, their bodies and muscles are not as mature as adults. They need time off and don’t need to play every day,” he said. “A lot of these travel leagues are playing at an insane level, and the bodies are not ready for it. They are harming them in some ways.”

In fact, the statistics prove that the number of arm surgeries in kids 16 and younger has increased in recent years, he added. “This is a huge byproduct of overtraining, overthrowing and overplaying.”

Children are not ready for the same type of schedule as a major league player, Crane explained. “They can develop and get better without playing 70 games a summer.”

He suggests a slow, methodical progression for training to avoid potential injury that could have long-lasting implications.

Making it in the big leagues does require commitment, sacrifice and time, Crane noted. 

“It means repetition of doing the kinds of things you have to do over and over and over,” he said. “But it’s about building strength, speed and consistency in performance.

“Raw footspeed, raw strength, raw power, natural size, a physical and durable athlete who gets injured less — those are the God-given gifts athletics are looking for,” he said. “It’s about extraordinary talents and trades that can’t be taught. ... They can be enhanced but not taught.”

And for those not 100 percent naturally gifted, the right amount of heart, desire and work ethic can potentially get them there as well, he added.

But in all cases, training should focus on building over time, not pushing too hard and too fast. Crane noted these examples as training suggestions for baseball players:

  • Stay healthy.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Take 150 to 250 swings at bat daily.
  • Field 100 to 150 ground balls daily.
  • Run to first base 100 times daily.
  • Run the 50-yard dash 10 times daily.
  • Pitch only once a week.
  • Limit pitches to 70–75 per game.

“At a certain point you have to sacrifice a lot of fun things to stay focused on your sport if you want to be a professional player, but be careful about forcing kids at 8, 9 or 10 to follow this strict of a structure,” he said. “Allow kids to be kids for a while.”

And don’t neglect the other parts of life, Crane said. “Selling out and only working on athletic skills is not enough. You have to be a well-rounded person to make it in the major leagues.”

“You have to be able to think for yourself, be knowledgeable in a lot of areas of life, have a spiritual base and have a sense of right and wrong,” he said. 

“My faith is a huge part of who I am,” said Crane, a member of Christ Church, Montgomery. “The more well-rounded someone is, especially academically and spiritually, they are going to excel more as an athlete.

“Don’t allow a child’s total self-worth to be completely on how he is doing as an athlete,” he added. 

“The odds are so astronomically small of being a professional player that it is doing a child a disservice to push them at such a young age to think that they have to be a professional player or they will be a failure.”

Former professional basketball player and current health coach Romeo Penn, an ordained minister now living in Chelsea, agreed. 

“I truly believe there is a balance that you have to have of putting in the extra time, the work and the belief in yourself,” he said. “At the same time, you have to be willing to honestly evaluate yourself. The hard reality is that everyone won’t make it no matter how much work and effort you put into it.

“There has to be a balance because if you become too consumed with the pursuit of this dream, then you could find yourself bitter and disillusioned one day with all your relationships destroyed,” he said.

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Brandon Simpson, a member of Worship Center Christian Church in Helena and a first-year travel basketball team coach for the Hoover YMCA, said he wants to stay balanced in his coaching.

"I want to win, but I'm not willing to sacrifice anything to win," he said. "I'm not willing to cheat nor sacrifice morals nor take one kid and focus on him to win the game. We are a family.

"I owe you the respect of helping your kid if I'm going to coach them," said Simpson, who played one year of semi-professional basketball.

"I try to keep things simple and keep things in perspective," he said, noting it starts with respect.

Simpson works hard to treat every child fairly and the same. "The expectation is the same for everyone."

He also finds ways outside of practice and the games to help the kids bond, so they become a team quickly.

For instance, the first day of practice he paired players up and gave them a homework assignment to call each other and learn five things about the other one, then report back to the team at the next practice.

And when it comes to the game itself, Simpson described himself as "old-school."

"You do what you do and you do what you do well," he said. "Stick to fundamentals ... and one or two offensive and defensive plays."

During practice Simpson focuses on skill development and conditioning before playing the game.

"I'm going to make you a better basketball player, improve the way you handle the ball, improve the way you shoot and jump and help you run faster," he said. 

As the coach, Simpson said it is important to him that he not have his own child on the team. "I intentionally gave my daughter to someone else to be her coach. A lot of parents are glad I don't have a dog in the race."

He also realizes the kids will watch and learn from him, so he puts a strong emphasis on how he dresses and how he addresses others (yes ma'am, no sir, etc.). He also works to use proper English around the kids.

"Kids will emulate what they see," he said. "The biggest thing I feel I can do is be the person who you want to influence your kids."
 

Related article: 

Verdict still out on whether weekend travel ball leaves room for spiritual growth (To read, click here

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Comment (1)

    Trent Scofield 4/8/2014 4:33 PM

    We played in a big youth basketball tournament this past weekend, and they actually held a worship service at Bartow Arena before play began on Sunday. I don’t think that there is anyone who “feels good” about playing tournaments on Sunday morning instead of church, but it seems that is the normal course in competitive Spring basketball and baseball. In my opinion, there is not an easy answer here and it certainly is a timely topic.

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