The surprising link between fun and success in baseball

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Parents often have good instincts. But we don’t always trust them.

In baseball especially, these dilemmas are VERY common:

  • Does my son or daughter need to be on that expensive travel team? Is it worth the expense and time commitment?
  • My son or daughter doesn’t like the coach. Is it bad to quit the team?
  • My son or daughter is on a great team, but isn’t getting any playing time. What should we do?

These questions don’t have easy answers. And I certainly can’t tell you what to do, because every situation is unique.

However, I would like to help by sharing experiences from athletes who made it all the way, what they now consider their top priority, and a story of a youngster who recently faced a similar dilemma.

A Rocky Start

When Caleb’s parents signed him up for baseball the first time, they hoped he’d learn some things about working with others, focusing on a task, working toward a goal… plus get some exercise… all the usuals.

Parents from the new team told them how lucky they were to be assigned to this team, how the team wins a lot of games, and has a lot of good players on it.

However, there was a problem.

The team was run by a parent who cared a LOT about winning, and spent most of their time on the best players instead of helping the weaker ones get better… and sometimes even got frustrated with the ones that were struggling – which included Caleb.

He wasn’t really clicking with any of the other kids on the team. He wasn’t improving his skills much, and his certainly his confidence was not improving. If anything, the neglect and implied “you’re not worth my time” attitude of the coach was causing him to lose confidence.

Recognizing that he was definitely NOT developing a love for the game, Caleb’s parents encouraged him to finish out the year (which I applaud, because quitting is not a good life lesson), but they did decide to make some changes for the following season.

They found a new team through some friends. The advantage of this was that Caleb immediately had friends on the team. Also, as luck would have it, the coach of this new team was a former professional baseball player.

Now you might think that having a former pro as a coach would lead to MORE intense practices.

You’d be wrong.

In fact, after talking with many current and former professional players who now have kids of their own playing the game… I’ve noticed one MAJOR difference in the way they run their teams and raise their kids.

They put FUN and player development at the top of the list…

…above winning.

…above being on a prestigious team.

They know that if they don’t accomplish the number one task of cultivating a true enjoyment of baseball, the kid won’t have a shot at playing it long-term.

Beyond the obvious (by far, studies show the #1 reason kids stop playing a sport is because “it stopped being fun.”), it’s important to remember that…

…even naturally gifted athletes will encounter difficult times.

Consider the following famous athletes who encountered rejection and difficulty…

Athletes who experienced a rocky road to success

Below are Major League baseball players – and one basketball player – who got cut from their teams or faced failure and difficulty in other forms.

1. MLB All-Star Chris Archer was cut from middle school baseball team

Rays All-Star Chris Archer still remembers the fateful day coaches handed out letters to the kids trying out for his Clayton, N.C., middle school baseball team.

“I waited to look until I got home, and when I saw I didn’t make the team, I started bawling right there,” Archer said. “It was so demoralizing. You just don’t feel like playing again.” (Source)

2. White Sox All-Star pitcher Mark Buehrle was cut from his high school team — twice.

“After I got cut those first two years [of high school], I pretty much decided I was done,” Buehrle said. “I felt like not being able to make my freshman and sophomore teams, there was going to be no way I’d make the varsity team. I basically decided that baseball wasn’t going to be my thing, and I should move on.” (Source)

3. Carmelo Anthony was cut from his high school basketball team because he was too short. 

After that, he doubled down on his training, grew 5 inches, and ended becoming the highest-ranked high school basketball player in the country. He also did ok in college (National Championship), the NBA (10 time All Star), and Olympics (Team USA gold medal – twice).

4. Daniel Nava sat the bench for most of his first 3 years of high school baseball, and didn’t make his college team.

Unlike Carmelo Anthony, Nava did NOT go through a growth spurt, and never got taller than 5’10”

When he wasn’t recruited for college baseball, tried to walk-on and was cut, and then only managed to stick around by becoming the team’s equipment manager.

Nava didn’t quit baseball though. He kept working out and finally found a Junior College team that would give him a shot.

He also wasn’t drafted.

None of this convinced him to quit baseball though.

Nava not only made it the Majors, but he became the fourth player in MLB history to hit a grand slam in his first major league at bat, and was a key member of the 2013 of Red Sox when they won the 2013 World Series.

All of these men succeeded in their sport for two undeniable reasons…

….because of their passion for the game,

…and their refusal to allow circumstances to make their choice for them.

Fun in Sports – Advice from Kobe Bryant

That’s why you’ll hear famous athletes say things like this…

“The most important thing is to establish an element of fun and imagination,”   This advice came from the late Kobe Bryant, in an open letter to sports parents.

Fun in Baseball – Advice from Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw also addressed this issue when he said…

“It’s so important for these kids just to have the opportunity to play. It doesn’t have to be in an organized league, they don’t have to travel all over the country. You don’t have to pay a bunch of money to play in special tournaments. All they need to do is have fun playing the sport. That’s what I did growing up. That’s what all my friends did growing up. Just learning to be part of a team, that’s all that matters. You don’t need to win, you don’t need to go to all these places, you don’t need to have the nicest uniform. You just need to have the opportunity to play wherever it is.”

The simple truth is that you won’t fall in love with something you don’t enjoy, and players who don’t have a love for the game won’t last long.

A less talented player with passion and drive will outlast a more talented player who burns out (or gets injured).

So, back to those early questions. How do you handle those types of challenges?

For some kids, that travel team is perfect… great coach, great friends, and challenging his skills in a good way.

For others, it’s a toxic environment. A coach who is overly critical, who only cares about winning, who isn’t fostering the player’s love for the game or helping them improve their skills.

…and players who don’t have a love for the game won’t last long.

So to all coaches, parents and players, here’s my 2 cents… having fun and enjoying the game is an important part of having a long, successful baseball career. So play in the yard together, play with friends, or use the last couple minutes of practice to do something ridiculous and fun. I promise, it’s not a waste of time.

By the way, Caleb now gets excited about his practices and games, and his baseball skills have already improved more in a couple practices than they did the entire previous season.

Stay healthy,

Doug

PS. Covid-19 Quarantine advice – How to make the most of this time off

Having work and school cancelled could be a blessing in disguise! If you’re looking for some guidance on how use this time wisely, I invite you to check out our premium training programs, exclusively taught by Major League players, which you can do from your very own home.

About Author

Doug Bernier, founder of Pro Baseball Insider.com, debuted in the Major Leagues in 2008 with the Colorado Rockies, and has played professional baseball for 5 organizations (CO Rockies, NY Yankees, PIT Pirates, MN Twins, & TX Rangers) over the past 16 years. He has Major League time at every infield position, and has played every position on the field professionally except for catcher. (You should click to watch this great defensive play by Bernier) Where is he now? After 16 years of playing professionally, Doug retired and took a position as a Major League scout with the Colorado Rockies for 2 years. Currently Doug is the Data and Game Planning Coordinator with the Colorado Rockies

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