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My son’s baseball team, which I coach, just wrapped up a summer travel season in which they played 19 games over eight weeks—really seven if you consider the five-day moratorium over the Fourth of July holiday.
During that same span, we only managed eight practices. Do the math. It’s too many games and far too few practices. Sure, games are important. They’re important because kids have fun playing, because practice has to be building towards something and because kids learn a lot from executing under pressure.
But young athletes do not get better by playing games. They get better by practicing.
I talk a lot about repeatability with my players. A young pitcher will have a hard time throwing strikes consistently if they do not have a motion they can repeat. They cannot develop a repeatable motion if they do not have time to work on it without worrying about where each pitch ends up or having to bear down on a hitter. Similarly, a young hitter is not going to get better if the only swings her or she takes are during the three at-bats they get in a game. Practice provides repetition, which is crucial to development. At practice there is time to slow things down and to help players make adjustments. There’s just no time to do that during games.
Practice also allows for teaching moments. If a player makes a mental mistake or does something incorrectly (that’s common with many of my players), I can stop and show the whole team the right way or explain what the better option would have been. Then we can run the drill again until it sinks in. You cannot stop a game, and by the time your team gets back into the dugout, the opportunity is usually lost.
Furthermore, practices are the only time to introduce new skills or aspects of the game both individually and collectively. A game is not the place for a pitcher to suddenly start working on a new pitch. Without practice, you can’t teach bunt defense or what to do on the bases in an infield fly rule situation.
Yet it seems like we pack more and more games into every season, even at the ages where the kids are just starting out. I assume we do it because we think it pleases parents who want to see their kids play games and because it helps justify the costs of some programs.
As the coach of a 9U baseball team and an 8U softball team, I lament the direction we are going. Whenever possible, I am always going to choose player development over playing games. That means more practices. With the game-packed schedule we had this season, I couldn’t do that unless I was willing to turn baseball into a full-time job. I wasn’t. They’re only nine years old, after all.
I’m sure parents look at the season as a success; the boys did win a championship. I’m happy they won, but I see all the things they still need to improve and I wonder how much better each of them would be if I could have gotten them more reps and more practices.
As a fellow parent, I think if the goal is to help your child develop then you should stop focusing on the games and recognize the importance of practices. Choose a program that emphasizes practice and doesn’t tout the number of games they play or how many tournaments they win. Real progress doesn’t happen in games—it happens in practice.
Brian Sieger is a father of two, husband, volunteer baseball coach and author of the blog 8U Travel.