How to group kids with varied interest, skill levels is an age-old question

ASK CAL

January 07, 2007|By CAL RIPKEN JR.

DEAR CAL -- We have a 5-year-old boy who loves baseball, and we feel he has potential. Last year he had to play T-ball because of his age and Baltimore County rules. He got very upset because he wanted to play by the real rules. He got very frustrated because most of the children at his age aren't serious about baseball, and he was very discouraged. He could actually play with our 8-year-old because of his skills, but we understand the maturity issue and that most leagues won't let him play up. Can you offer any advice?

Patrick Reed, Baltimore

DEAR PATRICK -- This is a difficult situation for a number of reasons. First, as you state, there aren't that many 5-year olds who are "serious" about anything. Most of them are on the baseball field because one of their parents played the game or because their parents are looking for programs that will keep them active and that they might enjoy enough to continue pursuing.

Second, kids mature at different rates emotionally and physically, but unfortunately most youth leagues aren't structured to take that into account. They base their leagues and team assignments solely on birth date. As I have written here before, I would prefer to see youth leagues offer preseason clinics in which kids could learn the game's fundamentals and be evaluated by the coaches at the same time. Then kids could be grouped more based on interest and ability than just age.

There's no reason there can't be different levels of play within the same age group. Also, kids who are physically and emotionally capable of playing with older kids should be allowed to if the kids (not the parents) want to.

In our latest book, Coaching Youth Baseball the Ripken Way (due in bookstores later this month), my brother Bill and I discuss the very issues that you present for kids in the 4- to 6-year-old range. It would be great if players at that level were able to practice at least once a week and play in a game once a week. Many teams in that age range only play games once the season starts. Practices should feature small groups of players participating in fundamental stations covering all aspects of the games that rotate every 10-15 minutes. There should be no standing around and lots of repetitions. Practices can incorporate base-running drills and games at the beginning and end of practice and opportunities to play against each other. As the kids' skills progress, there's no reason they can't be introduced to hitting pitched balls.

Take some of these ideas to your league and see if they can be implemented. Good luck and let us know what happens!

DEAR CAL -- At what age are most kids ready to learn basic concepts of baseball? I want to pass on my love for the game to my son and daughter, so they might get as much joy from it as I have.

Amanda Lancaster,

Louisburg, Kansas

DEAR AMANDA -- I have found great joy in passing on my knowledge to my son and other young players around the world since retiring, so I understand where you are coming from.

The answer to your question depends on a lot of things. It's a great feeling to see a young person pick up a ball or bat and start playing baseball. I would recommend involving yourself whenever they pick up any activity on their own. If it's baseball, throw softballs to them and see if you can help them learn to catch. Teach them how to hold a bat and swing. Let them hit off a tee or hit slowly tossed balls.

Gauge the amount of teaching you do by your kids' interest level. Make sure that every baseball experience your kids have with you is a positive one and chances are your son and daughter will fall in love with the game.

Have a question or issue arising from your involvement in youth sports? Send it by e-mail to askcal@baltimoresun.com.

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