DEAR CAL -- What do you think about "knockout" games? Often in practice or camps, when time is limited, these games are played. While I understand the concept of keeping practice and camps fun by adding some competition, do some kids lose out? Often in knockout games, the kids that need the practice most are often knocked out first, leaving them to watch the better players compete. Do you think knockout games are effective for younger kids versus having other competitions/games where the kids can compete continuously?
Patrick Allewalt, Stevensville
DEAR PATRICK -- I think that the concept of turning drills into games and contests of any format is a great way to maintain the attention of younger players. At some point most drills that focus on the game's fundamentals get boring and tedious for younger players, but by simply turning those drills into games or contests you can maintain their attention and focus a little bit longer, allowing them to get the repetitions they need to improve.
We have used "knockout games" and other similar contests at our camps over the years with tremendous success. Sure, on occasion you'll run across a fragile youngster who will be eliminated and will get pretty upset. But, often you'll find players who normally aren't successful executing a drill or skill increase their concentration and perform beyond expectations. When that happens, it is rewarding for a coach and helps build confidence in the player.
I would recommend that "knockout games" be utilized after a skill has been practiced for a period of time. At that point, all of the players have had plenty of opportunities to practice the skill, and many of them are getting tired of what they are doing. Coaches should be in tune to players who may need extra chances and be liberal when deciding whether a player actually is eliminated from the contest. Second and third chances can make sure the contest is fun for everyone.
DEAR CAL -- As a kid growing up in New York, we had a short baseball season and none of the kids had arm problems. Today, 11-and 12-year-old kids are playing 25 games, fall ball and travel ball and I see lots of kids with arm trouble. How many games would you consider too many for kids this age?
Bob Villegas, Los Alamitos, Calif.
DEAR BOB -- Like so many issues when it comes to youth baseball, there is no real set number of games that is ideal for a particular age group. It really depends upon the kids. Many youth travel teams play upward of 75 games in the spring and summer these days, which can lead to both physical and emotional burnout. Physical burnout can manifest itself as a lack of energy, overuse injuries and general aches and pains. Emotional burnout has many signs, including a lack of excitement about practices and games, a lack of energy and desire to play and excessive displays of emotion on the field.
I would argue that when I was growing up we played just as much baseball as the kids today, but in different formats. We played sandlot games and games with plastic balls and bats, or we invented games. While I think it's great that kids have more opportunities to play in organized, structured games, the extensive schedules, paired with the pressure that often comes with organized game play, place a tremendous amount of responsibility on parents and coaches to monitor the players closely.
Anytime kids participate in sports there are going to be aches and pains. As parents we should monitor the kids' physical well-being and not be afraid to insist on rest when necessary.
I worry more about the mental side. If a kid gets tired of the game, he or she may not want to continue playing. The game gets serious enough fast enough, so we don't want our kids to overdo it at a young age. If your child starts to dread going to practice, seems tired and sluggish during practices and games and gets upset easily when playing, he or she needs a break. Chances are that if your child feels this way, others do, too, so don't be afraid to approach the coach about the situation. If he or she is not understanding (whether the issue is physical or emotional), then you may want to consider finding a program that is more in tune to the needs of its participants.
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