What is the best option for middle and high school baseball and softball players or really any athlete in any sport, in terms of development and improving their chances to play in college?

Just judging by the kids that we see; playing travel sports from a young age seems to be the number 1 option or at least the option most parents believe needs to be a part of the equation.

In a 2017 article by Time Magazine; the amount parents spend on travel sports (costs to join team, expenses associated with weekend tournaments etc..) is $15.3 billion, yes billion, dollars a year! It’s also estimated that the Nation’s youth sports industry has grown by 55% since 2010. Youth Sports $15.3 Billion Industry

Considering only 2% of high school athletes will earn the opportunity to play at the Division 1 level; why is so much money being spent on travel teams and travel tournaments?

One doesn’t have to look hard to find a child playing a travel sport or a local travel team to play for.  That basically creates two issues: peer pressure both on the child and parent for fear of being left behind and opportunity.  Meaning you don’t actually have to be very good to be able to play a travel sport.  Therein lies the rub: will playing a travel sport 7-9 months out of the year from a young age aid in development or would playing multiple sports and being a kid (riding bike, playing tag, engaging  in neighborhood pick up games, building natural athleticism) create a better foundation to build on down the road?

From an injury standpoint the research is pretty clear: A recent study by the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that moderate to high sports specialization among high school athletes resulted in a greater risk for lower body injury compared to those athletes that did not specialize in one sport. sports specialization

And that’s just lower body injuries.  The evidence on the increase in youth shoulder and elbow injuries from overuse is overwhelming.

Renowned Orthopedic surgeon, Dr. James Andrews, said in 2013 that he had seen a 5-7 x increase in youth sports injuries across the board since 2000.  He also said that 30-40% of the Ulnar collateral ligament surgeries he now does are on high school age and younger kids. Dr. Andrews interview

While the examples I can present are also numerous, we have recently been in contact with a 13 yr old softball pitcher who had to be shut down by an Orthopedic surgeon due to elbow pain.  Luckily it wasn’t anything requiring surgery.  Likewise, we also have been in contact with another 13 yr old softball pitcher coming off a stress fracture to her pitching shoulder.  These types of injuries in young kids are not uncommon.  The main cause behind both of them was simply overuse.  They essentially pitched almost every game for their travel team over the course of the spring, summer and fall.

The other hard truth is simply the fact playing on a travel team and playing at various tournaments, even those tournaments hosted by D1 schools doesn’t even guarantee a D1 coach will ever watch you play.  There are some tournaments put on by outside organizations that rent the collegiate facility, (so technically the college is the host) but the specific coaches of that D1 program may not even be in town during the whole tournament.  Likewise, there are also some big tournaments at D1 schools in which your travel team will never play with in 20-30 minutes of the D1 field/gym.  Rather you will play at a local high school field/gym at 8:00 AM or 9:00 PM at night and only your parents will see you play.  Even if they do watch you/your team play 10 times, that doesn’t guarantee they will show any interest in you whatsoever.

To be recruited at a high level is not about exposure; it’s about possessing skills and athletic ability that qualify you to play at a high level.

This is where parents/kids need to take a hard look in the mirror.  Playing travel sports won’t make your jump shot better.  It won’t take your pitching velocity from 82 to 90mph.  It won’t help your upper body strength improve so you can spike a volleyball harder.  The list goes on.

A large majority of parents/kids would save time, money and headaches by playing multiple sports/activities at a young age, at least until it’s clear that skills/ability in one specific sport are going to open some D1/pro doors.  They would also be well served to keep in mind that no D1 coach in the country in any sport cares about how well you played on a U10 travel team.  Likewise, if you simply aren’t good enough to play at the collegiate level you want to play at, playing on a travel team won’t help that.  Either improve your skill or physical ability or both (if they are both lacking) to the point they are on par with your desired collegiate level.

True, at some point you probably will need to get in front of some college coaches if you want to play a collegiate sport.  However, that can come in the form of a travel team or a prospect camp on the college campus you are interested in attending.  Just keep in mind, a college coach that doesn’t see you play until age 17, but sees you throwing 90 plus MPH on the mound, or sees you displaying inside/out range and blowing by everyone on the basketball court, or crushing every hit (spike) opportunity that comes your way due to your 2 foot plus reach over the net, is going to be very interested in you.  It won’t matter at all that they didn’t see you play at age 14.  The converse is also true.  A college coach can watch you play every year since age 14, but if you are average athletically and average in terms of skill, they won’t have any interest in you.

In sum, play multiple sports or engage in wide variety of activities (karate, dance, gymnastics) at a young age and up through early high school.  Don’t associate skill development and playing games as one in the same.  Improving skill means working specifically on your skill.  Improve it to the point it’s good enough to put you at the collegiate level you want to play at.  Likewise don’t associate playing games with improving physical ability.  Speed, jumping, strength, change of direction are all skills.  They need to also be specifically trained in order to be developed.  Skill and athletic ability aren’t a 1 to 1 equation, but they are certainly linked.  Finally, don’t ignore the statistics on youth overuse injuries.  They are real and only increasing, not decreasing.