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Disclaimer: I know this article will offend some people, and they will feel like they are “guilty by association” through travel baseball. The content of this article certainly does not apply to all players, parents and coaches in travel baseball. However, based on my opinion, and my experiences over the last 14 years of being involved in travel baseball, it applies to too many in travel baseball. The overall purpose of this article expose those areas in which many players are not being properly prepared for the next level. This article is meant to inspire travel ball players, parents and coaches to focus on preparing themselves for the next level during their travel ball experience.
To set the stage, let’s start with a real live text exchange between me and one of our former players, who is now a freshman in a power 5 conference school this fall. He will remain unnamed for obvious reasons.
Mark: Hey buddy, got a quick question for you. On a scale of 1-10, how hard are your coaches on you?
Player: That depends. If you’re all in and play the game the right way, they leave you alone. They expect that of every player on a daily basis. If you’re content and a “do the minimum” type of guy they are pretty tough on you. The way I’ve been taught to play I’d say a 5, but they expect me to lead and produce results.
Mark: Without throwing your teammates under the bus, I’m curious if you have seen other freshman who came in unprepared for D1 baseball.
Player: Yea, definitely. Some of them are bullpen catchers now. Lol
So, here are the top 12 areas where you’ll find the biggest difference between travel baseball and college baseball.
#1 Punctuality - College players are not ‘asked’ to be on time. They are ‘expected’ to be on time for everything, which typically means arriving 15 minutes prior to the designated start time. They are dealt serious consequences when they are late. Yet, many travel ball coaches allow kids to show up at random times. I see it all the time at the batting cages prior to a game. Kids are strolling in at all different times. They also allow parents to deliver their player late to a game with no consequences at all.
#2 Player Assignments - College players must be extremely efficient with their time. Playing college baseball and managing a full time academic schedule is tough. They get many, many assignments given to them and they are expected to get 100% of them done on time. In travel baseball, few players are even given assignments on a regular basis. Worse yet, if they are given an assignment, many don’t get them done on time, or at all. And again, there are usually no consequences at the travel ball level.
#3 Player Participation - This one is sad and comical at the same time. College players are not given the option of choosing when they want to attend meetings, practices or games. They are expected to be at everything. Everyone is 100% all in. It’s not even a discussion at the college level. In travel baseball, it’s the opposite. Players can choose if and when they will attend events. Parents even have the option to decide on what events to attend. They pick and choose like its ala carte menu. How many times have you seen players not present for a game or practice? It happens at nearly every event in travel ball. In travel baseball, it’s hard to know who is actually on the team as a full time player, and who is a part time, or guest player. Just think about what the word TEAM means, then think of what travel ball has created in “guest player” or "part time player". The word commitment in travel ball is defined as "we'll be there, unless something else is more important." I don't know of one college team in the country who has any guest players or part time players.
#4 Changing teams - Along the same lines as player participation, college players are making a big commitment to a school. Although transfers do happen for a variety of reasons, they represent a small percentage of college players. Most college players start and finish at the same school. In other words, they are on the same team for 4 years. Travel ball is nearly the opposite. Players switch teams frequently. Many play on more than one team during the same season. I know of one player who played for 5 different organizations in the span of 12 months. It gets worse, some players never commit to a single team. They play for a different team every weekend, sometimes decided by the “highest bidder”. Shocked? Don’t be. There are some very sleezy things going on in travel baseball to entice players to play on various teams. There is slang term assigned to those players by college coaches that I will not mention in this article. One very high profile college coach told me the biggest difference he has seen in players over the last 5-10 years is that kids today have a harder time understanding what it means to be committed to their team and teammates because the travel ball experience does not encourage that. He said they literally have no idea how to be a good teammate because they never learned that from the travel ball experience. Sad.
#5 Parents - One college coach said it best. He said, “kids haven’t changed, parents have changed”. I tend to agree, and I know this must infuriate parents when they hear this statement. Here’s what I mean. I’m 56 years old. I grew up in an era where you learned alot about sports playing on a playground. There were no parents there. There was no supervision. There was no instruction. If I missed a shot in a pick up basketball game, I didn’t hear about from my parents. If I got in an altercation with another player, we worked it out. Sometimes somebody got a bloody lip. But, we worked it out. If I didn’t get picked up when sides were picked, my parents didn’t complain to someone to help me out. I just learned on my own that I must not be as good as someone else and I figured out myself that I needed to get better to get picked up. In some ways, college has become that. Parents are not there to rescue their player. They have no influence. College coaches don’t interact with parents. In short, parents are irrelevant, just like they were when I played on a playground. It got worked out then, and it gets worked out in college. But, in travel ball, parents are highly involved. They even coach the team. Many parents are negatively affecting the development of their players because too many parents are too involved. They are influencing, rescuing, enabling, pressuring and badgering others involved in the process.
#6 Dads Coaching - We’ve all heard the term “daddy ball”. It’s real, and big problem. Not long ago I interviewed a dad of a 10U player who wanted to coach a US Elite team. After listening to him talk for nearly an hour I was 100% convinced he represented all that was wrong with dads coaching travel ball teams. He talked excessively about his son. He nearly had me convinced that his son was the next Bryce Harper (not really). In fact, he wanted to form a 12U team so his son could play “up” because he was so much better than all other 10U players. He talked about winning as the most important thing. He boasted about being “tough” on his 10U team, even if they cried. Please don’t get me wrong, we’ve had some phenomenal dad coaches at US Elite, but they were coaches first, dads second, in the dugout. Most dads simply cannot separate the two, which creates a huge problem for almost everyone involved. In college baseball, most coaches do not have sons on the team. Every player is treated the same. There is no favoritism. Imagine how difficult it is for the kid who’s dad has always coached him to then be coached by someone not their dad.
#7 Making adjustments - This one has more to do with the actual playing of the game. Most colleges play 3 game series on the weekends. At the D1 level, it’s one game Friday, one Saturday and one on Sunday. Most schools prepare for their opponent. They watch film, look at charts, study tendencies and they formulate a strategy to defeat their opponent. After the first game, teams usually have a meeting and review what they saw. The Saturday starter, for example, was watching opposing hitters on Friday night, and honing his game plan to pitch on Saturday. Hitters learned Friday night how they were being pitched to, and they begin to make adjustments for the Saturday game. At the college and pro level, baseball is all about making adjustments quickly. Obviously, in travel baseball, rarely do you play the same team twice in a row. Rarely do you hear travel ball coaches talking about making adjustments. Therefore, travel ball players are not learning how to make adjustments. This is a big shocker to most freshman in college when they learn how much goes on behind the scenes with regard to study the opponent and forming game plans and strategies.
#8 Team First - We talked about it earlier when we discussed participation as mandatory in college and optional in travel ball. Now we dig a little deeper. In college baseball it's all about playing for your school pride, having the backs of your teammates and coming together to win. Being on a college baseball team is like being in a fraternity. Most college teams are extremely tight. They spend enormous amounts of time together and they love each other. They are also like a big family. Ask most college players and they will tell that they love their team and love spending time together. For many, its an unforgettable experience and some of the best times of their lives. Playing college baseball is so much fun. When the game begins they know its them against their opponent, and if they don’t have great team chemistry, and trust each other, and root for each other, they will not win at their level. Afterall, that's their buddy playing out there and they want to encourage and support their brothers. Watch any college game and you’ll see this on both teams. In travel baseball, it’s not that way. Again, for many of the reasons listed above that “team first” mentality does not exist. For many, travel ball has become the path to a college scholarship. That is the focus. It’s a “me” centered approach vs a “we” centered approach. For this reason, travel ball is not nearly as much fun for many as college baseball, and is certainly not teaching young platers what it means to play “team first” baseball.
#9 Eye Contact - I know of an instance where a college player got kicked out of a meeting for not keeping and maintaining eye contact when the head coach was speaking. The reality is eye contact matters. It shows respect. It shows you are listening and dramatically improves retention. In college baseball eye contact is not optional. It is 100% required. Now, do yourself a favor and watch most wrap up meetings after travel ball games. Get close enough to see the player’s eyes. Here is what you will see. You will see players looking down at the dirt. You will see players fidgeting with their gloves. You will see players staring off in another direction. You may even see players watching airplanes fly by. In short, you will see players not maintaining eye contact, and you will see coaches allowing this to take place.
#10 Hustle - Hustle is not an optional thing at the college level. It’s either hustle, or get off the field. Whether it's getting on or off the field with hustle, or getting to first in 5 seconds on a turn for a pop up in the infield, college players hustle in every way. Unfortunately, in travel baseball, hustle is optional. Start watching how teams get on and off the field. Some will do it with hustle, but many won’t. Some actually walk. Turns on pop ups? It’s rare in travel baseball to see hard 90’s. Many travel ball players are allowed to not hustle with no consequences. Don’t believe me. Watch a couple games, look for examples of poor hustle, like not running out a hard 90 on a pop up and see if the player gets taken out of the game.
#11 Failure - Most players moving on to college baseball have dominated throughout their entire career. Let’s face it, the game came easy to them. They were better than most players. Failure was not a big part of their development. This becomes a huge problem for that same “stud” player when they get to college. For many, it’s the first time they face real failure. It might be the first time they aren’t the best player on the team. Unfortunately, this can be too much for them to handle. In other words, the travel ball experience did not properly prepare them for the next level. Too many people told them how good they were. Sometimes this creates a very false sense of security, or worse, a prima donna type player. Instead, they needed to be challenged throughout the entire experience and experience failure, disappointment and even heartbreak prior to getting to college. Being humbled for the first time in college is not the path players need to be taking.
#12 Accountability - We touched on this subject in #2. But let’s expand. Many players in travel baseball are not being held accountable. They get away with so many things that won’t fly in college baseball, and this leads to incredibly bad habits and a scary mentality. Showing up late in travel ball is not a big deal. Showing up late in college ball is a big problem. Not preparing properly in travel ball and not playing well is not a big topic of discussion for many. Letting your teammates down in college because you didn’t prepare is another big problem. Over sleeping in high school is not the end of the world. Mom writes an excuse to the school nurse and life goes on. Oversleeping in college and missing class is a massive problem. For many, being held individually accountable happens for the first time in college and again, it’s a very difficult transition for them. Players need to learn early in their travel ball careers that they need to be accountable for everything. They need to own their careers, not their parents. They need to learn to look in the mirror for the answers. To many players learn throughout the travel ball experience that its someone elses fault. The umpires blew it. My teammates aren’t as good as me. My high school coach is not a good coach. The competition was too weak. The pitcher threw too slow. I hear these same excuses over and over and over. They are all the same, and come as a result of not learning to be held accountable early in life.
Conclusion: It is my opinion that much of what I see taking place in travel baseball is not properly preparing players to succeed at the next level. The truth is, travel baseball and college baseball are radically different. Certainly, talent will get alot of kids to the next level. How well they succeed will depend on how well they were prepared for the college experience. For those who were not prepared, many will fail simply because the adjustment is too much. If they were allowed to do the things mentioned in this article during their travel ball experience it set them up for failure at the next level. Some will make a very hard adjustment, and they will make it, but only because they changed. One thing is certain, none will get to do the “travel ball things” at the next level.
About the author: Mark Helsel is the Founder and Former National Director of US Elite Baseball. He has decades of experience in baseball and has assisted literally thousands of players and parents through the college recruiting experience. The US Elite program is one of the most respected and successful in the country. Our slogan of Uncommon Standards has become synonymous with properly preparing players for college and professional baseball, and more importantly, for life.