Love the Game More...By Playing it Less
By Darren Fenster
Major Leaguers have always been the poster example. Their every move is followed, from how they swing the bat or throw a ball, to how they wear their uniform or walk up to the plate. Since they are at a level of the game that youth players dream and high schoolers aspire to one day reach, this all makes sense. While each action on the field is mimicked to a “T,” it’s off the field where today’s amateur players need to take note.
Our game has changed. Over the past ten years or so, sport-specialization and the explosion of travel organizations and exposure events have completely altered the way amateur baseball is approached. Between camps, clinics, lessons, showcases, teams and their accompanying training programs, never before have there been so many opportunities for players to play and hone their craft. Those opportunities have enabled them to play more and develop faster than they ever have in the past, which generally speaking, is a very good thing. But with more opportunities to stay on the diamond come some very concerning drawbacks that take away from what could be done off of the field.
The 162-game Major League regular season ends roughly on October 1. Couple that with another 30 games in spring training, plus 10 to 20 more in the post-season, some big leaguers will be a part of upwards of 200 games over an eight-month period. That kind of activity takes it’s toll physically and mentally and forces the vast majority of the league’s players to not even think about picking up a bat or ball for at least two months or more in the off-season. They give their bodies and minds a much-deserved, and more important, much-needed break away from the game before getting ready for the next season at some point in December or January. They truly understand the value of rest and the role that it plays in allowing them to both stay healthy and refreshed when they finally do decide to put the spikes back on the game.
With the creation of all of these relatively newfound opportunities to play and train essentially nonstop, a vitally important aspect of player development is being lost: NOT playing. Getting away from the game keeps guys enthused about starting back up while allowing that achy elbow and tight shoulder to recover and get back to full strength naturally. Think about it… if those Major Leaguers who are best conditioned to play the game year round, don’t, then how on Earth can anyone in amateur baseball justify working at their game without a prolonged break?
What players choose to do with their time away from the game can positively and significantly impact a triumphant return to it. In a time not too long ago, baseball was played only in the spring and summer. Kids would transition to football or soccer in the fall before spending winters on the basketball court. Well today, extinct is the three-sport athlete. And the guy who plays two is an endangered species.
Competitively there is no fall baseball game that can come close to comparing to Friday Night Lights on the gridiron. Learn to compete at a high level in football, and watch that inner drive peak in baseball. Playing soccer requires a dexterity with the feet that will assuredly translate back on to the baseball field, as so much of the sport’s defensive skill is dependent on good footwork. And as the winter cold fills the air, there’s no better way to stay warm (and in shape… and athletic… and agile… and explosive…) than hooping it up on the basketball court. Before you know it, spring has turned and sounds of the crack of the bat and the catch of the ball are back like music to our ears. But there’s a difference this season compared to last- your players improved on the diamond by spending their time productively off of it.
There is nothing wrong with having a passion to play the game or the will to become the very best player you can possibly be. There is no such thing as too many of those guys. But with that drive to improve and that love for the game must come an understanding of stepping away from it temporarily. That break doesn’t mean your players love the game any less, but rather it will give them the opportunity to love it even more.
Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.