WHITLEY COUNTY — Summer used to be about family vacations, playing little league and time off from school.
For some families, those three things get rolled into one venture, travel baseball and softball. Travel leagues are taking younger players, playing more games and traveling further distances for those games then ever before and the popularity continues to grow.
As much enjoyment as playing baseball and softball brings to kids, there are definite benefits and pitfalls to playing so much of the sport.
Kids who play travel baseball or softball could play in 100 games a year. That’s not including practices with the team and at home. For some parents and players, the mindset is “the more experience the player has the more likely they will be able to shine” at the high school or college level.
But the gap between kids who play travel ball and those who don’t might not be as noticeable as some think.
“Travel ball players are fundamentally sound,” said Churubusco head baseball coach Jordan Turner. “But I don’t think there is that big of a gap.”
As an assistant last year at another school, Turner coached an entire team of freshmen who all played travel ball together. Turner said they were good ball players, but playing baseball was all they did year-round. That’s not a good fit for a small school like Churubusco.
“We encourage playing travel ball in the summer,” said Turner. “But here at ’Busco, we want our kids to be multisport athletes. We don’t want it to interfere with another sport.”
Some travel league teams have great facilities, coaches and equipment for players to use. That has been a blessing for travel baseball players at Columbia City, where finding space to use has been a challenge for high school players.
“I have especially seen benefits for us at Columbia City. It gives kids an opportunity in the winter to get some work in,” said first-year Eagles’ head baseball coach Rob Bell.
What Bell does worry about is if the game loses meaning to players. Travel baseball or softball players are playing three or four games every weekend, and the competition of the sport can lose its importance over time.
“It’s difficult for kids today,” said Bell. “They play a game and lose and turn around and play another game in a half hour.”
Whitko head softball coach Michelle Garr agreed that the gap in talent between travel ball players and those who don’t travel isn’t that much. But Garr said players who want to be noticed by college scouts need to be on a travel team.
“No college coach is going to come to a local high school game (unless it is a local college) and watch someone when they can go to a tournament and watch a lot of girls in a weekend,” said Garr. “They ask for your travel ball stats because it is closer to college ball.”
As a former travel ball player, the parent of travel ball players and the coach of softball players who play travel ball, Garr did add there are tremendous benefits to playing travel ball. She said travel players get to face the top competition in the area, travel to new places, and make great memories with teammates.
All of that helps the game stay fun for kids who play baseball or softball year-round.
There are some unintended consequences of so many kids playing in travel leagues. Parents who want their kids to play in travel ball will often times not have them also play in their local little league programs.
Other times kids play so much ball throughout the year their body has no time to rest. Injuries occur more frequently and are sometimes more significant. Perhaps most importantly — kids who start playing travel ball early will sometimes get burnt out when they reach the high school level.
“It’s not fun anymore and that is the saddest part for me,” said Garr of players who lose their passion for the game. “You can work hard but it should be fun as well. Coaches and parents should never forget that.”
Like most things, travel baseball and softball can be beneficial to young players when used correctly. It can prepare them with sound fundamentals that can be used at the high school and college level. But when overdone, travel players can get burnt out quickly and never regain their passion for the game. As long as the game remains fun and played in moderation, travel baseball and softball give kids another avenue to enjoy their favorite sports.