The landscape of youth baseball leagues has changed considerably over the last decade. It use to be that kids only played in their town's recreation league and the all stars went on to play in the regional Little League tournament. There were also a few AAU teams where players had to try out and win a position. These were made up of highly skilled players in each age group who had to prove they belonged on these teams.
Then the invention of "travel baseball" came onto the scene (a trend created by youth soccer I believe) where "all star" players from the town's recreation league would be placed onto age appropriate teams and travel to neighboring towns to play in competitive tournaments. The higher ranked of teams also competed in Cal Ripken and Little League district, state and regional play. Normally there is a try out process that kids must go through to make a town travel team.
About 10 years ago a new baseball team was invented... the club team. These private teams, funded by parents where usually coached by parents or by hiring a "professional" coach. These teams are also sometimes referred to as AAU teams although many of them have no affiliation with AAU. Some founders of club teams feel they need to give their teams validity by using the term "AAU". Some of these teams have a formal tryout process and others recruit kids based on other criteria, some objective, some subjective. Key here is that generally club teams operate by rules which have been definded by the founders.
There are a number of differences between town travel and club teams. One key difference is town travel teams usually have guidelines for minimum playing time, especially at the younger ages. This provides some protection for players and ensures they will get time on the field. While some club teams may have playing time guidelines, many are managed by a parent coach who instills his or her own ideas of who should be playing where and how often. If your child is interested in playing on a club team 13U and under you should find out up front how much playing time he/she will get. Question to ask... Does your team have guidelines for minimum playing time? Good answer: Yes, we make sure that all kids play at least 50% of the innings by the end of the season. Bad Answer: Well that's going to depend on how well he plays, our objective is to win games.
Not that all town travel teams are perfect either. You may have some programs or coaches who believe more in winning then they do in development. Some coaches may "pigeon hole" a kid in to playing a position they really don't like or aren't suited for. Some may not give kids ample playing time because of a desire to win. If your child is playing on a travel or club team have a discussion with the coach before he signs up. You want to be sure that your placing your child in an environment that's appropriate.
So why is it important to know all this? Like most sports, baseball skill development comes through repetition. Adults often place too high of an importance on what team their child is playing on... or what level the team is playing at. Honestly, I use to think the same way, but I've seen the light. Yes good competition is part of baseball growth but the most important thing is for a player to get lots and lots of time at the position they like to play. It doesn't matter if it's rec ball, travel ball or sand lot ball... the more innings they have playing a position the more comfortable and confident they will be playing it.
Yes, the custom team apparel, bat bags, matching cleats of a club team are cool and they give your child (and some parents) the feeling they play for a profesional team... but you need to ask yourself if it's the right environment for your child, what is she really gaining? Is my child getting enough experience or is she limited because she's not getting a fair amount of time on the field. Would my child be better off on a team where I know she will get alot of playing time even though that team plays in a "less competitive" league? I would answer a big YES to that question.
Now I will argue that it's important for more serious players to face more difficult pitching. At any level, hitting confidence comes from knowing you have he ability to hit anyone in your league. This is developed in both game play and practice. If you feel your child needs to work on hitting more difficult pitching I suggest going to the cage on a regular basis and cranking up the pitching machine.
I have a friend who's son is 14. This kid started playing baseball at age 6. At age 9 he expressed interest primarily in catching and pitcher. Over the next few years he learned and practiced the skills for both positions, along with hitting of course. He was lucky to have good coaches, mentors and instructors along the way. He played rec ball, fall ball, travel ball to the tune of about 50 games a year, or 250 games over 5 years. He caught in nearly all of those games and pitched his share as well. This gave him the playing time he needed to develop important skills and confidence in his ability to perform them. He's now a solid player in both positions. You could apply this story to many successful ball players. The lesson is a simple one...
Repetition in a position builds baseball skills and the confidence to perform them. When your 11 year old is playing 3rd base it doesn't matter if the grounder is hit to him by a kid playing in an elite club team league or a kid playing in a town rec league. It's his confidence in fielding the ball, making the play and the fun he has doing it that matters. That all comes through repetition in the right environment.