When you review the top baseball playing nations in the world, it is apparent that the powerhouses all have one thing in common - they all have well-developed youth programs and children start playing the game in their pre-teens
There has recently been a great deal of debate surrounding the "10,000-hour-rule". The argument, albeit formulated by a journalist Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers: The Story of Success
maintains that regardless of talent or genes, you can master a task simply by practicing it for 10,000 hours. While not refuting that practice plays an important role, David Epstein in his book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance
debunks the theory that practice alone will make an elite baseball player. He does however assert that the drive needed to practice something for 10,000 hours might itself be genetic.
However, in the case of baseball, Epstein does offer evidence suggesting that the 10,000-hour-rule is more applicable that in other sports. Citing Albert Pujols, acknowledged as one of the most successful hitters in modern baseball history, one might assume that Pujols's prolific success at the plate is the result of superlative reflexes. However, when scientists at Washington University in St. Louis tested Albert's reaction time against a random sample of college students, he ended up in the sixty-sixth percentile. This made him better that the majority but could never in itself justify a contract worth two hundred and forty million dollars over ten years.
In addition to having great vision, Albert Pujols and other hitters have built an elaborate mental database of how different pitches look and have the ability to partition that information into useful segments. It's a database of physiological clues - how a curveball delivery looks compared to a fastball, for instance - that allows them to react to a pitch more quickly than, say, a recreational softball player can. (Speaking of softball, it's probably for this reason, Epstein notes, that when Pujols faced Jennie Finch, a softball pitcher, in an exhibition, he quickly struck out: all of the mental information Pujols had about a baseball pitcher's overhand motion was useless when facing a softball player throwing underhand).
Baseball hitters, must be able to look at a ball leaving a pitcher's hand at 90 mph and instantly know whether and how to swing. Hitters will also have accumulated the hours of repetitions to train their bodies to hit while relaxed. Any tension or anxiety will dramatically affect the hitter's timing. It was the great pitcher Warren Spahn who said; "Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing."
With very few exceptions, professional baseball players played baseball (and other sports) as preteens. The sport builds on fundamentals and repetitions and differs from other sports that can be picked up in the teen years. If a child is big and strong he can be trained to play a position in football or basketball, if he is fast, he can be taught to run in a straight line . If a child doesn't learn the mechanics of hitting when he's younger it's going to be hard to pick up when pitchers are throwing 75-80 at thirteen. There is a school of thought that kids who have not played the game before the age of ten (even recreationally), will never have the chance to catch up to their peers..
4-6 Year-Olds - The Fun Years
These are the fun years. Your child should begin playing little league baseball as early as possible between the ages of 4 and 6 years old. If you expect your son or daughter to be comfortable competing as they get older and move up to the next level your kid should probably start playing baseball in a youth baseball sports league no later than 5 years old. As youth players move up to the next level of baseball the competition will be tougher and those kids who has been playing baseball for a while will be better prepared to compete for a position.
7-10 Yr Olds - The Formative Years
Many baseball experts will say that these years are the most critical for developing proper fundamentals. It is true that these are vital years in the development of a young player, but the rare exception can excel at baseball even if they haven't played during or prior to these years. If your child is just starting baseball at this age, now is the perfect time to teach the proper fundamentals. Children at this age have begun to develop a certain sense of coordination and with proper instruction can become very effective at baseball. This will certainly help them enjoy the game more.
7-8 yr olds
Many youth leagues will have a coach or machine pitch for 7-8 year olds or a league might run a "graduated" T-ball scenario. Either way it is a good place to start but it can be difficult for a young player adjusting to hitting a moving ball. A good suggestion if you are a coach pitching at this level, get down on one knee as you pitch and ideally throw overhand, not underhand. This helps the player identify the ball from a level closer to his eye level.
The main objective at this age is to grow their enthusiasm for the game. Hitting a moving baseball is very difficult to do, especially for a 7-8 year old who may have never played. Be patient AND positive at all times.
The concept of a glove on your non-throwing hand is not natural and it is going to take many repetitions to develop a degree of familiarity. You are encouraged to play catch with your child as often as you can. Don't stress if you haven't played before, you will be learning together. Use a bat and a wiffle ball and pitch your child, and let them pitch to you too! As they get older, substitute wiffle golf balls to force them to focus on the ball. The more repetitions they get, the better chance of success. The goal is to take a round bat and a round ball and hit them square!
It is never too soon to encourage good throwing mechanics. Keep reinforcing the idea that the throwing elbow should be above the throwing shoulder. Learning the proper mechanics at this age will, through repetition, lead to good habits, and this is a good habit that will reduce the likelihood of injuries later in their playing career.
9-10 yr olds
Typically this is the age where youth baseball players begin pitching to each other. This presents its own set of challenges. Put aside any preconceived notions of who "looks" like a pitcher and let every child try pitching. You can never have too many pitchers and this is certainly not the time for specialization in position or sport.
Taking the mound for the first time in a game, against live batters, can be very intimidating so let the children throw bullpens during practice. You might just find a pitcher you never thought existed. Remember that at this level the most important thing is to throw strikes. If they can get it over the plate, they can pitch!
This is the time to really focus on fundamentals. Proper fundamentals will allow them to really develop as baseball players. At this age they will remember the fundamentals, they are eager to learn and you are building a strong foundation. It is inordinately difficult to retroactively build that foundation or change mechanics when the players are in their teens or older.
This definitely still the time to play catch and wiffle ball with your child. Enjoy this time because you are not going to want to catch your child when he is throwing in the high eighties, and his control is affected by the fact that his arm is longer ever time he throws. Coaches are encouraged to retain an element of fun in the practices. The end goal is to develop mastery through repetition but the truly talented coaches has the ability to creatively disguise the learning process and prevent boredom and monotony.
10 years and older
There are examples of Major League players who started late but the numbers are very insignificant and the task is daunting. Starting baseball at this age is considered late. Other players will have as much as six years of additional baseball experience and in a sport that is so reliant on repetition, catching up is extremely difficult. Experience has shown that when a player starts playing baseball late they are easily discouraged when they measure themselves against their peers, locally, nationally or internationally. Regardless of talent or genes, they will primarily struggle to hit as well as experienced players their own age. The inevitable result is that they will quit playing baseball all together.
The player development policies of the fledgling baseball nations propping up the middle of the IBAF table needs to adopt the success formulae employed by the nations above them. Baseball development needs to start at a young age, not only to ensure the development of the necessary fundamentals, but to grow the help grow the base through player retention.