Making it to a major national or international youth sporting event brings with it a whole new set of challenges for coaches, parents and team organizers. Traveling with a group of kids, sleeping in a new environment and spending non-game time in exciting surroundings all can lead to an interesting balancing act.
Priorities may change somewhat depending on whether a youth team has won its way to a major event like the Little League Baseball World Series, chosen a trip to one of the tournaments at a special destination like Cooperstown, N.Y., or perhaps done some combination of the two and earned a special travel invitation. Regardless, schedules have to be managed while considering factors such as competition, travel, sightseeing, family time and team bonding.
Managers Chris Mercado (South Nashville) and Don Smith (Pearland, Texas) each had the rare opportunity of taking teams to the Little League World Series twice. And both had similar observations.
Mercado and Smith both suggested letting the players have fun, but not to forget the primary purpose of the trip. To paraphrase former NFL coach Herm Edwards, Mercado and Smith said their teams came to Williamsport to win games. After all, it is a championship event.
“You have to temper the part about letting them have all the fun and experience everything,” said Smith, a coach in 2010 and a manager on the 2014 team that won twice before being eliminated to finish in the top half of the 16-team field. “We’re trying to do well up here. We’re here to play some baseball. “You don’t want to just toss it all in after having worked hard all summer.”
Many of the players at the world’s most famous youth sporting event arrive in north-central Pennsylvania after making the longest trips of their young lives.
When they arrive, they are treated like rock stars by adoring fans. They are showered with new sporting goods, clothing and other gifts. They meet new friends with similar interests and stay in a dorm setting that features a game room full of options catering to kids their age. And, they deal with media interviews.
“If you’re a first-timer, it can be overwhelming all this stuff that’s going on,” Smith said.
Having fun is easy in such a setting and, without over-emphasizing competition, both managers wanted to make sure players did not return home feeling they got distracted from taking their best shot.
“The job isn’t done, otherwise why are we going to keep practicing hard?” said Mercado, whose team made consecutive trips to Williamsport in 2013 and 2014. South Nashville became the first U.S. squad to earn repeat appearances since 2005. Although the team ultimately went 1-2 and fell short of its goal, Mercado wanted to make sure the players were aware of their purpose.
“Of course, I want the kids to have fun and do all this stuff and enjoy it, but we also want to represent our state and our region and try to win this thing,” he said.
While some teams arranged off-site trips to professional baseball games or local amusement parks, experience told Smith that there was plenty of fun to be had at the Little Baseball International Complex. Prior to their elimination, Pearland’s players only left the complex for the opening parade and to spend time with their families.
“I told them from the beginning, they’re very organized here,” Smith said. “Everything is set out from the beginning, but the schedules tend to run longer than what they plan. You’ll get surprises and get pulled here and there. We have to be flexible and able to adapt so we can overcome some of those situations that come up and maintain focus.”
There are many different approaches to making sure players stay focused while competing at a big event. Taking simple measures and being aware of potential distractions can help ensure young athletes keep their eyes on the task at hand.