Khalid Ballouli holds baseball cards from his days as a player

HRSM professor researches topic outside his field, but inside his heart

Khalid Ballouli looks at lives of aspiring young ballplayers, which he used to be

Khalid Ballouli knows first-hand what life is like for an aspiring professional ballplayer. It was his personal experience, which included six years as a pitcher in the minor leagues after playing for the Southeastern Conference’s Texas A&M University, that led him to his 10-year research project interviewing young players and their families about their experiences in travel baseball.

“For me, growing up in a competitive youth sport environment was difficult financially for my parents,” Ballouli says. “It was also difficult for my siblings because a lot of time and money were committed to my progress. Most family vacations were built around where and when my baseball tournaments were held.”

After his playing days, Ballouli continued to coach while he went back to school, at Texas A&M University earning his Ph.D. in sport management. While his primary research field is marketing and sport consumer behavior, the notion of tracking a group of pre-teen athletes through their high school and college years called to him, in part, because he wanted to help them set realistic expectations for their future and prepare them for some of the experiences he had while playing,

“I spent a lot of my time coaching these players and these parents to temper their expectations,” Ballouli says. “Even though I was able to experience a rare success story — I got a scholarship to an SEC school, I was drafted and played professionally, I have several baseball cards — I still ended up 28 years old when I retired, not knowing what the next step was in my life, even having all that success.”

Ballouli says one of the biggest issues for highly competitive players is the loss of friendships for both the youngsters and their parents as some players continue to the next level in sport while the majority of others don’t.

“I tried to coach the players and their parents to make sure that they don't miss out on the character-shaping moments, family-bonding experiences, and life-long friendships that baseball can provide when done the right way,” he says.

“Through my own experience, I noticed that a lot of the decisions that were made for me and by my family cost them a lot of social capital among different social, school, and baseball communities. That's the impetus of the study really, to show that while there's a lot of good that comes from competitive youth sport, there's also a lot of bad that comes from it as well.”

For the study, Ballouli found a single team of 13 ballplayers all at one baseball academy in Texas. In the beginning, all had high hopes of riding their talents to a Division I university and possibly a pro career. A few years in, as the players were turning 15, it became clear some of the major sacrifices these young men were making as they strived towards these goals.

I tell parents: ‘Look, I went the distance and have baseball cards to show for it. But you didn’t know me until today. No one stops me for my autograph. I don't have millions of dollars in the bank. You need to have a Plan B in mind for you son, because Plan B is the odds-on favorite.’

Khalid Ballouli

Some of the boys told researchers they knew they were starting to experience an early decline in their passion or motivation for the game. Others even reflected on not necessarily wanting to play in college beyond high school. They worried what their parents would say if they asked to quit after so much energy and resources had been put into this dream of professional baseball.

“That was really gut-wrenching to hear the boys talk about,” Ballouli says.

Of the players in his study, which is wrapping up its final interviews as the young men turn 22, only one was drafted and is playing for a Colorado Rockies minor league team. Ten of the boys played baseball on scholarship in college — eight of those for Division I schools. Three boys’ playing careers ended with high school, but they went to college at Texas A&M University and Rice University.

“When we interviewed them at 18, they really took that hard,” Ballouli says of the boys who did not play in college, while watching teammates continue to play — even if it was at smaller junior colleges that may not have had the same academic reputations as Texas A&M or Rice.

“When we interview them now, I think it's sunk in that their other former teammates have stopped playing as well. I think they understand the long-tail better and prefer the position that they're in.”

Those young men, he says, realize that not getting to play in college may have been the best disappointment of their lives. But there was no way to tell them — or their parents — when the boys were 18 or 15 or 12 years old.

“It's romantic to think about the idea that a son or daughter can be one of the few success stories,” Ballouli says. “But the reality is there’s risk and luck that play into it, much like playing the lottery. The chances of a realizing the dream of are quite slim.

“At least with the lottery, you know what you're getting, and the money at least is life-changing. I don't know how life-changing being a professional athlete or a Division I athlete really is. Even for these select athletes, life typically goes on outside of baseball in their late-twenties. Every player I’ve known that’s faced this hard reality has had to ask himself — was it all worth it?”

Ballouli says he tries to use his own experience — and hopefully his research will reinforce it — when he meets young players and their parents to help them temper their expectations and build a formula that allows for humility and perspective alongside athletic and sport training.

“I tell parents: ‘Look, I went the distance and have baseball cards to show for it. But you didn’t know me until today. No one stops me for my autograph. I don't have millions of dollars in the bank. You need to have a Plan B in mind for you son, because Plan B is the odds-on favorite.’”

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