Monday, April 10, 2006

Building Up Young Ballplayers

StL Mark was looking for some ideas about how to teach a young person about baseball. Here are some of the things we tried that worked in raising our son to appreciate the game and want to play it.

Most important: Start young. When a child is 3 or 4 years old, he/she is old enough to learn how to catch and throw. Use a safe, spongy ball. Get them to throw near and far, and to corral the balls in front of them until they start catching them in the air. You probably will find yourself heaping on lots of love, praise, and encouragement. Do not stop.

Having good hand-eye coordination is an essential trait for playing baseball. It needs to be second nature. The younger a person starts developing these skills, the more natural they will be and the more enjoyment and success they will have as they get older.

Play catch: More than anything else, it is the number one fundamental to playing baseball. Plus it's just plain fun. Without exagerating, in his thirteen years. I've probably played catch with Matt some 5,000 times, with probably close to a million tosses. Playing catch can be a great time for having talks with your child, and as he/she gets more skill, you can teach more applications. Simulated ground balls, popups, pitching sequences, etc.

Now that Matt is turning into a young man, he doesn't need me so much to play catch. So when it's late at night, and he asks me to have a catch under the street light, it's a gift he is unknowingly returning to me.

Teach no fear: Fear of the ball is the greatest obstacle to becoming a ballplayer. I didn't overcome it until I was about fifteen. Standing in the batter's box or fielding a hard hit ground ball can be intimidating. To help Matt overcome this fear, when he was about 2 and 1/2 years old, we went down in the basement with his Toys R Us-styled fat plastic bat and a foam softball to practice batting. He had this big grin on his face, and I would fire fast pitches to him from about 12 feet.

He'd take big swings, and, if I pitched it decent, he'd hit it. He couldn't get enough of it. If the foam ball would hit him, that was just part of the fun. Plus, he started to figure out how to get out of the way of an errant pitch. During the wintertime, the basement can be a great place to teach good applicable baseball skills.

Get out and play with other neighborhood kids: While they're little, seek out families with other kids who like to play. You'll probably find them right on your block. Besides learning to make friends, the kids get better at sports together. On our block, we have neighbor kids in four out of five houses in a row. They all play together, and each one of them are among the best athletes in their class, and good friends.

Seek out organized youth leagues: By age five, "T-Ball" is an option for boys and girls. The games are structured for fun and learning. It's a great way to meet new people, and give the kids a good time. Check out YMCA or CYC sports leagues. They specialize in youth sports.

Play other sports: Baseball is not a conditioning sport. Actually, in my opinion, baseball is really less of a sport than it is a game. Yet you need to be in good shape to play it. Basketball, soccer, and hockey are good sports to get kids in shape to play baseball. (Note: For what it's worth, my other strong recommendation is to not have kids specialize in a single sport until they are at least in 8th or 9th grade. Figure skating and gymnastics being the exception, otherwise, let the kids decide for themselves what they like best. Overzealous parents who think they are raising the next Nolan Ryan do their kids a disservice.)

Make the investment: In addition to all of the hours you will spend together, providing your young athlete with good equipment is important to their skills development, safety, and growing confidence. Quality hand-me-downs are a good option, or check out "Play It Again Sports". They deal in quality, used equipment for most sports.

Avoid over or undersized bats and gloves. By age 8 or so, invest in a leather glove. Make sure their bat is the right length and weight for their size. If you're unsure, take a friend who knows the difference. Lugging a too-heavy bat is a recipe for lots of late swings and strikeouts. Fielding with a wrong-sized, non-broken-in glove is a formula for lots of dropped balls. By age five or six, they should be throwing and catching a "safety" baseball (regulation size and weight, with a little cushiony give).

Build their confidence: Sports are fun but challenging. Sometimes they can be difficult and frustrating. Self-confidence is crucial to the development of all young people including young athletes. Practice and positive reinforcement work. Steer away from coaches who yell too much. Few young players respond favorably to adults who yell at them. If they're still playing by the time they're in high school, then they can deal with yelling coaches.

Set a good example: If you appreciate baseball, chances are your kids will too.

Have fun: It's the most important ingredient of all.

Bonus: Growing up in St. Louis doesn't hurt!


Mark Groth said...

Man, I'm inspired. Great ideas and thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Great post Rick. Saved this one for my nephew...

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