Archive for February, 2016

Ping Pong, Baseball, and the Art of (Non) Competition

February 8, 2016

Ping Pong

“My recommendation.  Lift weights.  Heavy weights.  A lot.”

That’s what my older son’s coach told him at the post-season dinner that ended his first season playing high-school level ball.  He didn’t make the JV team as an 8th Grader, but was invited to play fall ball; an unofficial version the area high school teams playing in the Northern Virginia Travel Baseball League.  The coaches are not the high school staff, as they are not allowed to coach during the fall.  Instead, a group of former players in their teens and twenties volunteer to lead the squad.

These young guys all still love to lift, and lift big, and that’s been the gospel in baseball for a while now.  I remember in my injury-interrupted efforts to play college ball, the first thing my coach told me to do when I hit campus was to hit the weight room.  Indeed, strength training has now become a standard element of elite ball, as despite the fact that baseball has a more ecumenical reputation for focusing on performance rather than size, first impressions still matter.

And big guys get the benefit of the doubt.

So it was something of a revelation when Gus’s former travel coach, a seasoned veteran who has been helping kids in the area develop for the better part of two decades now, threw a wrinkle into the traditional off-season grunt fest: he recommended the kids play Ping-Pong.

I had never thought about it before, but the second I read those two words, it was a light-bulb moment.  Both for offense and defense, quick hands, anticipation, and tracking the ball are crucial to a developing baseball player’s skill-set.  And while I agree that getting stronger is important, neither strength nor speed are truly the foundational skill for quality baseball players – it’s quickness.

We asked our boys if they’d be interested in a Ping-Pong table as their combined gift for the holidays, and I was surprised that they both almost instantaneously agreed.  So I found a good deal on a nice table at Costco that fit in what was until December our indoor baseball/football/wrestling/light saber fight space.

Ping-Pong was huge at my high school, and I’m a fair tennis player, so I’ve always been pretty good.  And my skills have held up I garnered family bragging rights as I not only cooked our Thanksgiving dinner solo, but also managed to bag the trophy at the first annual Table Turkey Tourney over Thanksgiving.

And this brought me to a bit of a conundrum.  At the moment, I’m still better than my boys at the game.  Both my fellas have a competitive streak; certainly not a bad thing in itself.  And while I would sometimes let up a bit, I refuse to simply lose on purpose – they won’t get any better or learn any lessons from it (okay, maybe with a little drop of ego mixed in).

But at first what I found was that even after close matches and my noting that they were getting better (and they were), they really didn’t want to play me anymore.  When I coaxed them to the table, they would either get frustrated and either play angry (slamming the ball at my head) or just not take it seriously (slamming the ball at my head).  While they would play each other on occasion, our grand experiment (and investment) looked like nothing more than a holiday fad.

Determined to stem the tide of ambivalence, I thought I had found a fun “power with” way to bridge the competition gap.  I had suggested to my little guy that instead of playing against each other, we see how long we could hold a rally.  He was into it, and we had a nice 10 minutes trying to best our top number.  But as I dreamed of what a wonderful blog post I would be writing about “power-with Ping-Pong,” I found in fairly short order that that there was a downside.

For as we improved at playing together, our efforts to push each other with angles and pace diminished.  We held back, hit more softly, and aimed as much as we could for the middle of the table.  While it was fun, it was clear that the developmental end of the game was being thwarted by the cooperative one.

Once again stymied by, the answer I was searching for presented itself through that wondrous instrument of education: television.  My little guy, not normally huge tennis fan, does love the idea of sports greatness.  And after Serena Williams’s run at the Grand Slam last year, he was very interested in watching her begin a new quest.  So as Gunnar sat on the sofa and watched the Australian Open, my big fella toyed with the Ping Pong paddle; the tennis serving as a Pavlovian call to action.  I asked him if he wanted to play, and a deep throated, “Sure” warbled forth in lukewarm agreement.

But when he started to rally, it wasn’t with any seriousness.  Rather, he began to grunt like a tennis player every time he swung.  I started to become peevish immediately as the balls flew straight past the table (and at my head).

But this time, instead of going into “Coach Mode,” I caught myself.  One of the things I sometimes forget as kids – my kids included – is that getting a little silly is important at any age.  Any game, at the end of the day, needs to be a game.  We want our players to work hard and get better, but what’s the point if it’s not fun?

And so I pulled out my very favorite tennis grunt in history, the high-pitched “Wha-Unh!” squeal of Monica Seles.  And we stood there at the table, paddling, grunting, and giggling over our ridiculous contest.  We didn’t keep score, but we ended up having a number of epic rallies; the non-competitive competition allowed me the space to push him without him feeling like he was being pushed.

Gunnar, fascinated by the absurdity, but always the literalist, demanded to know if I was doing an accurate Monica Seles impression.  My wife had just come in, and showed him how well I screeched by finding an old Seles-Graf match on YouTube.  After affirming my skill, he demanded to join in, and a new family tradition was born.

The boys either play each other, their friends, or me must about every day now, and rarely do we keep score.  Instead we compete without competing, focusing on the fun.  The result is that both boys can now far more easily respond to balls with more pace.  Even if they hit the ball out, just by getting to it, they are showing that their reflexes and eye-hand coordination are improving.  Even though some video games do have an element of reflex and eye-hand coordination training, they really can’t match real-world physical interactions (at least not yet—virtual reality may have something to say about that soon).

I saw the proof that this training translates just this past weekend at my 11u travel team’s winter workouts.  I was running the pitching machine and had turned up the speed higher than they had seen it all off-season.  Gunnar, a solid if unspectacular hitter on my B-Team last year, stepped in and simply out-performed about 2/3 of the guys, including about half of the A-Team players.  It was clear that his ability to judge and react was profoundly improved with a couple of months tracking and chasing Ping-Pong balls.

So whether it’s a full-sized table or just one of those portable nets you can spread across in the dining room (but watch out for that chandelier!), I highly recommend Ping-Pong as an offseason training tool.  The Seles squeal is optional, but highly recommended.