Posts Tagged ‘playing with children’

First Catch With Your Kid? Drop the Glove

May 4, 2017

One of the hardest things for entry players to learn is how to catch a thrown ball.  That “Lizard Brain” that I’ve talked about in the past always crops up as worried kids shy away from the ball.  The glove is also often too small, or too stiff, or the ball that is being used is too large, soft, or bouncy to get the ball to stick.

But even if little Jane or John make that first catch and the crowd (being the coach and/or parents) goes wild, odds are that s(he) is catching the ball with poor technique.  That’s nice at the moment, but that technique will need to be “unlearned” which, even in young players is a harder thing to do than you think once it becomes wired in.

The natural instinct for young players is to want to see the ball go in the glove, which means they are trying to catch the ball more like a football receiver.

I love Snoopy, but he’s doing it wrong!  It is important to get them off of that notion as once the ball is thrown harder and the ball IS harder, a “receiver catch” usually means a ball ticking off the glove and in the nose.  While that may be cute and funny if you’re using a soft ball, if your kid is still catching this way instinctively by the time (s)he is 8 or 9, it becomes a real safety risk.

There is also the “sideways catch” where the player is bending the elbow and turning the glove sideways:

Image result for playing catch baseball

While this can be effective at early ages (and is actually the proper receiving style for catchers), this is another way we want to work our way out of.  The “sideways catch” as it makes it very difficult for a player to catch a ball to her/his glove side as their glove is already crooked down and away toward their throwing hand.

That’s why we really focus from the very beginning on catching any ball above the belly button with a  “fingers up” style, like this:

Image result for playing catch baseball

There’s only one problem with the proper catching technique with young players–it’s hard.  I’ve found over the years that about five percent of players catch this way instinctively.  That’s great and for those who get it quickly you can start them on backhands diving catches, and robbing home runs.

For that other 95 percent, a coach needs to work on developing that instinct.  And about the worst way to do it from my experience is with a glove on.  That’s because kids (rightly) don’t trust their dexterity with the glove, and lose sight of the ball as it approaches.  That invites the Lizard Brain to come out and play, and the grown up trying to teach inevitably starts pulling hair out and saying things to little Suzy they probably shouldn’t as she keeps turning the glove in the wrong direction.

In order to teach anything correctly, it’s important for a coach (or teacher) to figure out exactly what you want the player to learn.  “Learn to catch” is way too broad and is highly unlikely to teach proper fundamentals.

In this case, we are trying to teach a player that to catch a ball correctly, we want to have our “fingers up” on any throw above their belly button , and “fingers down” on low throws, kind of like this:

Image result for catch baseball low

This tends to be more natural for players given the similarity to fielding grounders.  Also notice that this young man has his glove foot out on the catch–that’s something we’d like to emulate.  This player is in position to catch this ball whether it gets to him in the air or on the ground.

So recently I had a class with slightly older players (K-2nd Grade) and we got through the basic techniques fast than in year’s past, and so I was able to do a session on catching thrown balls.  I had a variety of different skill levels, including one kid who was already fully there.  So I needed to find something that would work for different skill levels and allow me to clearly see whether the player was using the correct technique.

What I came up with worked like a charm:

Inline image 1

The beauty of these “magic catch” Velcro paddles is that they take away all the issues with the glove and creates a far easier way to focus on core form.  The straps on the back allow hands of any size to fit securely (though watch you don’t unthread the straps as threading them back in is a pain).  And the catching surface-to-ball ratio is much, much larger than with a traditional child’s glove.

Another nice thing about the pad rather than the glove is that because kids know they stick, but if they reach out and try to grab the ball, the force of it will make the ball bounce off, they tend to stay back and “receive” the ball rather than snatch at it.  That’s the habit we want to instill in players as well.  This is also why I like the pad even more for catching than the entry level Velcro gloves (though the softer balls included with those gloves work nicely with the pads).

Of course, I wanted to create a Baseball Nerd twist to make the skills I was teaching simple and memorable (and fun).  And so I donned my Captain America mask and we played a game of “Shield Ball.”  In our games, we either caught the ball “Shield Up” or “Shield Down” to indicate the finger position.  And of course, the balls were bombs planted by Red Skull that might explode if they hit the ground.

We started with some coach throw practice, then divided the kids up and had them throwing to each other.  By using the “shields” rather than a traditional glove, it was both easier for the players to maintain good hand positioning and easier for us coaches to see whether a player was using proper technique.  I’ve now purchased enough of these for all the T-Ball teams in my league to use this weekend, so it will be Shield Ball for All on Saturday (provided it doesn’t rain–fingers crossed)!

If you are playing with your child at home or have your own T-Ball team, tossing the ball underhanded toward their glove side (rather than right in front of them) can help reinforce this technique.  Those “shields” are available all over the place.  I got mine at Target for $5/pair.  There are also ones that use softer balls.  They’re a bit more expensive, but are also great beginners tools.

So strap on a shield and catch like Cap!  Mask optional (though highly recommended).

Finding the Game Within the Game

July 25, 2012

The waitress groaned when I ordered an egg white omelet for lunch–love it!

Well, I’m just back from scenic Blackwood, New Jersey, where Gus and his travel team, the Arlington Thunder, had their last “sleep away” tournament.  Highly recommend the Meadows Diner if you’re in the Southern New Jersey area, by the way.

It, like most of our tournaments, was pretty tough on players, parents, and coaches, where I serve as an assistant this time ’round.  As you might remember, Gus didn’t make the “A” travel squad, but he quickly and happily joined the B-team.  A great number of kids wanted to play, and they ended up splitting things up into two teams, which, while it was great to allow more kids the opportunity to play, did dilute the talent pool—and at tournaments against B-teams that would be able to play with our A-team, this has presented us with a number of mercy-rule games, including three in this last tournament.

The “A” is for Arlington–really!

The first game of this tournament was particularly hard, as the “home team” was an excellent squad that play together year-round.  Indeed, we can often tell by the pro-quality button-down, stitched logo uniforms and personally monogrammed, team-logo embossed baseball bags that, our boys with their gray t-shirts with the Pie-Tanza sponsor logo on the back accompanied by Braves hats might be a little outmatched.  What do they say about clothes making the man?

In the three and a half innings we played before the merciful end, our fellas didn’t manage to hit one ball out of the infield, and we were singularly unprepared for the laser show the opposition put on.  Gus pitched an inning and desperately tried to hold his composure even after our guys mishandled three makeable plays in succession.  I was proud that he kept fighting both his emotions and those big, bad, Blackwood boys, even though he eventually was overwhelmed by both.

After the game, Coach Werfel gathered the guys and did his best to pep them up, but to little avail.  The fun of playing was gone, as you can spin the “joy in playing” speech in only so many different ways.  When you don’t feel like you’re even competing, it’s hard to find the joy in that.

As the coach was getting his lineup together for our second game, he asked me to help the boys work on laying off high pitches by throwing some BP with whiffle balls.  I headed over to the practice field with my bucket and a trail of moping Tweens dragging their bats behind them like a hunting party of sullen Cro-Magnons.

Highly recommended for your kids if you’re in Northern VA

I had fifteen minutes to figure out how to get these guys to find the fun again.  I then remembered what the good folks over at the Virginia Baseball Club, a great group that both my boys have been playing with on the off-season pretty much since they could walk, always did in practice—make each drill into a game.

“Okay, boys, time for a tournament!” I yelled as the last of them crossed onto the dirt threshold.  “Everyone bunts two and hits five.  Bunts and ground balls are worth a point, line drives five points, and you get 20 points if you are able to get a ball into the outfield.  And, for those in the field, five points to any ball you catch in the fly!”  Slightly intrigued, they picked up a step and lined up for me to call out the batting order.  “Oh, and one other thing.  Minus five points for every high pitch you swing at—whether you hit it or not!  Player with the most points gets a treat the snack bar from coach.”  The collective “OUCH!” followed by “OH!” from the team let me know that they were, indeed, at attention.

And so we began our competition, and slowly but surely the silt of the drubbing gave way to the thrill of a new game.  The boys charged so hard after bunts that one pitch hit a fielder in the back (I had to push them a bit further back after that one).  Guys were scrumming for every pop fly, and talking about where they should play based on a batter’s last swing.  Hitters were groaning every time I took away points, and clenching their fist on every line drive.  They were running, tumbling, laughing—they were playing in the truest sense of the word.

When Coach Werfel called the Thunder to get ready for Game 2, the guys that didn’t get a hit complained that they didn’t get a chance.  “We’ll finish up our game tomorrow, not to worry,” I said.  But that’s when it dawned on me, our game didn’t need to end at all.

“You know what, guys?” I barked, getting everyone’s attention.  “This tournament is not over!  It continues right into this next game.  I’ll be awarding points for hustle, making the right throws, and hard hit balls.  And I’ll still be giving you the ‘minus five’ for swinging at high pitches.  So go win some innings and earn some points!”

Still felt a little like this at times

Now, I can’t tell you that we went out and won that game—indeed Lady Mercy came out and whisked us away again.  But I can tell you that the boys did a whole lot better laying off high pitches, and when they made a good play, came in and immediately asked “How many points was that?”  Discussion on the bench now included comparison of points earned, and how many they thought they needed to secure the lead.  It wasn’t a cure-all, but by creating a game within the game, we were able to create a prism for playing that was independent of the scoreboard, allowing competition we could control when it otherwise would not have existed.

Gus’s friend Harry beat him by one point at the end of our little tournament, and ordered up a bag of Swedish Fish as trophy.  As the other guys looked lustfully at that prized possession, I assured them that as long as I was one of their coaches, the games (and games within games) would never end.

Start Hitting Your Brother? The Argument for Roughhousing

April 26, 2012

“Me and my brother had an…interesting…relationship.  He did teach me how to take a beating.”

–My brother Dan’s toast at my wedding

Yep, Mr. Peace, Love, and Understanding over here was a serial roughhouser.  My little brother’s friends regale me to this day with stories about how I used to pick them up and throw them around like rag dolls when they came over to play.

Now, when I was a kid, I was more uptight than I am now (which is saying something, let me tell you) and when my little brother, an expert at getting under my skin, would goad me, I would often return the favor in a manner perhaps a bit…beyond the realm of quid-pro-quo.

Flotation devices recommended for pool roughhousing

Now one might think now that I’m Mr. conflict resolution, I have forsaken roughhousing for hugging and long talks about our feelings.  But while the boys and I do plenty of the latter, roughhousing is an absolutely constant part of our relationship.  Whether it’s sitting on their lap and pretending that they are Santa, to being a third-generation belly-button eater (I prefer the blowing raspberries technique), the fellas and I are always going at it.  Indeed, when Gus has friends over, I’ll be downstairs writing and then he and his friends come downstairs and he says, “We’ve decided it’s time for you to come and get us now, Dad.”  One Mel Blanc-inspired Tasmanian Devil cry later, and I’m off to be whatever monster they’ve dreamed up that moment.

Given my proclivity toward nonviolence, however, roughhousing has always felt like a bit of a guilty pleasure.  It was a great way to connect with my boys and his friends, but, certainly, it didn’t seem to be helping to teach any particularly valuable conflict partnership skills.

Well, the good people over at 8 Bit Dad have reviewed a new book titled The Art of Roughhousing which, to this Dad, is something of a revelation.  Written by two doctor Dads, Anthony T. DeBenedet, M.D., Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D. the book shows how rough-and-tumble play can nurture close connections, solve behavior problems, boost confidence, and more.  Though it feels a bit counter-intuitive when thinking about it intellectually, there is something in my experience tossing my kids onto the bed or sofa that makes that conclusion feel right.

Other than the validation, the other interesting thing about this book is the fact that they put together a whole guide to roughhousing, giving examples and safety tips because, as the authors say, “roughhousing is great fun because it’s a little dangerous.”

I’m definitely going to buy the book as if for nothing else I’m curious about the social skills they feel their examples can help kids learn.  The review goes into more detail on how the book is laid out and gives a couple of specific examples as well.  Well worth checking out.

Now, where did I put that tickle monster puppet?