Teaching young fielders to not be afraid of the ball
“Don’t be afraid of the ball,” the father says. The young child takes one to the nose and the game is over. How do you get the child back out onto the field?
Remember, developing hand eye coordination and catching skills is an ongoing process that doesn't happen overnight, or in an afternoon. Make the development process fun and challenging for the child with these suggestions:
1. Keep it fun
First start with a soft ball and soft throws from a short distance, so the player can relax and focus on catching and not potential pain from hetting hit. Begin throwing to spots the player can easily handle (slow rollers, waist high glove hand side, etc.) and gradually increase the difficulty and distance.
To keep it fun, creatively name the spots based on difficulty, or what happens if ball is not caught. For example, here are some ideas: good side, bad side, knee knocker, shin buster, chest thumper, head hunter and of course, the dreaded crotch hopper. Praise the player as he masters each one, but keep praise genuine and reinforce glove position for the different spots. As confidence builds, the player will want to move beyond the “easy” spots and on to the more difficult ones.
2. Make it competitive
Players love competition and at early ages simple games are the best. One of my favorites is “first drop.” Very simple – first one to drop a throw loses, bad throws don't count. Play around with the rules based on your players ability.
For example, “no head hunters” or player gets two drops to your one. Letting your younger player adjust the rules increases their interest. You can also slant them to encourage players to work on a weakness – more examples, drop doesn't count if you catch a chest thumper next, or two feet over your head is still a good throw.
3. Keep it going
As the player advances and the kids and field get bigger, the above suggestions can still be used to build confidence, improve coordination and identify areas that need work. The hits and throws come harder, but the spots don't change.
I was fortunate to be one of the barracks coaches a few years ago when we took a seasoned group of 12 year old travel players to Cooperstown, New York for a week long tournament with over 100 teams participating. Bored mid-week with rain and no game scheduled, I introduced a seated version of first drop played with a tennis ball on the barrack's concrete floor. It soon took on a life of its own with the kids arguing over who would play next.
Eventually they scheduled an elimination tournament. The twenty minute game between the final two players ended with a high velocity one hop head hunter and a nice mark on the loser's forehead. Can't say for sure the extra work contributed to our top-10 finish on the baseball field, but I don't remember any dropped balls.